Good Employers Make Good Sellers

Dec 2, 2011

Great customer experiences depend heavily on companies creating a great experience for their employees. Executive VP Jim Bush acknowledged this relationship from the outset of his quest to ramp up customer satisfaction at American Express. The company polled existing customer care agents to find what would boost the quality of their service. Among their answers were improved incentives, more career mobility, more flexible hours, and streamlined processes.

In response, American Express increased job flexibility and created new job categories so agents could progress through four levels rather than remaining stuck in one. The company also changed its compensation plan, allowing agents to more easily earn bonuses based on customer service scores.

In addition, the company changed the job title from customer care representative to customer care professional. Agents got business cards for the first time.

These were more than symbolic gestures. Agents no longer merely recite company scripts, but use their discretion to figure out how American Express products can help customers solve problems. That’s made the job harder in a way. Agents like Teresa Tate, who works out of an American Express service center in Phoenix, now have to think on their feet. But Tate wouldn’t have it any other way. “We are getting more and more power to make the decisions at our level,” she says.

Tate, who used to run a restaurant, takes calls from AmEx cardholders who operate small businesses. She is now freer to share her wisdom and her concern for these customers. “I genuinely feel like I’m in this company’s finance department,” she says of her callers. “Having been in small business myself, you need that support.”

This sort of passion and compassion for customers translates into high levels of service, into reciprocal relationships.

American Express’s worthiness as an employer predates the Relationship Care program. The company has made Fortune’s list of the 100 Best Companies to Work For 11 of the past 12 years.30 Going even farther back, American Express offered employees one of the first private-sector pension plans in 1875.

These days, Amex combines kindness with cleverness in its people management. It offers a 401(k) plan that’s in the top 15 percent when it comes to company generosity. And Amex has worked harder in recent years to help struggling employees succeed at the firm, rather than usher them out the door. At the same time, it employs workforce metrics to fortify worthiness as a seller. Agents’ performance and pay are determined to a large extent by how well they fare on customer feedback surveys. The results are exposed directly to agents, who can view their recent customer satisfaction results, their aggregate results, and how they stack up against peers.

Relying too heavily on financial incentives can backfire. And workplace measurements can be misguided. Look no further than the way American Express used to track the robotic repetition of customer names. But Amex designed its compensation system based partly on employee feedback. And the strong results of the Relationship Care program suggest the pay approach isn’t distracting employees or hurting service. What’s more, the continual customer feedback measurements act as a self-correcting mechanism for agents?– and therefore help keep service quality high.

By blending employee autonomy and a supportive culture with smart metrics, American Express shows that worthiness as an employer works to make companies worthy sellers.

From the book Good Company: Business Success in the Worthiness Era, copyright 2011 by Laurie Bassi. Reprinted with permission of Berrett-Koehler Publishers, San Francisco.

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