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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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Working on customer service skills

wachoviaWhen a customer service representative delivers great customer service, there is less stress and less hassle. It saves the company a huge amount of time, and keeps people happy. Some companies think that customer service representatives do not learn skills from abstract situations taught in seminars and training classes, but I witnessed an interesting experience yesterday that had been learned and mastered well.

I walked into my local branch of Wachovia Bank to speak with a mortgage representative about one of my real estate customers, and since I was early, I had to wait until the mortgage representative was out of her meeting. It actually was a good opportunity for me to gather information for today’s blog. The incident happened during lunch time when many bank employees were out of the building. The customer service representative standing at the kiosk in the lobby of the bank had been speaking to a customer about a “Power of Attorney” and its relevance to her aged parent. The customer had been speaking with the representative about five minutes when a second customer rushes into the bank and interrupts the conversation between the customer service representative and the first customer.

The second customer is a young, good-looking man dressed in an expensive business suit and says, “Excuse me, but I need to get into my safe deposit box immediately.”

The customer service representative turned to the business man and made eye-contact with him, held up her hand in a gesture suggesting  ‘wait a moment’  and responded with, ” I can help you in a few moments, or you can meet with one of our banking specialists as soon as someone is available.” The customer service representative then broke eye-contact with the second customer and returned her concentration to the first customer.

The first priority of an excellent customer service representative is to that of the first customer. The key was to limit her interaction with the second customer, but at the same time not to ignore his presence. She was able to use a short efficient method to address the second customer, and momentarily address him using eye-contact to assure him she was indeed paying attention. At the same time she offered him an option. It was important that she did not address the needs of the second customer while still attending to the first customer. It would have given that first customer the impression that she was less important. If however, the representative felt she could address the second customer’s needs quickly, she might have asked the first customer for permission to do so. A statement such as, “Would you mind if I help this gentleman while you read these documents over. It will only take me a few minutes to help him.”

Empowering customer service representatives with practical knowledge, service skills, and handling situations by role-playing definitely diffused a potentially difficult situation.

photo credit: TheTruthAbout..

Book Review: The Retail Doctor’s Guide to Growing Your Business

I just finished reading The Retail Doctor’s Guide to Growing Your Business A Step-By-Step Approach to Quickly Diagnose, Treat, and Cure written by Bob Phibbs. He begins his book asking the retailer to identify what type of business owner he might be, and breaks down the four personalities to:

Driver: Extroverted, egotistical, project driven, and makes decisions based on results. An example of this “Thinker” would be Donald Trump, and the “You’re fired” line.
Analytical: Introverted, project driven, and makes decisions based on facts. An example of this “Thinker” would be Dr. Spock from Star Trek.
Expressive: Spontaneous, good negotiator,and learns by doing. An example of  this “Feeler” would be Jimmy Buffett who lives life to the fullest and is not detail driven.
Amiable: Peacemaker, introverted, loyal, and decides based on emotions. An example of this “Feeler” would be Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz.

Throughout the book, the author describes what each personality can bring to customers, fellow employees and the sales staff; how they react as managers and what an owner can do to enhance everyone’s best talents.

The book starts out like a regular retail sales training book, but highlights some great ideas. It is divided into eight chapters beginning with the financial and physical aspects of retail stores, and honesty in on employee hiring, training, building, and coaching. The author also emphasized the importance of marketing to help create a successful business and touches upon social media including Facebook, Twitter, blogging, and of course, the company website.

In the beginning of the book, the author suggests a company start with evaluating their financial situation based on the Profit and Loss statements, which may require a company to increase prices, limit discounts, cut waste, eliminate overtime, and hand out paychecks personally in order to have a personal knowledge of one’s own company’s expenses. Interviews for new employees should be no longer than 20 minutes and some sample interview questions such as asking a candidate to describe a typical day at his/her last job, or describe when you went out of your way for a client can help to increase the 51% chance of choosing an outstanding employee.

The importance of helping employees by using written job descriptions, handbooks for the “don’ts” of the business, and training that covers the “do” procedures will ensure employees function as you want. Great employees do the right things when you aren’t there.

Mr. Phibbs used an example of an older woman coming into a store looking for carpeting. Jane’s pet had recently died and the carpeting needed replacement. The woman was retired, on a fixed income and now had a new puppy. The saleswoman found a selection Jane loved and worked up an estimate. The price was $4,200, a higher price than the woman had expected, but the salesperson offered her interest free financing for 36 months. Less expensive products were offered, but Jane kept coming back to her original choice, and just wanted to think about it.

“As I was getting out my business card, I asked Jane if there was ‘anything else’ concerning her about purchasing the carpet. She told me she didn’t think she could move the books out of her bookcase and the curios out of her cabinets, and that because her children were scattered over the United States, she didn’t have anyone to help her. I told her I would come over a week before the installation and give her a hand with moving her furniture. Jane replied by asking me, ‘How much would it cost me?’ and I answered, ‘Lunch-peanut butter or tuna fish are my favorites.’ She laughed, asked me how much of  deposit I needed and got out her checkbook. That is the essence of great retail; being of service to someone else. Help her to see that you have both the answer and the way to make her life better.”

The advice and step by step descriptions of  the six stages of training emphasizes there are no shortcuts to becoming top sales personnel, and exemplary customer service is always an integral part of the success. When the entire staff is able to work together, the business grows and the company makes more money. The author states there is no such thing as a level playing field in retail since stores like Wal-Mart will always be able to offer lower prices, Best Buy will always have more inventory, and a mall will be able to offer better parking than a downtown shopping district, but you can find unique ways to make your store more attractive and train your staff to consistently deliver exceptional results every day.

Bottomline: I enjoyed reading the book. It is chock full of logical, practical advice. The real world examples show just how training and an awareness of different personality types can make a profound difference between success and failure. In a very tough economic crisis, businesses need to be unique and figure out what truly differentiates their business from a multitude of other retailers out there selling similar products. Phibbs shows the reader a practical step by step approach.

Pros: The book gives the reader a lot of detail into the “do’s and don’ts” of building a unique retail store. There are step by step examples to jolt you into a challenging way of thinking about store design, products and staff, and most suggestions are applicable to any business.

Cons: Even though I found the descriptions of the different types of personalities interesting, it became very drawn out and confusing. Parts of the book seemed to be more of a psychological dialogue aimed toward personality quirks than a guide to building a better business.

Interested? The Retail Doctor’s Guide to Growing Your Business is available on Amazon.com for $13.57 (paperback) and $9.99 (Kindle).

Building customer relationships part of American Express improved services

In a time when consumers have a heightened awareness of  the entire credit card industry, where there is a drop in corporate spending and where legislative regulatory changes have all made profound differences in the way credit cards are viewed, American Express CEO Kenneth Chenault looks to improve customer experiences. Using the Ritz Carlton and FedEx as models of customer service, changes in American Express service strives to create deeper emotional connections with their customers.

In their three pillar strategy, entitled Relationship Care, employees from industries with hospitality and sales backgrounds as well as the use of new technology, helps customer service employees solve problems while building relationships with customers rather than the norm of how many rings until the phone gets answered or how long a customer service representative spends on the line.

The first stage of Relationship Care concentrates on existing employees and increasing their training by 20%. Classroom instruction, live training, coaches and coaching while directly responding to customers help representatives capture the mood of the customer and be better equipped to listen and know how to respond. By helping employees understand spending behaviors and customer reasons for calling, an immediate emotional and loyalty connection can be made when a customer calls to perhaps report a change of address. If the customer is a high value consumer, a customer care professional may send out a Home Depot gift card.

During the second stage of Relationship Care, hiring new representatives takes on a very centered focus. A customer service applicant might be asked, “If you worked at American Express, how would you give a hug to a card member over the phone?” The company has been hiring representatives from the hospitality and sales industries finding their experience with customers to be a vital asset when dealing with customers who need empathy and the kind of understanding not taught in any training manuals.

Finally, the technology of American Express that can tap into the a database of customer information showing their past buying activity can prompt a representative to aim future promotions, and services pertaining to a specific card member rather than a general pitch for new products. The website is also easy to navigate, user friendly, and provides information pertinent to all card members. The company has even set up a website to help consumers keep track of all activity concerning legislative action for all credit card holders.

American Express reports their customer satisfaction statistics are on the rise, and customer satisfaction rates have climbed dramatically.

photo credit: TheTruthAbout…

Reward employees for delivering excellent customer service

In our efforts to constantly improve customer service, we need to encourage, train, and reward our support staff. Winning is contagious, and when we acknowledge employees who leave their mark, and we show them that they matter, their success can lead to more success from other staff members making it a snowball effect toward the very positive.

Assuming that our customer service representatives know that the customer is the reason for their work, we must continue to train; whether it be through online seminars, practical workshops, conferences, role-playing, or one on one training. All employees should have the availability of resources to help with self-improvement. When our staff is well-trained and the continuing education becomes part of the company culture, employees can be trusted with decisions that entail thinking out of the box or working within a discretionary budget when needed. Excellent customer service personnel make customer service personal, no matter what the product, remembers customers’ names, remembers handshakes, and always says thank you.

Now how do you keep your customer service staff performing at such high standards? As long as employees are meeting customers’ needs, I believe owners should offer rewards from acknowledging successes and accomplishments at staff meetings where employees are recognized in front of their peers to monetary rewards. For high profit businesses, rewards for outstanding customer service can range from theater tickets, spa treatments, or to a day off with pay. In one company, the president offered a three-day trip to the Grand Bahamas for seven unsolicited positive customer comments about an employee’s exceptional service.

For the small company who still wants to recognize their exceptional employees and cannot afford spa treatments and trips, consider other appreciative ways to compensate someone’s hard work. An owner can write a complimentary review of the employees accomplishment and add it to  their portfolio as an edge for a future promotion or pay raise. You can buy the employee breakfast or take him/her out to lunch. How about some movie passes or extra time off? It doesn’t have to be expensive, but it should be personal and a sincere way to say thank you for helping your business be successful. After all, empowering your staff to serve in a positive method leads to more business and happier employees.

photo credit: USACE Europe Distric

Employee hiring key to customer retention

Customer retention is the relationship you have and how you manage and maintain that relationship. That  first physical meeting or the initial seconds on the phone imprint a customer’s  impression. The best employees will be liked by the consumer in those first few moments because if they dislike you, chances are customers  will withdraw, feel antagonistic or feel challenged and move on to your competition. Employee hiring is an important key to customer retention.

Customer service techniques can be taught, but talent and attitude figure into the equation.  Managers can role play to show customer representatives how to establish rapport, establish rapport suitable phrases, coach  sympathetic styles and empathy, but important performance leadership qualities and loyalty features are essential traits when searching for the perfect candidate. So how do you know if  those employees working for you  have a passion for the customer and can add value to your company? Of course, there are no definitive questions and answers, but the following questions might instill some thoughtful conversation:

  • Do you like being a customer representative?
  • Does your position give you a sense of accomplishment?
  • Do you take pride when you tell someone you work for this company?
  • How do you feel about the future of this company?
  • How do you feel about the amount of work you do compared with your salary?
  • What do you think of the physical conditions of your work place?
  • Does your company try to accommodate individual employees needing special requests? ( For instance, day care, food service when working overtime)
  • How does the way you are treated influence your attitude about your job?
  • As the company changes, do you see it as good or bad?
  • Do you understand your company’s business strategy and how the objectives will work for you in your job?
  • How do you see yourself in the company when you are ready to retire? Do you think you will still be at this company?

Employees who are vested in companies, employees who feel as if they are appreciated and employees who take pride in their jobs instill that sense of trust.  Instead of trying to persuade, their allegiance is to a company where they are part of the business strategy, and see themselves progressing as the company progresses, adapt to a company’s goal of ” let’s look at this together,” and “let’s see what the options are.” Employees who are rewarded with  positive changes are the individuals who identify approaches and stay “with” the customer.

photo credit: USACE Europe District

Help customer focus with the right attitude

There are a number of factors that significantly affect how well a customer service representative is able to identify and help customers. Training, knowledge, and skills are the objective standards and basics of customer service agents, but equally as important for the complete package is the attitude which can ultimately make or break the front lines of one’s business.

Everyone puts their best attitude forward when interviewing for a position, but during the training period and internship, we can use the opportunities to observe and evaluate each new customer service agent. Most of us have had some time in our “complaint” careers, met with that customer service representative who had the bad attitude and seemed to be annoyed, or acted as if he hated his job – not to mention treating the customer as stupid.

Here are some criteria to consider:

  • Stay away from those customer service representatives who respond negatively to customer demands. Negativity is contagious.
  • Stay away from those agents who are too willing to change established procedures while responding to unreasonable customer service complaints. Not only does that have the potential for costing a business huge losses, but it is indicative of an agent who just wants to get off the phone or out of a situation without mediating or solving the problem logically and fairly.
  • Stay away from the customer service representative who makes too many exceptions, is inconsistent with company policy, practices, and procedures. This can become disruptive for other agents and confusing for newer representatives who are just learning and trying to follow.
  • Stay away from the agent who doesn’t seek workable options to solve problems and blames others in the company. Companies need a united front and have to work front and back offices to become efficient.
  • Stay away from the agent who has a hard time dealing with complaints and sides with the customer too much. Ineffective interactions will result in inconsistent policies among other customer service agents, and it is sure to create chaos.

Now if we want to identify the perfect candidate, and concentrate on the mutual respect, positive attitude and quiet confidence needed to be effective as a great agent, here are some qualities to consider:

  • Companies like agents who want to serve customers.
  • Companies  like agents who believe in the company and their services.
  • Companies like agents who treat every customer as important.
  • Companies like agents who are able to express sensitivity and empathy towards others.
  • Companies like agents who learn from experience.
  • Companies like agents who are interested in their jobs and are willing to share their experiences with other employees.
  • Companies like agents who react positively to feedback.
  • Companies like agents who build their careers bases on self-improvement.
  • Companies like agents who take pleasure in their success.

There is no doubt that everyone is going to have a bad day, but those customer service agents who excel in their careers possess the self-control to compartmentalize personal and business – thus bringing to the table a confident customer service agent ready to perform a very important task.

photo credit: alancleaver_2000

Customer focus development

Customer focus is more than just adding directions to your company’s mission statement or sending everyone to training. The training part is just one piece of the total package. Everyone has a customer they want to satisfy and therefore the focus has to address needs, expectations, and behaviors. Customer focus challenges a company to adjust certain aspects of an organization to align with customer values through new strategies, organizational design, business processes, performance measures, information and support.

Working as a group, customer service representatives can identify what they deem as important ways to satisfy customers. Here are some suggestions:

  • Meeting Customer Requirements: What new processes have been implemented to validate customer needs? With current customers, is the company producing the products they want? Good ways to address these questions are by surveys; perhaps one every six months to stay on top of an ever-changing market. Setup customer focus groups and ask for feedback. If the company has group meetings or sponsored events, that would be a good time to get input from participants.
  • Convenient Delivery of Product: A lot of people do their online ordering late at night. Is there an IT support group on call but not on site? That could be a money saver for the company, but not for the customer.
  • Principles for Resolving Problems: If a customer places an order and the company is out of the product, how do you resolve the problem? Customers want to be treated fairly, and they don’t much care about excuses. If you resolve their conflicts and you think it is fair, but your customer doesn’t, you will lose your customer.
  • Communication is the Key: This must happen actively and often.
  • Meeting Customer Commitments: If a company has to make excuses why a commitment has not been met on time, the company has missed customer focus.
  • Performance Measurements: Employees have to be held accountable for their actions. Many companies reward exemplary customer focused behaviors with bonuses; positive reinforcement trumps negative criticism.

Many times owners and managers take it for granted that their staff works towards the same objectives. Group sessions are positive methods to help staff understand the customer-focused vision which enables companies and employees to succeed in a very challenging market.

photo credit: Torley

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