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Interview with Doria Camaraza from American Express – Part 1 of 4

About two weeks ago, I interviewed Doria Camaraza, who is is the Senior Vice President and General Manager of Fort Lauderdale Service Center for American Express. This was an interview I was excited a lot about because I’ve written about American Express a number of times and in pretty much any customer satisfaction or customer service ranking, American Express makes the list. As an American Express cardmember myself, the workings behind the 160 year old company were also personally interesting to me.

This is a pretty lengthy interview, so I’ve divided it into four parts. Part one includes an introduction to Doria and her background with American Express, a quick overview of the different service centers that American Express has around the country, and some information on how American Express hires and trains its customer service representatives (called Customer Care Professionals).

You can see part one of the interview by clicking “read more.” A preview of part two is also included at the end of this part.

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Customer Service and Mission Statements

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about mission statements, principles, and other sorts of defined, high-level goals in customer service and business in general. To build a culture of customer service, you need to have the inspiration and the guidance come from the top. Additionally, people within the organization need to be constantly reminded of the company’s focus on customer service.

The way that most organizations approach this is to have a mission statement, set of principles, or something similar. Some companies call it a credo, others have fancier names. For example, Danny Meyer of Union Square Hospitality Group refers to his company’s set of operating principles as Enlightened Hospitality (see this post for more information). The Ritz-Carlton has its Gold Standards.

I recently conducted an interview with a senior customer service leader at American Express (look for the interview to be posted over the next two weeks) and during the interview, she mentioned American Express’s Customer Care Principles. American Express was nice enough to share a copy of their principles, which I liked a lot.

I like the American Express Customer Care Principles because they’re separated into three simple categories (Easy, Recognize, and Solve) and within each category, there are three to four very actionable items that make it easy for a representative to provide great service. For example:

  • I communicate knowledgeably, clearly and correctly. (Easy)
  • I care about my customers and connect with them. (Recognize)
  • I own my customers’ problems and see them through to resolution. (Solve)

The document (and the principles in general) is easy to follow and most importantly, easy to practice. Tangible goals and mission statements that can be translated into real action are essential to seeing high level service and business goals gaining any traction.

If you want to see the American Express Customer Service Principles, click here. If you’d like to share the customer service principles or mission statement that your company or another company you know of follows, contact us. If I see a couple submissions, I’ll feature them in a follow-up post.

Turning Castor Oil into Champagne

Castor Oil: “A foul tasting oil used in the 1950’s to cure whatever ailment a kid claimed he had that would keep him from having to get on the early morning school bus.”

My mother believed castor oil was a miracle cure. From a stomach ache to sore legs to ringing ears, a spoon full of castor oil was the “all-purpose” answer to almost any malady. But, she added a small twist. Before she directed me to, “Open your mouth,” she would ask: “What is the best tasting thing you have ever eaten?” For me, it was wild blueberries. “Now, think about that great taste.” Thinking about those blueberries never altered the taste, but it surely made the castor oil go down easier.

All customers face occasional “foul tasting” aspects of getting service. Airlines have canceled flights; doctors have emergencies that leave you stranded forever in the reception area; hotels have room keys that occasionally don’t work; and, popular restaurants have longer than normal waits at peak times. Smart service providers find ways to “turn castor oil into champagne” by managing their customers’ experiences to “think about blueberries.”

When we exited the Hertz courtesy van at the Hartford airport, the strong below-freezing winter wind bit hard. But, the Hertz attendant had a warm smile and an eager-to-help attitude. “This is way too cold!” one of us commented. She almost giggled. “Now, you guys know in Hartford, we do weather as entertainment!” Ten miles down the road we were still laughing at her unexpected champagne comment. What can you do to make service maladies seem more pleasant to your customers?

Interview with John Falcone of Sennheiser

I met John Falcone, who is the President and CEO of Sennheiser Electronic Corporation, a month or two ago while I was in San Francisco (thanks to Mike Faith for introducing us!) and after a quick email exchange, John was nice enough to agree to an interview.

In case you aren’t aware, Sennheiser is a major manufacturer of microphones, headphones, and wireless transmission systems. I know about the company because they make my favorite pair of headphones. A bit of background: The company was founded in 1945 in Wedemark, Germany and is still family-owned and the part that John runs is a wholly-owned U.S. subsidiary based in Old Lyme, CT that focuses on sales and marketing of Sennheiser products in the United States.

Here’s the interview with John. The style was a bit different than the traditional Q&A style I normally use, so please let me know if you like it or not in the comments.

Our founder, Prof. Dr. Fritz Sennheiser, just passed away at age 98 and left a legacy that defines how and why we do things the way we do. His biography is fascinating and gives great insight as to our history and the man who made it all happen.

Before I came to Sennheiser, I was working for Philips in the consumer electronics market. A recruiter contacted me and asked if I was interested in coming to work at Sennheiser. I wasn’t really interested until I had a meeting with Prof. Dr. Joerg Sennheiser, Prof. Dr. Fritz Sennheiser’s son. That meeting made me anxious to join his team, and to become part of a family owned company.

We are a family owned company, and our mission of manufacturing high-quality audio solutions is as strong as it was 65 years ago. The Sennheiser family is committed to staying true to this mission over the years to come. The third generation has just stepped into management roles and will carry this mission into the future. While we are global corporation today, the family spirit and quality values of the brand Sennheiser can be felt all around the world.

Music plays a large role at Sennheiser. Due to our strong involvement in pro audio and the music industry, it’s natural that many employees are also very talented musicians or music aficionados – thus many Sennheiser internal conferences often end with sizable jam sessions after the official part is done. So when our employees talk to our end users- who are often musicians themselves – it soon becomes an authentic peer-to-peer discussion.

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Age of Conversation 3

This is my second year participating in the Age of Conversation project/book. Here’s how the website describes the project:

With over 300 of the world’s leading marketers, writers, thinkers and creative innovators contributing chapters, this collaborative work investigates the roles that community, conversation, experimentation, engagement, and collaboration play in shaping the 21st century’s economy of ideas. As businesses, public and private organizations, and individuals realize that there’s much more to social media and its impacts than first meets the eye, Age of Conversation III shows which platforms, tools, and approaches truly work.

The result is a cool book with a lot of different opinions and ideas from the great people listed below. What’s also nice is that all profits from the sale of the book are donated to the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Check out the website to learn more and to order a copy.

Age of Conversation Authors:

Adam Joseph Priyanka Sachar Mark Earls
Cory Coley-Christakos Stefan Erschwendner Paul Hebert
Jeff De Cagna Thomas Clifford Phil Gerbyshak
Jon Burg Toby Bloomberg Shambhu Neil Vineberg
Joseph Jaffe Uwe Hook Steve Roesler
Michael E. Rubin anibal casso Steve Woodruff
Steve Sponder Becky Carroll Tim Tyler
Chris Wilson Beth Harte Tinu Abayomi-Paul
Dan Schawbel Carol Bodensteiner Trey Pennington
David Weinfeld Dan Sitter Vanessa DiMauro
Ed Brenegar David Zinger Brett T. T. Macfarlane
Efrain Mendicuti Deb Brown Brian Reich
Gaurav Mishra Dennis Deery C.B. Whittemore
Gordon Whitehead Heather Rast Cam Beck
Hajj E. Flemings Joan Endicott Cathryn Hrudicka
Jeroen Verkroost Karen D. Swim Christopher Morris
Joe Pulizzi Leah Otto Corentin Monot
Karalee Evans Leigh Durst David Berkowitz
Kevin Jessop Lesley Lambert Duane Brown
Peter Korchnak Mark Price Dustin Jacobsen
Piet Wulleman Mike Maddaloni Ernie Mosteller
Scott Townsend Nick Burcher Frank Stiefler
Steve Olenski Rich Nadworny John Rosen
Tim Jackson Suzanne Hull Len Kendall
Amber Naslund Wayne Buckhanan Mark McGuinness
Caroline Melberg Andy Drish Oleksandr Skorokhod
Claire Grinton Angela Maiers Paul Williams
Gary Cohen Armando Alves Sam Ismail
Gautam Ramdurai B.J. Smith Tamera Kremer
Eaon Pritchard Brendan Tripp Adelino de Almeida
Jacob Morgan Casey Hibbard Andy Hunter
Julian Cole Debra Helwig Anjali Ramachandran
Jye Smith Drew McLellan Craig Wilson
Karin Hermans Emily Reed David Petherick
Katie Harris Gavin Heaton Dennis Price
Mark Levy George Jenkins Doug Mitchell
Mark W. Schaefer Helge Tenno Douglas Hanna
Marshall Sponder James Stevens Ian Lurie
Ryan Hanser Jenny Meade Jeff Larche
Sacha Tueni and Katherine Maher David Svet Jessica Hagy
Simon Payn Joanne Austin-Olsen Mark Avnet
Stanley Johnson Marilyn Pratt Mark Hancock
Steve Kellogg Michelle Beckham-Corbin Michelle Chmielewski
Amy Mengel Veronique Rabuteau Peter Komendowski
Andrea Vascellari Timothy L Johnson Phil Osborne
Beth Wampler Amy Jussel Rick Liebling
Eric Brody Arun Rajagopal Dr Letitia Wright
Hugh de Winton David Koopmans Aki Spicer
Jeff Wallace Don Frederiksen Charles Sipe
Katie McIntyre James G Lindberg & Sandra Renshaw David Reich
Lynae Johnson Jasmin Tragas Deborah Chaddock Brown
Mike O’Toole Jeanne Dininni Iqbal Mohammed
Morriss M. Partee Katie Chatfield Jeff Cutler
Pete Jones Riku Vassinen Jeff Garrison
Kevin Dugan Tiphereth Gloria Mike Sansone
Lori Magno Valerie Simon Nettie Hartsock
Mark Goren Peter Salvitti

B&H Customer Service

When I was in New York last week, I visited the famous B&H Photo Video electronics store on Manhattan’s West Side. This very successful store’s unique business practices and philosophies have been written about in countless books and magazines over the years and from visiting the store or dealing with them over the phone or online, you can tell why. I pulled up the company’s philosophy on their website and found that it focuses on these five things:

– Our Easy Access Displays
– Our Educated Staff
– Our Partnership with Manufacturers
– Our Cutting Edge Inventory Tracking
– Our Liberal Return Policy

Needless to say, these things are very different than what you see or hear about from a typical electronics store. And what’s more interesting is that when you visit the store or buy something from the company’s store or website, many of these things are apparent. For example:

  • Easy access displays. You can try out almost everything on the floor at B&H. Instead of just looking at the boxes of headphones or of portable hard drives, you can put the headphones on and see how big the portable hard drives are. I didn’t notice much that was just kept in boxes or otherwise inaccessible to customers.
  • Our educated staff. I didn’t ask anyone there any questions, but there is no shortage of stories about extremely knowledgeable B&H employees. A friend of mine (who is from NY) went with me to the store and also spoke about how knowledgeable the employees are. What was also nice was the large number of staff members available at any given time. They were all over the store and there were also well placed information booths where customers could ask questions.
  • Partnership with manufacturers. B&H says it uses this advantage to let manufacturers show their “newest and hottest products to customers and staff.” Doing this helps to ensure that staff members are knowledgeable about what products are available and how they can help customers. The store also hosts meetings in its conference center to encourage people interested in particular topics surrounding photography and video recording to come to their store and share what they know with others.
  • Inventory tracking. A system that makes special orders simple is a system that helps promote customer service. Beyond that, B&H has an elaborate and extremely unique system of conveyor belts and similar devices that move products around the store and to a pick up area. This helps cut down on shoplifting and employee theft and thus, helps keep prices low.
  • Liberal return policy. B&H isn’t the only retail store that has a very liberal return policy (see this post on Nordstrom). A liberal return policy represents a desire to keep customers loyal to the company in the long run instead of just making money off of them in the short run. It’s easy enough to not accept returns and keep the money from that particular sale, but it won’t do anything to win customer loyalty. B&H places a premium on customer loyalty, which is why they have a liberal return policy.

B&H is definitely worth checking out if you’re in New York and/or if you’re in the market for any sort of electronics gear. They’re a great example of a company that puts customers first and believes in being honest and straightforward with its customers.

If you’re interested in reading more about this company’s interesting business practices (including shutting down orders on their website on Fridays and Saturdays), check out this great article in Inc. Magazine by Joel Spolsky. It’s worth a read.

Photo credit of the B&H checkout process goes to me (I took the photo when I visited).

The 2010 Fanati Award

This year is my second year (see this post about my first year judging) judging The Fanati Award, an award that Rackspace Hosting gives out to recognize their customers who value customer service as much as Rackspace does. Like last year, I want to do a brief writeup on the companies and the process.

Instead of written applications, this year’s submissions came in as short videos. Videos let you see (literally and figuratively) what companies do and how they work. They’re also interesting because they are more reflective of the type of culture the company has. Everyone fills out an application in pretty much the same way, but the type of videos that I saw varied greatly. Some were more “traditional” and featured people talking about customer service while some of the others were more upbeat and engaging.

The winner this year was a company called Pet Relocation. The company is interesting and a great candidate for an award like this because part of what they do on a daily basis is dealing with out of the ordinary situations that require going above and beyond to complete the service (moving a pet safely from point A to point B). Their slogan is “Any Pet, Anywhere, Any Time,” which implies that they are a company that wants to go above and beyond for its customers. From reading about the company, it’s easy to tell that they have a strong commitment to their customers and to providing the highest quality service.

Like most companies that excel at customer service, Pet Relocation knows what it has to do in order to impress its customers. Personalized service provided by people who are empowered to go above and beyond (and a strong desire to provide that type of service) is what has led to Pet Relocation’s success. Congratulations to them on winning The Fanati this year and thanks again to Rackspace for giving me the opportunity to judge the contest again.

You can see Pet Relocation’s video, and more information about the 2010 Fanati Award here.

Nexus One Phone Support

I love Google. I use it as my search engine of choice and for my email, calendar, feed reader, and a variety of other things. I don’t talk about Google much on Service Untitled because one thing Google is not known for is its customer service. With the recent release of the Nexus One, this issue was brought to the forefront.

The background of the issue is straightforward: Google launched a major product that usually comes with an expectation of easily accessible phone support without phone support. Traditionally, Google has relied on self-service options like community forums, knowledge bases, and occasional support via email. For users of the Nexus One, that wasn’t enough. The result was a busy support forum at Google and a lot of confused and annoyed customers.

The phone manufacturer/carrier support model is a lot like the software/OEM manufacturer support model. Traditionally, carriers provide the support for the phones they provide in much the same way that PC manufacturers such as HP and Dell provide support for Windows. Apple changed this model quite a bit when they started supporting the iPhone directly, but most phone/carrier relationships are still like this (for example, I call Verizon, not Research in Motion, to get support for my BlackBerry). Because Google was selling the phones directly, the relationship changed and people started to expect their service from Google.

Luckily, Google caught onto this pretty quickly and announced today that they were launching a phone support line that would be open from 4 AM to 7 PM PT. Like with other phone manufacturers and other phone companies, people will be able to call and talk to a human.

There are some good lessons to consider as a result of this story:

  • Consider expectations. I wrote about some reasons to provide phone support a while back and one of the reasons I mentioned is if your business model and industry call for it. In the mobile phone business, phone support is expected.
  • Get it up fast. Google was good at getting its phone support up and running quickly. Even though a month doesn’t seem that fast by Internet time, it is a short turnaround time for setting up what will likely be a busy call center at a company that doesn’t really run call centers.
  • Be prepared to break from your traditional culture. Google is not a customer service company. I don’t think anyone at the company would make that claim. Google did, however, break from that traditional culture in order to remain competitive and ensure customer satisfaction.

Think about this story and these lessons before you launch your next product. Doing so might save you some negative (or at the very least, critical) press in the future.

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