Forrester Customer Experience Forum Update: Great keynote by Jim Bush, American Express.

Following USAA’s terrific customer keynote yesterday, today Jim Bush, EVP World Service at American Express just gave a particularly inspiring keynote. He titled it “A Relationship-driven Approach to Service” and talked about how he took over World Service 12 years ago to help transform customer service from call center focus on reducing average handling time and cutting cost, to a company that saw an opportunity to create a competitive advantage through extraordinary customer service. Nothing less, Jim declared, than creating “the world’s most respective service brand”.

I especially liked how he reminded the audience that extraordinary service also means “going from the back-office to center stage”; service fulfillment, which invariably involves back-office, is key to delivering an outstanding customer experience. This holistic approach involves “serving relationships, not transactions” but that also means that the transactions need to be handled with even greater efficiency. As Jim said, he was “hell bent on driving first time resolution”.

And, American Express with its 100's of millions of customers, 20,000+ employees, 15 languages, 7 channels, 22 markets, and 472 partners have many silos that needed to be transcended.

The transformation began with a commitment to an outside-in voice of the customer program, which generated four really strong customer centric themes:

  • Recognize Me: Make Me Feel Valued
  • Make an Emotional Connection: Be Genuine
  • Empower Your People: Resolve My Request on the First Try
  • Change Perceptions: Treat me as a person, not a number

Jim emphasized that their cultural transformation was to shift the thinking of customer service being a cost center to that of a competitive advantage. “Each moment of truth” is an opportunity to compete and improve.

 “Our model for success: it begins with people.” The mission at American Express was to change the how the people providing customer service thought of their job, as he put it: “Extraordinary people delivering extraordinary service at the right margins.”

Having someone in his position to declare, “we’re here not to reduce costs” but rather drive customer satisfaction, and “create an emotional connection” across all channels, is a great example to follow. For American Express, this meant changing recruiting, “we wanted people with hospitality and warmth” and stopped going to contact center for new recruits. They also rewarded their people, and renaming AHT to CHT, from Average Handling Time to Customer Handling Time. No more “agents” and “representatives” but “customer care professionals”. Words are important.

They also moved away from 70% tech training to 70% customer handling training. More importantly the incentives (up to 25% of income) tied to customer satisfaction measurements (you get what you measure). People (and an integrated network to make their job possible) are the key, as he described it:

  • Enable (create an integrated network)
  • Engage (meet customers unique needs)
  • Empower (create a culture with a passion to serve)

The transformation from Transaction to something American Express has service marked as “Relationship Caresm” is a great description of the path to customer centricity:


  • Cost
  • Robotic
  • Command and control
  • Hire from call centers
  • High attrition

Relationship CareSM (Service Mark of American Express)

  • Respect relationship
  • Human
  • Empowered team
  • Value reinforcement
  • Relevant cross-sell
  • Cost-effective
  • Business growth driver

The results? So far they have more than doubled their net promoter score (recommend to a friend) between 2006 and 2011. Delivered a 20-25% increase in card member spend, 6X lower attrition, and, despite not focusing on reducing costs, decreased service costs by 10%.

American Express is a great example of an organization taking customer centricity seriously.