Promoting More than Customer Service

Posted by: on Jul 22, 2012 | No Comments

In Jim Bush’s recent HBR Blog Network post, “How American Express Transformed Its Call Centers,” he talks about how American Express revamped its call-center strategy, making changes to hiring processes, performance evaluations and bonus structure.

Reading the post and the comments that followed it, it seems that I’m not the only one interested in the process that led up to these changes.

“We looked at what distinguished our best performers. We determined that they truly ‘get’ our brand, love to build relationships, are able to empathize and connect with customers over the phone, and have a passion for delivering exceptional service. We decided to focus on these abilities…”

Indeed, the changes at AmEx reflected much more than a new understanding of customer care principles — they required a rewrite of philosophical and operational significance.

Research benchmarks: Critical to an effective customer service strategy

Preliminary research is an essential component to crafting any program or strategic plan, and that the criteria used as performance benchmarks are just as critical as the results. For example, consider “volume of customer service calls successfully completed.” This benchmark might be evaluated simply on whether or not the customer received the answer they wanted, versus using your organization’s customer care and brand building principles to measure success.

More companies would benefit from re-evaluating customer loyalty measures the way AmEx did, changing from traditional metrics to something akin to the Net Promoter Score. Developed by Bain & Company‘s Fred Reichheld and a New York Times bestseller under the title The Ultimate Question 2.0, the Net Promoter Score is, simply stated:

“Would you recommend us to a friend?” When customers recommend you enthusiastically to a friend or colleague, they are giving you the highest possible rating. They are, in effect, co-branding their own reputation with yours. We refer to them as “Promoters.”

The Net Promoter Score can be used in a vast array of industries to define product offerings and service levels. It was extremely interesting to try and introduce this model to the financial services industry, where we had statistical information demonstrating that our clients were not “Promoters.” Longstanding beliefs won out over this empirical data in deciding not to use the Net Promoter Score tool — further demonstrating what differentiates top brands like AmEx, Nabisco, P&G and others from those who are content with business as usual.

Customer-guided innovation

Strategic customer loyalty planning through research and analysis can reveal significant product or service innovations based on customer interests and preferences. An article on Loyalty360 talks about the development of a mobile company’s strategy based on the contributions of customers, and how customer churn was reduced as a result — assisting in the age-old dilemma of retaining clients versus developing new ones, and the resulting impact on net profit margins.

Creating a customer-centric culture by focusing on employees

I’ve often spoken about employees being a brand’s most important audience to drive customer loyalty. In Jim Bush’s blog post, he brings this important point to the forefront of the business — customer service — highlighting AmEx’s efforts to match the skills and abilities of new hires with the overall strategic objectives of their business.

Revolutionizing the benchmarks and services used to assess their call center culture allowed for new ideas and metrics to be inserted and adopted by the company. What will be most interesting is if AmEx starts using social media listening tools to further enhance product and services offerings, the way they’ve engaged social media to enhance their talent pool.

By emphasizing a shared purpose and tying bonuses directly to customer satisfaction, engagement and loyalty, AmEx ensures that customers are top-of-mind with call center operators. The ability for employees to achieve more through their efforts has, as Bush stated, resulted in increased employee satisfaction and reduced attrition. One can only surmise that this is a result of genuine empathy for the customer, and the capacity and autonomy to remedy concerns.

More than a rote transaction

Shortly after discussing Amex’s efforts in his blog post, Jim Bush was interviewed by Forrester Research prior to Forrester’s 2011 Customer Experience Forum. The brief Q&A touches on the customer-centric perspective that Bush is heralded for achieving through the relationship care service ethos as part of his Net Promoter initiative.

More importantly, a full year later, we can see AmEx stock prices reflecting the positive work surrounding this initiative as featured on Fortune/CNN Money.

I must admit that I feel a kinship with Jim Bush; we both entered the business world with a degree in accounting, and both recently changed careers to focus on customer care. I agree with Bush’s point of view that asking customers the right questions can influence their opinions and thus turn them into promoters, and look forward to seeing the results within the social world, especially given this recent Quora post.

Quote from’s conversation, “Which concierge service can do more for you: the concierge at a good hotel, or a credit card concierge service?”