Three years ago American Express set out on a mission to become "the most respected service brand in the world." CEO Kenneth Chenault launched a company-wide transformation toward delivering exceptional customer experiences, with the aim of being hailed in the service arena with the likes of Ritz-Carlton and FedEx. (1to1 Magazine featured American Express in its July/August 2008 issue, highlighting this journey.)

The initiative introduced Net Promoter Score, new employee training, and a voice-of-the-customer program that sent employee retention and customer satisfaction soaring. Today, the credit card giant recently ranked highest in consumer satisfaction among credit card companies for the third consecutive year from J.D. Power and Associates.  


American Express, however, isn't stopping there. Fueled by heightened challenges in the credit card industry, a drop-off in corporate spending, and regulatory changes, company executives knew that the firm had to respond to these shifting market conditions by stepping up its service standards even more. This included training its customer care professionals to create deeper emotional connections with its card members to enhance their relationships.

In late 2008 Jim Bush, head of worldwide service at American Express, led this charge to again reinvent the company's approach to customer service. Bush rolled out a three-pillar enterprise strategy called Relationship Care to facilitate this transformation. "The way we look at the service environment is the number of interactions we have with each customer every year—it's hundreds of millions…. Historically companies view that as a cost…we said, 'Let's make that into an opportunity to build relationships with customers,'" he says.

The strategy centers on cultivating a personal connection with each customer when they contact the company. This meant hiring employees from industries like hospitality and sales who can bring real customer savvy, and investing in new technology that can empower American Express' customer care professionals to increase their knowledgeable recommendations to customers. "We said…let's leverage [the customer care center] as a means of reinforcing product features and services and deepening relationships with customers," he says.

Beth Lacey, senior vice president of customer care solutions at American Express, says that now the customer care professional's treatment of customers incorporates the whole notion of Relationship Care. At American Express it's not about the average hold time or how quickly its customer care professionals can get off the phone; it's about how rapidly employees can solve problems for customers and build a relationship with them. "Three or four years ago we spent 70 percent of our training on what screen to find and button to push," Lacey says. "Now we spend 70 percent on how to service customers and how to work at a company with a service heritage like American Express. Anyone can learn the screens, but we're not in the screen business."

The three pillars of Relationship Care include:

Pillar #1: Employee training
During a time when many companies are cutting back on costs like employee training and retention programs, Bush and his service team invested in developing the skills of the company's existing employee population with emphasis on creating emotive experiences. "In a year where our business was constrained, we increased our investment in training hours by 20 percent for our existing staff by recognizing that investing in them improves the relationship with the customer," Bush says.

The curriculum focuses on how to build the customer relationship while driving more value. It also delves into helping employees better understand customers' spending behaviors, tenure, and the reason for the call. With this knowledge, for example, a customer care professional may send a Home Depot gift certificate to a high-value customer if she calls in with a change of address. "Throughout these types of interactions, we've seen satisfaction rates climb dramatically over the course of the past two years while dealing with an [economic] environment that was quite challenging," Bush explains.

The training itself consists of a combination of classroom instruction and live training with coaches who conduct side-by-side counseling. The coaching focuses on having unscripted conversations that respond to the mood of the customers—all while understanding their incremental value. This process also includes training for active listening and determining how to respond accordingly to customers' needs. "We want everyone to serve these customers and to be prepared to serve them in a consistent way," Bush says.

Pillar #2: Hiring
During an interview, one question that a prospective customer care professional may get asked is: "If you worked at American Express, how would you give a hug to a card member over the phone?" That question epitomizes the company's new hiring approach, which is to look for people who truly care about other people. American Express decided to concentrate on the hospitality industry to find these types of people. "We invested in a different profile of who we wanted to bring in…. What we found was a high correlation of performance and customer satisfaction synonymous with people from the hospitality industry," Bush says. 

Lacey says that she and her team members look for people who can be successful in the company's new engagement model by focusing during the interview on subtle signs empathy, for example, having the ability to speak from the heart. American Express has even created an advertising campaign that features its customer care professionals and highlights their passion for customers. The campaign captures the emotional connection they have with their customers and catches the attention of hospitality workers. "We interact with them in a way where we can understand, 'Can they listen effectively?', 'How are their problem-solving skills?', and 'Can they work through a problem and come to a conclusion within the boundaries of the conversation?'" Lacey says.

Pillar #3: Technology
American Express built a reference portal to help facilitate the new service strategy with its customer care professionals. An integrated database of customer information pulls the customer's transactional history and prompts the employees with details about particular benefits and services that pertain to the card member that he may not otherwise know about. In essence, it helps to guide the care professionals through a conversation. "It helps to focus on having one conversation rather than navigating through the screens," Bush adds.

In addition to the portal, American Express is continuously updating its virtual service center by improving navigation, ease of use, and new programs, Lacey says. The company also recently created a new consumer resources page on its website to help inform customers about new credit card legislation.

Results are in
According to Bush, the cost-benefit ratio of Relationship Care is substantial. Attrition rates have been cut in half and customer satisfaction is moving in a positive direction. In addition, there's a productivity benefit as a result of hiring more qualified people. "By focusing on our existing employees, it has allowed us to be more productive," Bush says.

Additionally, Lacey says that since American Express also has seen its "recommend to a friend" scores increase when a Relationship Care discussion occurs. Lacey explains the success: "We serve customers, not transactions."

A global enterprise
Late last year American Express made yet another organizational announcement: It is forging a new World Service organization that combines all of the company's U.S. and international service units into one seamless global entity. The goal is to leverage best practices around the world and to create process consistency. The vision is that American Express will be able to look across the world and see the best practices in service and quickly roll them out in other markets that could benefit from them.

Bush explains that, ultimately, if a customer from Hong Kong visits New York, American Express wants the ability to recognize him so that his experience will be seamless and enjoyable. "Moving forward we will create the integration of information so that we can serve the global citizen," Bush says. "We want to be able to connect this flat world with technology and people under the common vision of delivering extraordinary care with the right margins. We have people who care. Our company is built on a heritage of service.  It is something that permeates the company. It's an incredible legacy to build from and to help support the growth of the company."