In the not-so-distant past, it was standard practice in customer service to hire only those candidates who knew how to follow scripts, were familiar with the necessary technology, and had several years’ experience in another call center.
But a few years ago, American Express reexamined its call-center strategy. We recognized that the people in our call centers are the front line of our business and interact with customers every day. We also recognized that customers know instantly when a service professional really cares, is listening, and takes accountability for addressing their needs. We began to ask ourselves whether we were taking the right approach to hiring.
We looked at what distinguished our best performers. We determined that they truly “get” our brand, love to build relationships, are able to empathize and connect with customers over the phone, and have a passion for delivering exceptional service. We decided to focus on these abilities, which hadn’t always been taken into account during the hiring process. We decided not to worry so much about candidates’ previous call-center experience. We took our cue from that old basketball philosophy that “You can’t teach 7 feet.”
We widened our recruiting focus and began targeting employees of service companies that hadn’t traditionally been paths to call centers, to say the least. We recruited from top-tier hotels, cruise lines, and customer-centered stores.
One challenge we faced is that the intangibles we are looking for don’t always show up on résumés. To attract the right candidates, we changed the job descriptions to make clear that relationship skills are more important than the positions’ purely transactional elements.
Another issue was keeping our new hires happy. We set about creating an environment where employees are paid for the value they provide to customers. That meant measuring performance not according to what managers think, but according to what customers say about us every day. The vast majority of employee performance evaluations are now tied directly to customer feedback, which also drives compensation. Employees can earn an incremental 25%-35% of their base pay if customers are satisfied.
Since we began our new approach to hiring, we’ve seen substantial improvements in customer satisfaction and the percentage of customers who say they would recommend American Express to a friend — key metrics we measure ourselves against. Our service margins are up approximately 10% since we started our reinvention, and between 2006 and 2009, U.S. employee attrition was cut in half.
The new hires have also had a powerful effect on our organization and our customers. There is an even greater sense of shared purpose and passion when it comes to service, and the new hires are driving greater customer engagement and loyalty. When a company is looking to stand out, it needs to go beyond the boundaries and limitations of the traditional job description to get the right people in the door.
For more articles like this, check out the Harvard Business Review report: Creating a customer-centered organization
*Article reprinted with permission from Harvard Business Review Report: Creating a Customer-Centered Organization