Customer Service Lessons from my Amex Card

By October 24, 2013Uncategorized

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Over the past two months, I’ve traveled over 100,000 miles, and hit six countries, as well as countless cities across America. Everything I’ve bought, spent, reserved, flown, eaten, slept in, or driven has been paid for with my American Express card. Simply put, I can’t do anything without my Amex card. With it, however, I can do everything.

This isn’t a suck-up post about Amex in the least, so keep reading. More than that, this is a post about what they do right, and why they keep me as a satisfied customer year in and year out. And if you’re smart, you can steal EVERYTHING in this post and apply it to your business, today.

Want to be the company your customer can’t live without? Replicate what American Express does. Read on.

It’s about taking the time to get to know each customer. Amex knows me. The customer file Amex has on me must be several gigabytes at least, and I’m totally, 100% ok with that. See, in the 15+ years I’ve had an Amex, they’ve NEVER tried to upsell me, they’ve never spammed me, they’ve never done anything insidious with my information. As such, I trust them, and I’m happy to tell them anything they want to know. Why? Because I know the information they collect on me helps them make my life easier.

An example: Last year, I received a replacement card, despite still having my regular card in my possession. When I called to ask why they sent it to me, they told me the following: “Mr. Shankman, we notice that you take multiple overseas trips per year. If you look at your new card, you’ll notice a little PIN chip embedded in it. In virtually every country but the United States, the PIN chip method is the preferred, and much safer way of  paying for a transaction. We also noticed that the last time you were overseas, you were unable to use your card at an automated Metro station, because your card lacked PIN chip. We noticed this with several of our customers who travel overseas, so we’re implementing a PIN chip system for those customers. Since you’re one of them, we hope this will make your international travel a little easier.”

There was no charge, they didn’t even ask me if I wanted it. No forms or paperwork. Amex simply saw an opportunity to make my life easier, and they took it. End result? I got off a plane in Stockholm last month, exhausted from a red-eye flight, and walked over to the subway station. Instead of having to wait on a line 25-deep for the one customer rep there, I slid my PIN enabled card into the credit card slot, and had a round-trip ticket in my hands in five seconds. That’s ease of use. That’s customer service. I can tell you that I couldn’t do that with any other card I carry.

YOUR IMPLEMENTATION: What do you know about your customers that you can use to their benefit in a non-creepy way? Do some of your customers buy the same thing each month like clockwork? Offer monthly reshipping, charged to the same credit card, and frame it to them as “making their lives easier.” An online bike store I use all the time does this in another way – I usually go through two to three pairs of gloves a season, because I tend to fall down a lot. Stupid clips. Anyhow, on my last order, I didn’t order any gloves, and they sent me a pair anyway, with a little note attached – “Figured you might be close to needing a new pair.” Stellar. Just stellar. Think I’ll ever use another bike store online? Heck no. And do I tell everyone about them? I do indeed.

It’s about perfectly walking the fine line between “protective” and “creepy.” For this article, I went in and broke down my last month’s Amex bill by type of charge. 49 web charges, 37 in-person charges, and 22 monthly repeat charges. I looked at a few months prior, and they were all pretty much the same. Most people are big fans of patterns. While I might travel all over the world, my flights and hotels are booked the exact same way by my assistant, and diapers and cat food are monthly repeat orders. No doubt that before I know it, “diapers” will be replaced by “teenager food,” but that’s neither here nor there. The point is, Amex knows my patterns (and by default, my assistant’s patterns.) They also know all the weird stuff I’m into, and they understand that it’s not out of the ordinary to see an “expensive client dinner” one night, and a charge from“Joe’s Skydiving Shack” the next morning. I love that – My life isn’t interrupted by them checking things on a regular basis, but I know I’m protected when it’s needed. As such, when my assistant’s card (which is a sub-card of my account) started showing random charges at “KFC,” “Popeye’s Chicken,” and “Home Depot,” (i.e., places I or Meagan would rarely, if ever, go) they flagged it, contacted me, and sure enough, we’d been frauded.

Granted, American Express spends millions each year to prevent credit card fraud, as they should. But how they handled it was amazing. They called me, and within ten minutes, the card was canceled, a new card was FedEx’d to me, we’d gone down my assistant’s entire list of charges for the month and removed all that weren’t hers, and most importantly, Amex followed up twice more that month to check in. Meagan didn’t have any downtime at all, and life went on.

YOUR IMPLEMENTATION: Customers are going to have problems. Things are going to happen and they’re going to need your help in fixing them. It could be something as simple as a broken purchase, or as complex as a screw-up on a million dollar order. How you respond, how you make the customer feel better, determines the amount of love they’re going to have for you. And remember – Lovers talk. They tell others, both for good and bad.

It’s about having options. I haven’t had a physical bill from Amex in like, 12 years. It’s all done online, and I can choose when. I can pay from my computer, from my phone, whatever. This isn’t exclusive to Amex, obviously, but I can tell you that in 12 years, the system has never failed me. Yet, my accountant, who I value tremendously, requires a physical check every three months. Like I’m even home every three months. Needless to say, his payment is often late. Not intentionally, mind you, but often. If I could auto-debit his bill from my checking account, he’d get paid on-time, every time.

YOUR IMPLEMENTATION: What can do you to make your client or customer’s lives easier when it comes to you getting paid, and in the process, get paid faster and more reliably? Can you implement Square? Can you discount 10% for immediate payment? Can you set up a better online solution? I’ve done tests with how I bill – I almost ALWAYS get paid faster when the client can do it electronically. Besides… Who really uses physical checks anymore, anyway? Going to the bank? Ain’t nobody got time for that! (Note to TD Bank – You should totally use Sweet Brown as a spokesperson.)

It’s about your clients knowing the help is there when they need it. On a trip to Colombia a few years ago for a speaking gig, I made an incorrect car reservation, and the driver who was supposed to pick me up thought it was the next day. Colombia isn’t necessarily the type of place where you just want to jump in the first available cab from the airport. It was 1am NYC time, and my car service place in NYC who booked the reservation wasn’t answering. In desperation, I called Amex, and within ten minutes, a concierge had a car on its way to me. Nothing else mattered at that point, I was getting a trusted vehicle to take me to my hotel. Problem solved. The level of trust I have for Amex is usually reserved for family members. That’s huge.

Addendum to the above: About seven years ago, my grandma was in the hospital, and I was away on business. I had no clue as to what to get her, but I wanted to get her something. I wasn’t up on the latest gifts for people over 90 in hospitals, so on a whim, I called Amex. I just told them to choose. Within three hours, a five-foot high plush Kangaroo was sitting at my grandma’s bedside. She named it “Hoppy.” She invited everyone on the floor to visit Hoppy. She was released from the hospital two days later. My father, to this day, believes she got better because Hoppy made my grandma the center of attention. Ha. While that may or may not be true, this much is: Amex came through for me and my 90 something year old Grandma. That’s simply ace.

YOUR IMPLEMENTATION: How can you go out of your way when it’s called for to do something unexpected? Morton’s Steakhouse is famous for this (I’m not taking about the airport story, relax.) They once kept the kitchen open because someone called from his office at 10pm. His team had JUST won a huge deal, and it closed at 10pm. He wanted to treat his employees, many of whom were flying out the next morning, to a congratulatory dinner, but hardly anything was open. Morton’s told them to come on in, they kept the kitchen open, served a great meal, and made fans for life. How can you make fans for life?

It’s about offering that trust back to your customer. Let’s clear something up. Amex is famous for “no credit limit.” From the research I’ve done, that’s not exactly what it means. They’re famous for no preset credit limit, which is a huge difference. Essentially, it means that as long as you pay your due balance by when it’s due and aren’t late, the chances of you going “over” your limit are limited, and if you ever are dinged with a “not enough credit,” and you have a good history with them, you can call them, and it’ll usually be taken care of. Now I obviously don’t work for Amex, nor do I have any inside info, but this is what I’ve heard.

How does that apply to me? Well, I’ve had trips come up at the last minute – A speaking gig where the keynote got sick (or even arrested – I’m serious) – Could I be in Europe, or Asia, or wherever, in two days? There’s a level of confidence that comes with knowing that I can say yes, make the sale, close the deal, give the speech, in person, because Amex will back me up, and let the ridiculously priced walk-up fare go through. It’s mutual trust. That’s hugely important to me.

YOUR IMPLEMENTATION: Can you be more trusting of your customers who have a good track record with you? Can you be flexible on payment terms? Can you give your customers the knowledge that if they need you to help take their business (or just their lives) to the next level, you can be counted on to do that? That’s how you turn loyal customers into customers for life and beyond.

My dad has an Amex card, I have one, and you know my daughter will have one. Why? The brand continues to prove itself over and over again. I wish nothing but the same for your company.

What else, good or bad, can you learn from your credit card company? As always, I want to hear about it in the comments. Meagan will pick the best, most useful comment, and send the author some FlapJacked Protein Pancakes, which are like, the yummiest, healthiest things ever.

Caveat: I know that some companies suck, and they double, triple or worse, your rates for the most bullshit of reasons. That’s not cool, and I would love to teach them why not doing that would actually result in higher, not lower revenues for them. Additionally, this article denotes only my experiences with Amex. Amex has no idea that I’ve written this, nor have I had any business or consulting relationship with Amex outside of being a cardholder in the past five years.

  • Maggie Barnes

    Amen Peter! When I am armed with my Amex, I feel like I can take on the world. And you always get someone on their phone system that you can actually understand – no “This is Peggy.” nonsense from these folks.

  • Maggie Barnes

    Amen Peter! When I am armed with my Amex, I feel like I can take on the world. And you always get someone on their phone system that you can actually understand – no “This is Peggy.” nonsense from these folks.

  • I love this post, but what I love even more is that it shows how entrepreneurs and business owners can find inspiration all around them, even from things they might take for granted (like a credit card). Great stuff!

  • I love this post, but what I love even more is that it shows how entrepreneurs and business owners can find inspiration all around them, even from things they might take for granted (like a credit card). Great stuff!

  • Kate Broderick Murray

    When I was in China last year, I did not have Amex. I called ahead to let them know I would be there but was still denied. I did not know my pin number and had to call to get it. I didn’t know my password and couldn’t tell you what year my car is. After a very frustrating 20 minutes on an overseas call, I was finally able to use my other card.

  • Kate Broderick Murray

    When I was in China last year, I did not have Amex. I called ahead to let them know I would be there but was still denied. I did not know my pin number and had to call to get it. I didn’t know my password and couldn’t tell you what year my car is. After a very frustrating 20 minutes on an overseas call, I was finally able to use my other card.

  • Elizabeth

    Great post. I absolutely love AMEX and never leave home without it.

  • Elizabeth

    Great post. I absolutely love AMEX and never leave home without it.

  • David Robertson

    This is a great post. I signed up for AMEX’s Bluebird debit card as I was expecting some higher level of banking American Express is known for. BIG MISTAKE! I had fraudulent charges on my debit card and they waited two weeks to do anything. I had to call them 20+ times to get everything resolved. I had to fax to managers, follow it up with calls and threaten people. What a waste of time. I quickly closed my account and have sparkling service and protection from my local credit union. Beware of this account as the service levels are below that of the big banks(terrible) and there aren’t any benefits.

  • David Robertson

    This is a great post. I signed up for AMEX’s Bluebird debit card as I was expecting some higher level of banking American Express is known for. BIG MISTAKE! I had fraudulent charges on my debit card and they waited two weeks to do anything. I had to call them 20+ times to get everything resolved. I had to fax to managers, follow it up with calls and threaten people. What a waste of time. I quickly closed my account and have sparkling service and protection from my local credit union. Beware of this account as the service levels are below that of the big banks(terrible) and there aren’t any benefits.

  • IvanL

    Great post Peter. I’m not an Amex user, but your stories paint a picture of a company that is on the ball when it comes to customer service. However, I think it should be pointed out that Amex charge significantly higher fees to merchants – the companies you are actually buying stuff from – than Visa/MC or others. I know this from being a merchant. Amex charge 30% more than other credit card companies. 3.4% versus 2.6% on average for a small business. So Amex’ valiant customer service and no credit limit is being paid for by the merchant.

    I’m not saying this is a bad thing. Maybe all credit card companies should charge 3.4% and provide stellar customer service, but it is nice to know who is paying. I know in Europe many businesses do not accept Amex because of the higher fees. Amex having chip and pin is not much good if the merchant does not accept Amex.

    None of the above takes from the general customer service points you made though. Great stuff as always.

  • IvanL

    Great post Peter. I’m not an Amex user, but your stories paint a picture of a company that is on the ball when it comes to customer service. However, I think it should be pointed out that Amex charge significantly higher fees to merchants – the companies you are actually buying stuff from – than Visa/MC or others. I know this from being a merchant. Amex charge 30% more than other credit card companies. 3.4% versus 2.6% on average for a small business. So Amex’ valiant customer service and no credit limit is being paid for by the merchant.

    I’m not saying this is a bad thing. Maybe all credit card companies should charge 3.4% and provide stellar customer service, but it is nice to know who is paying. I know in Europe many businesses do not accept Amex because of the higher fees. Amex having chip and pin is not much good if the merchant does not accept Amex.

    None of the above takes from the general customer service points you made though. Great stuff as always.

  • Wendy

    I do love my Amex, and my parents were members since the 70’s, however I believe the type of card you have, Centurian vs. platinum vs. gold, etc., is indicative of the service you receive.

  • Wendy

    I do love my Amex, and my parents were members since the 70’s, however I believe the type of card you have, Centurian vs. platinum vs. gold, etc., is indicative of the service you receive.

  • Jen

    I’m a faithful Amex user and one of my favorite benefits–that many people are unaware of–is their policy of doubling the manufacturer’s warranty (with a max one-year extension) and their policy of repairing or replacing any item you buy that is damaged or stolen within the first 90 days of purchase. I will *never* purchase electronics (or other expensive items) on a card other than my Amex. I learned that the hard way!

    Sample Amex experience: I got a painting framed (which isn’t cheap), brought it home and–in the course of hanging it–smacked it into a light fixture, breaking the frame. Called Amex and they immediately credited the purchase price back to my account so I could get it reframed.

    Comparable Discover Card experience: I was rehabbing a bathroom and charged the new medicine cabinet to my Discover Card because they were offering a bonus 5% cash back on home improvement purchases. It saved me about $25. The medicine cabinet fell while my contractor was hanging it, and all three mirrored doors were scratched. My contractor felt horrible, but I told him not to worry because I knew Discover had a similar policy. What a headache. I had to fill out forms, submit photos of the damage (have you ever tried to take a picture _of_ a mirror?) and track down estimates for new doors. Weeks later they finally approved the claim–minus shipping. And then mailed me a check. What a headache.

    Someone on a technology forum that I frequent posted one of those, “I’m kicking myself, I just dropped my new table and smashed the screen” message recently. I responded: Did you buy it with Amex within the last 90 days? He had. The guy was thrilled when I told him that he was in luck and they’d replace it. (And he followed up with me again after Amex did just that.)

    Customer service takeaway: If life hands your customer lemons, make your customer smile by handing them lemonade.

  • Jen

    I’m a faithful Amex user and one of my favorite benefits–that many people are unaware of–is their policy of doubling the manufacturer’s warranty (with a max one-year extension) and their policy of repairing or replacing any item you buy that is damaged or stolen within the first 90 days of purchase. I will *never* purchase electronics (or other expensive items) on a card other than my Amex. I learned that the hard way!

    Sample Amex experience: I got a painting framed (which isn’t cheap), brought it home and–in the course of hanging it–smacked it into a light fixture, breaking the frame. Called Amex and they immediately credited the purchase price back to my account so I could get it reframed.

    Comparable Discover Card experience: I was rehabbing a bathroom and charged the new medicine cabinet to my Discover Card because they were offering a bonus 5% cash back on home improvement purchases. It saved me about $25. The medicine cabinet fell while my contractor was hanging it, and all three mirrored doors were scratched. My contractor felt horrible, but I told him not to worry because I knew Discover had a similar policy. What a headache. I had to fill out forms, submit photos of the damage (have you ever tried to take a picture _of_ a mirror?) and track down estimates for new doors. Weeks later they finally approved the claim–minus shipping. And then mailed me a check. What a headache.

    Someone on a technology forum that I frequent posted one of those, “I’m kicking myself, I just dropped my new table and smashed the screen” message recently. I responded: Did you buy it with Amex within the last 90 days? He had. The guy was thrilled when I told him that he was in luck and they’d replace it. (And he followed up with me again after Amex did just that.)

    Customer service takeaway: If life hands your customer lemons, make your customer smile by handing them lemonade.

  • David DiGregorio

    I love Amex and have been a loyal users for years and years. I have a Platinum card but recently have been having second thoughts. The fee is very high and although I do believe I get enough benefits to make it worthwhile, the points I’m earning just don’t seem to be worth as much as they could be on other cards. Ever since they got rid of the 20% bonus for Amex Travel redemption and stopped being partners with United I’ve been mentally straying. I actually just ordered a Chase Sapphire and can’t believe I’m even considering making it my primary card. The thought of taking it out to pay makes me cringe…

  • David DiGregorio

    I love Amex and have been a loyal users for years and years. I have a Platinum card but recently have been having second thoughts. The fee is very high and although I do believe I get enough benefits to make it worthwhile, the points I’m earning just don’t seem to be worth as much as they could be on other cards. Ever since they got rid of the 20% bonus for Amex Travel redemption and stopped being partners with United I’ve been mentally straying. I actually just ordered a Chase Sapphire and can’t believe I’m even considering making it my primary card. The thought of taking it out to pay makes me cringe…

  • DanielMarron

    Amex has been great so far. Once they called me immediately to check about a fraudulent charge, shipped me a new card the next day. Also send me alerts for large purchases. Have had horrible experience with Barclays, my card got denied at SFO airport for something which was a usual dining transaction. Took them a while to figure out what was happening with my card. I’m staying away from Barclays for that reason ever since.