Not so long ago, the words "customer service" called to mind a scripted, maybe even surly, exchange with a distant, detached call center agent. In business, this less-than-likable function was often relegated to a back-office role and usually seen as an expense, rather than an investment.
"In today's environment, getting service right is increasingly becoming more than just a nice thing to do," says Jim Bush, executive vice president of world service at American Express and a newly appointed executive officer. "Failing to do it right can curb incremental business from existing customers and increase the risk that they jump ship to a competitor."
Bush assumed responsibility for the company's global customer service operations in 2005, following a four-year post in Singapore as regional president of Japan, Asia Pacific and Australia, one of more than a dozen positions he has held in his 26 years with the global services company. "I've had the privilege of leading a lot of teams," he says modestly.
In fact, Bush is credited with a range of ground-breaking innovations that have contributed significantly to the company's success. As executive vice president and general manager of the Strategic Alliances Group, he played a key role in the growth of the consumer card business, forging and strengthening strategic relationships with Delta Airlines, Starwood and Hilton hotels, and Costco Warehouse stores. He has also been instrumental in enhancing the value of the American Express Membership Rewards program and launched the popular Blue from American Express card and The Centurion Card, better known as the iconic "Black Card."
His current position, though, is one he feels he was born to fill. Inspired by the years he spent immersed in Asia's service-centric culture, Bush spearheaded a reexamination of American Express's approach to customer service.
"When I assumed this role," he says, "I looked at it differently. I felt that every customer interaction was an opportunity to change the customer's perception and build a relationship. We're not a credit card company. We create unique experiences for our customers around the payment products we offer."
As such, Bush studied the service cultures of top hotels, airlines and cruise lines to ensure that "we were doing the best job we could to become the world's most respected service brand."
Through careful observation and his own sixth sense about "the power of personal connection," Bush revolutionized American Express's approach to customer service by globalizing the operation and creating a relationship-driven (and now trademarked) ethos called Relationship Care.
"We strive to deepen relationships with customers," he says, "by empowering our customer care professionals in customer care centers to deliver outstanding service, and we do that by actively listening to and creating an emotional, thoroughly unscripted connection with customers."
Notice that American Express doesn't operate "call centers" or employ "agents," because those linguistic relics don't adequately describe what American Express does. In fact, the company has more than 20,000 customer care professionals positioned in 22 locations across the globe, servicing more than 62 million customers and engaged in handling more than 1.3 billion service transactions a year.
"What we've created," Bush says, "is an environment in which employees are compensated for the value they provide customers, and their performance is measured according to what customers say about us every day."
As a result, customer care professionals can earn an additional 20 to 30 percent of their base pay when customers are satisfied. His strategy paid off almost immediately.
"When you improve customer satisfaction, you improve customer engagement," Bush says. "And that, in turn, creates shareholder value. We've succeeded in moving customer service away from being [considered] a cost and made it more of an investment. Good service is a growth opportunity. It's not even necessarily about spending more on service. It's about giving it the focus it deserves and spending smarter."
Under Bush's leadership, American Express has earned five consecutive J.D. Power & Associates awards (2007-2011) for highest customer satisfaction among U.S. card companies. The company also made BusinessWeek's 2009 and 2010 lists of "Customer Service Champs."
Explaining the American Express approach to hiring, Bush uses a basketball analogy – "You can't teach 7 feet" – to stress that "our best performers 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."
Bush is involved in a Center for Work Life Policy task force, the Hidden Brain Drain, which is focused on supporting the work and life needs of highly qualified talent across the divides of gender, generation and culture. He is also an enthusiastic supporter of the Student-Partner Alliance, which funds private high school education for students in the greater Newark area; The Valley Hospital in Ridgewood; and Table to Table, the Bergen County-based food rescue nonprofit.
"I am involved both personally and professionally with Table to Table," he says. "I love what they've done and believe in the objectives and mission. I feel very fortunate to give back to the community." He also supports a handful of other private foundations focused on health care, children and the needy.
A resident of Saddle River, Bush cherishes his Bergen upbringing.
"Ironically, I am living about three miles from where I grew up," says Bush, who regales his wife and three young sons with tales of attending kindergarten in a firehouse, being the goalie on the first-ever Mahwah High School hockey team, and seeing fellow Jersey son Bruce Springsteen in concert 27 times.