Customer Service Lessons: Amex

Credit card companies are notorious for offering abysmal customer service. Year after year the credit card industry ranks among the lowest in customer satisfaction. As a result, cardholders condition themselves to expect very little from a market dominated by under-performers.

Standard practices are so bad it’s laughable (and extremely depressing):

  • Long call center wait times with terrible music or, even worse, advertisements trying to make the company look good. (News flash: no one calling a customer service center suddenly changes opinions based on some pre-recorded sales spiel)
  • Frustrating automated systems that have attitudes
  • Unhelpful representatives who play hot potato with customers, “Please hold while I transfer you to the 5th different customer service agent.”
  • Upselling customers on a new card when all they really want is help resolving a problem. (Second news flash: no one calling a customer service center wants a new card)

Despite the overall reputation of the credit card industry, there is one provider who consistently stands out and strives to break the mold: American Express.

In 2013, consumers rated American Express the highest in satisfaction among credit card companies for its seventh straight year.

So what makes Amex so special? Check out these three success stories from customers and see why the credit card company is deserving of its J.D. Power award.

Get Up Close and Personal to Your Customers

Up Close and Personal

Okay, maybe that’s a little too close

Author, speaker, and consultant Peter Shankman does a lot of traveling and uses his American Express card to pay for his trip expenses. After evaluating how Shankman uses his credit card, American Express mailed a replacement card that would be especially beneficial on his international excursions. When Shankman asked for an explanation, here’s what Amex said:

Mr. Shankman, we notice that you take multiple overseas trips per year. If you look at your new card, you’ll notice a little PIN chip embedded in it. In virtually every country but the United States, the PIN chip method is the preferred, and much safer way of paying for a transaction. We also noticed that the last time you were overseas, you were unable to use your card at an automated Metro station, because your card lacked PIN chip. We noticed this with several of our customers who travel overseas, so we’re implementing a PIN chip system for those customers. Since you’re one of them, we hope this will make your international travel a little easier.

Amex used the information it collects on Shankman’s purchasing habits to anticipate his needs and address problems quickly. American Express didn’t sit around and wait for its customers to complain before resolving this issue.

Shankman goes on to describe his take on the experience:

There was no charge, they didn’t even ask me if I wanted it. No forms or paperwork. Amex simply saw an opportunity to make my life easier, and they took it. End result? I got off a plane in Stockholm last month, exhausted from a red-eye flight, and walked over to the subway station. Instead of having to wait in a line 25-deep for the one customer rep there, I slid my PIN enabled card into the credit card slot, and had a round-trip ticket in my hands in five seconds. That’s ease of use. That’s customer service. I can tell you that I couldn’t do that with any other card I carry.

Get to know your customers. Keep track of their habits, preferences, hobbies, interests, lifestyle, etc. Ask questions, observe, and learn. Then use that information to deliver exceptional customer service.

Make Results More Important Than Protocols

Break the Rules

Rules are meant to be broken!

With 21 years of experience as a customer service expert and professional speaker, Shep Hyken has seen it all. So, to amaze the guy who wrote the book on amazement must count for something, right? Well, American Express did just that.

A representative called me to verify some charges in the last 12 hours because the pattern looked as if my card had been compromised. Sure enough, there were about a dozen charges from the other side of the world that I had not made. Someone had stolen my number and was going on a spending spree.

The customer service representative assured me that I would not be responsible for any of those charges and that I would receive a new card within 24 hours. The only problem was that I was going to be in Dallas that evening, staying at a hotel for a speech the next morning.

But that didn’t deter her at all. She simply asked if it would be okay to send the card to the hotel. It would be there by 10:30am at the front desk. Wow!

This story shows the freedom that American Express gives its customer service representatives to solve their cardholders’ problems. The agent focuses on results (The customer needs to get his replacement card) rather than protocols (Company policy requires that I send the card to the address on file).

When customer service rules don’t service the customer, break the rules.

Take a page from Virgin America’s book and empower employees with a judgment playing field. Give agents flexibility to experiment and throw out policy (within reason) to deliver exceptional customer service.

Hire People Who Love People

Mother Teresa

Mother Teresa lived a full life of service

Alison Risso, Director of Marketing and Communications for REAL School Gardens in Washington, D.C., recounts an incredible story of customer service from years ago that left a life-long impression.

One summer in high school I took a trip overseas and was camping on a beach in France when my traveler’s checks were stolen from my tent. I managed to find a payphone in a parking lot, called American Express, and explained (in very poor French) what had happened.

The operator switched to an English-speaking representative who made sure of my safety and assessed the situation. “How many checks were stolen?” I didn’t know. “What is your location?” I didn’t know.

I was on a beach that went on for miles and I’d struggled to find the payphone. I went on to describe where I was as best as I could, and the agent asked me to wait for 30 minutes. In the meantime, the representative stayed on the line with me and helped me practice my French.

28 minutes later a car drove up; the driver asked me my name and had me sign for a brand new batch of traveler’s checks. After a brief exchange with the customer service agent on the payphone, the driver escorted me back to my tent, showed me my location on a map, and confirmed that I still had my passport and other belongings!

What’s remarkable about this story is the great lengths the agent took to help a card member in her time of crisis. If there were ever an instance when “I’d like to help, but my hands are tied,” would have been reasonable, this was it. Even simply sending new traveler’s checks to a nearby location would have been good customer service.

But this customer service representative went well above and beyond the call of duty. Why? Because the agent genuinely cared for Alison’s wellbeing. No training method can force employees to care about customers. Empathy, kindness, and compassion can’t be faked. Hire individuals who already demonstrate these qualities and amazing service will come naturally.

Alison explains the impact the experience has had on her:

Looking back on it, I understand now that it was much more than good customer service. It was a person making sure that an idiot teenaged girl in a foreign country was okay.

I’ll always be grateful to that American Express employee and the courier who took it upon themselves to help me.

Don’t Get Derailed

Don't Get Derailed

Stay on track!

American Express carries a history of high quality customer service, but it appears that its strong reputation has been waning as of late. Despite receiving a J.D. Power award in 2013, MSN Money includes Amex in its “Hall of Shame” listing for the very same year. What gives?

It turns out that in 2013 Amex engaged in “unfair billing tactics” and “deceptive marketing” that harmed its customers. As a result, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau ordered America Express to refund an estimated $59.5 million to more than 335,000 consumers. Furthermore, American Express turned its attention to developing and promoting new credit cards; this change in focus resulted in a noticeable hit to customer service.

What’s the moral of the story? Don’t get derailed.

Don’t be distracted with short-term tactics that momentarily increase the bottom line. Customer service is what will ultimately keep a company in business.

Customer service is king.

What customer service lessons have you learned from American Express? Whether it’s bad, good, or great, share your experience! And be sure to sign up for our newsletter at the top of the page.



Comments

  1. says

    A few years ago I had the chance to interview the executive VP of World Service for Amex. It was a fascinating insight to a very customer-centric company (or should I say member-centric). This article captures some of the reasons that Amex has been so successful, and the lessons are transferable to just about any business.

    • says

      Thanks for taking the time to comment, Shep.

      When you call Amex a “member-centric company” I think of your video on changing vocabulary. Referring to customers by a different name (members, clients, partners, guests, etc.) can help employees change the way they think about service.

      Serving a “customer” isn’t as appealing as serving a “guest!”

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