American Express runs its call centers differently. No scripts. No high pressure on handle times. Instead, they put a focus on relating to customers and evaluate agents on how the customers they interact with answer the question “Would you recommend this company to a friend?” Fortune has an interview with Jim Bush, American Express’ EVP of world service, who has overseen this change (How can American Express help you?, Apr 19). (Dedicated readers of this blog with long memories might recall that we posted on this about a year and a half ago.)
He makes some interesting points on their philosophy in running customer service — starting with the fact that they view call centers as serving customers, not processing transactions.
The perception of service is that it’s all about problems. Problems are actually a very small percentage of why customers interact with American Express. What we’ve learned is that the power of that interaction gives us an opportunity to expand the perception of the brand in a very positive way.
There’s a tendency to see service as a sunk cost — the customer is reaching out to you. So people say, “It’s a cost. Let’s look to eliminate it.” And over time we can eliminate friction points, which eliminates the need for some customers to interact with us. But the reality is, it’s a very powerful opportunity to build a relationship.
Of course, if you want to move to building relationships in your call centers, it takes a different approach to how you develop people.
The training has changed. In the past, 75% of it was on how, technically, you complete the transaction. Now it’s on how you create the relationship and build it through humanity, conversation, and engagement.
As I’ve traveled the world, I’ve always appreciated the people at the front desks of hotels who welcome you in. That hospitality is what we try to deliver through virtual means. So we no longer hire; we select. And by attracting that profile, people come in with the will. We teach them the skill.
This seems to be a recurring theme in service oriented organizations: Hire based on attitude and then let training take care of the needed skill set. Of course, this may not work in every field. Professional services, for example, assume some basic skill set, but that is not the setting one usually has in mind for (relatively) high volume mass service. I suspect that agents who have worked in retail financial services catch on more quickly for training items that relate to regulatory compliance or information needed to complete a transaction. However, I also suspect that it doesn’t take that much longer for those with no financial services background to get it. But it’s a different story for empathy and relating to customer. People who come in having demonstrated those ability start way ahead of people without those traits and likely stay way ahead.
This is all very service profit chain, but is there a pay off?
For every servicing transaction, we ask, How can we get the customer to feel better about American Express and recommend it to a friend? That’s a promoter. We’ve built a measurement system that surveys the customer and gets that feedback for every servicing transaction, and then we use that to measure [each customer care professional's] performance, complemented by some productivity indicators. Those two measures drive incentives in which we reward our customer care professionals, all the way up to me.
We’ve been able to show that increased satisfaction drives increased engagement with American Express products, and that drives shareholder value. Great service is great business.
We track it all the way to shareholder value. For a promoter who is positive on American Express, we see a 10% to 15% increase in spending and four to five times increased retention, both of which drive shareholder value. In fact our operating expenses associated with service have gone down because we’re more streamlined, and we limit friction points and errors.