Written By Andrew Carlton, Vice President, World Service, American Express Canada
If there was a silver bullet for success, the world would be a much wealthier place.
But the truth is that the Canadian business landscape is now more competitive than ever, and while standing out in the crowd is tough, it’s crucial to your success. Building your brand – and the customer base that comes with it – is very different today than it was even 10 years ago.
“Choose me” is the goal of any marketing message in practically any medium. But as companies go to greater lengths than ever before to capture customers’ attention, they may be missing one simple reality. One of the most powerful opportunities businesses have to engage is also the most overlooked: customer service.
Think about it. When else do you have a customer’s complete, undivided attention? When else do you have a chance to make an impression and deepen engagement that can win you brand loyalty for life? Service matters, especially when you consider our current consumer landscape.
First, the habits of the average Canadian customer have changed after years of economic uncertainty. We’re now also more aware of the value of every dollar we spend – and few of us would say we’d settle for a second-rate product or service if there was a reasonable alternative.
Then there’s the emergence of the “social revolution” online. As technology brings us all closer together, it creates a great space for companies to reach customers that might otherwise pass them by, whether via email, the internet or through social media channels.
But customers today also have unprecedented power to broadcast their experiences – good or bad – to a virtually unlimited audience. This raises the stakes for the reputation of your brand, elevating the importance of every single service interaction a company has with its customers. If a customer has a bad experience, that story can spread like wildfire. But on the other hand, a great experience can deepen customer engagement and lead to repeat business.
Consider this: When American Express commissioned its annual Global Service Barometer, we found that 89 per cent of Canadians say that a customer service experience has an impact on their impression of a company or its brand. But more telling, perhaps, is that almost seven in 10 are willing to spend more with a company – up to 12 per cent on average – they believe provides excellent service. Canadians are also willing to go out of their way to get better customer service, such as by driving a longer distance (25%) or sacrificing convenience (20%).
This means we, as companies, have a major challenge – and a massive opportunity – to transform service into a real game-changer. And it starts by looking at service not as a cost, but as a long-term investment in customer relationships.
But how do you achieve that? For American Express Canada, it comes down to commitment and our very mindset. We don’t consider ourselves a credit-card company; we’re a service company. And after 158 years in the industry, we’ve learned some lessons that can be applied to nearly any business, no matter the size.
Based on this experience, we can offer three basic principles on how companies can capitalize on the overlooked customer engagement opportunity:
- Put the customer first: Service success begins by focusing on what the customer thinks. It’s a tried-and-true lesson that sounds like a no-brainer, but can actually be quite difficult to pull off. It starts with consistently sending a message to the entire team: we need to see and understand our business through the eyes of our customers. At Amex, we empower front-line professionals to look at each customer, not as a transaction, but as a way to deepen the customer relationship with each interaction. That has meant allowing our customer care professionals to interact naturally with customers; they can be themselves and have ditched the robotic scripts. In short, even though we’re investing more time and money in service, we’ve also become more efficient since we’re now better at listening and are more in tune to our customers’ needs.
- Aim to engage: Amex has changed the way we define and measure success. The traditional measure is often customer satisfaction, which is certainly important. But it’s not our ultimate goal. Instead, we seek greater customer engagement. For instance, one of our most important service measurements is “Recommend a Friend,” which outlines how willing a customer would be to recommend our products and services to a friend. We look at this measure to understand how we stack up in delivering an experience that our customers are not only generally satisfied with, but would be willing to positively endorse to the people who matter most to them.
- Cultivate service as company culture: Even by focusing on the customer and allowing your team to engage on a deeper level, customer experience can still be impacted if it’s not embraced across the organization and particularly by your frontline professionals. A few years ago, we changed our approach at Amex; we now like to say we “hire the will and teach the skill.” In other words, we focus on selecting people who fundamentally “get” service and have experience building strong, lasting relationships and with a background in hospitality, not just call centre experience. Before our transformation, our training was split 70% technical and 30% on personal skill. We’ve since reversed those numbers, and every call that comes into our call centres is viewed as a way to deepen our relationships with our customers.
- Capitalizing oncustomer service isn’t an easy path and it isn’t something that happens over night, - it may not be as chic as the latest marketing trend – online or off. But our experience shows that customers do respond when companies invest in their people and focus on the voice of their customers.
After all, great service shows your customer why they should choose you – and that’s the best strategy of all.