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Real people tout AmEx's stellar customer service

by Peter Andrew

You'd like Miranda. She was born in Michigan, studied at Harvard, lived in New York City, and, in the early 1960s, found herself -- en route to a completely different country -- at a party in La Rochelle, France. There she met a wonderful Frenchman, fell in love, and put down new roots. Miranda's still in France, running her large farm with dizzying numbers of livestock, but very little help. Talk about a full and varied life.

She's one of my very best friends, not least because she's the only one who still asks me about my work. The others know better than to risk the 30-minute lectures on the highs and lows of the credit card industry that invariably follow such inquiries.

Last week, over lunch in a small town in central France, Miranda wanted to know what topic the feature article on IndexCreditCards.com would cover this week, and I suggested that she should choose one. Her response was immediate: "Tell them about how good American Express's customer service is. I've been a cardmember since the 1950s, and it's always been the absolute tops."

We here on this site pride ourselves on being fearless about criticizing credit card companies when they deserve it. So wouldn't it, I thought, make an interesting change to publish some unalloyed praise? Even if nobody's used the phrase "the absolute tops" since Miranda first set sail for Europe.

American Express and customer service

Miranda's enthusiasm for American Express is mostly based on the company's readiness to forgive her for the tiny slips she very occasionally makes when managing the two American Express products she has, something her other U.S. card issuer never does. Once, she was in a hurry and misread her statement. Instead of sending the larger amount due, she paid the smaller sum required the previous month.

On a number of other occasions, her statement arrived late because it was mailed to her French address from American Express's offices in London, England. But, whenever she's had a problem, a quick phone call has resolved matters, and the helpful representatives to whom she's spoken have refunded penalty fees courteously, immediately and without demur.

Clearly, Miranda's experiences were fairly routine, though none the less valuable for that. So I contacted the company for other examples of its people going the extra mile for customers. I got back a couple, and one of the stories I received involved them going several extra miles.

Can credit card companies really bring a tear to your eye -- in a nice way?

On Jan 11, Damian Bazadona wrote on Inc.com about how, in 2009, American Express rescued him from an impossible situation. At the time, he lived in New Jersey, and he and his wife, who was then seven months pregnant, went on vacation to Boston, Mass. No big deal, you'd think. But actually it was. Why?

Their son was born prematurely, and spent two months in neonatal care at Tufts Medical Center. However, the real nightmare began when the baby's medical team said the little guy was ready to go to a hospital near his parents' home.

Damian's medical insurers deemed that the infant's safe transportation wasn't a "medical necessity," and refused to pay for it. Luckily, the doctor heading the Tufts team knew that the proud new dad had an American Express card, and suggested that he should issue an S.O.S. to the company's call center. Damian takes up the story in his own words:

...within 48 hours the transport was in motion -- American Express was going to cover all costs. I remember the phone conversation vividly with the representative that helped me. I asked him whether he thought this claim could be covered with whatever insurance I had on the card. He said, with little hesitation, "Of course. This is just the right thing to do." I choke up writing that sentence. American Express really did come to our rescue -- with a gesture I will be forever grateful for.

I've asked around: This wasn't simply a random act of kindness. Rather, it's a fundamental way of how they do business. Here's their vision statement: "To be the most respected brand in the world. To win the hearts, minds, and wallets of our customers by providing extraordinary customer service."

Some empirical data

It's unlikely that Damian Bazadona's purely anecdotal experience is ever going to directly impact an empirical study. But that doesn't mean that a large enough accumulation of such stories won't eventually be reflected in research that's based entirely on numbers rather than personal outcomes.

J.D. Power and Associates conducts an annual Credit Card Satisfaction Study, and it recently revealed that American Express topped its ratings in 2011, the fifth consecutive year in which the card issuer was the recipient of this award. When measured just for "customer interaction," the company scored the maximum five "Power Circles," an achievement matched only by Discover.

Jim Bush, who's an executive vice president with American Express's World Service division, told IndexCreditCards.com about the company's customer service ethos: "At the end of the day, it's a very simple concept of the Golden Rule: treat the customer as you would like to be treated. That's what we do. And it's able to resonate with the entire organization, because everybody's a customer of someone."

Why can't other credit card companies be like American Express?

So how come other credit card companies can't match American Express's service levels? Well, to be fair, some of them are trying hard. As mentioned already, Discover is one. Meanwhile, Capital One has, as reported here, been making real strides in enhancing its call centers.

No doubt, every card issuer would claim to be working on upping its customer loyalty game, and many may be succeeding. On Feb. 28, the Federal Trade Commission published an analysis of all the complaints it received in 2011. Only 37,932 (2.09 percent of the 1.8 million total) concerned credit card companies, down from 46,291 in 2009.

But American Express does seem to stand out from the crowd, and that may be the result of three inherent advantages that it has:

  1. Many of its products come with relatively high annual fees that allow it -- indeed, force it -- to invest in keeping its customers happy. You really do get what you pay for.
  2. It has a uniquely wealthy and creditworthy customer base. That means that, while its competitors have spent the last few years writing off vast sums in bad credit card debt, American Express's losses were much lower. So it may have been spared the extreme cost cutting that's likely to have affected the delivery of customer services by other issuers. Having said that, Miranda contends that the company has been consistently good to her, well before the credit crunch hit.
  3. Historically, it started out as a services company, and the cards came later. So it still thinks of itself primarily as a provider of service, and this gives it a unique focus on its customers. At least, that's a summary of the view of an executive with an American Express PR consultancy to whom I spoke.

Not to say that AmEx is perfect

Does all this read too much like an advertisement for American Express? No company that has 97.4 million customers worldwide (according to its 2011 annual report) can possibly keep all of them happy all of the time. Search online for "American Express complaints," and you'll find plenty of people who would say that Miranda was lucky to have such good experiences. Dig deeper, and it's possible you could find a horrific tale to match every feel-good story the company sent me.

But, at least to Miranda and me, American Express' customer service commitment does feel different from that of its competitors, and I hope the others will do their best to emulate it.

Published 03/05/12 (Modified 03/25/13)


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