American Express’ World Service–Fort Lauderdale Center in Plantation, Fla., is the workday home for nearly 3,000 people, and Doria Camaraza, a corporate senior vice president and general manager of that 400,000-square-foot facility, has a personal interest in each one of them. “As I listen to the folks we have here and listen to what they do every day, it energizes me,” she says. She needs that energy to get through her own busy workday, which typically begins around 8 a.m. and ends at 6 p.m. at the earliest. “There are many nights when I’m here much later,” she says.
The center operates 24/7 and shuts down for only about 18 hours a year for systems maintenance. In addition, Camaraza spends a few hours a month on the night tour to meet those workers and has been known to come into the office on weekends to meet employees working that shift.
A Typical Day
On a garden-variety Tuesday in late June, Camaraza arrived at about 8 a.m. After she had cleared the security screenings to get into the building, she sat at her desk and responded to emails and phone messages. Her first meeting, at 10 a.m., involved welcoming a group of about 10 high school students who would be interning for the summer at the American Express service center. Camaraza congratulated the students for their academic achievements and offered career advice. She even tossed out the possibility that some of them might return to the company after college to launch an American Express career.
Next, she led this writer on a walk-through of the six-floor American Express building, stopping along the way for impromptu hallway meetings with her department heads and managers. She even made time to chat with a few hourly employees, each of whom she could address by name. After that, Camaraza returned to her office for an 11 a.m. sit-down with her vice president of human resources, Charles Johnson, to review some employee programs. Johnson assured her that employee morale was still very high at the facility. “This place is a healthy environment where our people spend most of their waking hours,” he says. “It’s not utopia, but if you gotta work, it doesn’t get much better than here.”
Among the programs discussed were the on-site fitness center, daycare center, dry cleaners, health and wellness center, credit union, cafeteria, and ATM. Johnson provided an update on Nova Southeastern University’s plans to begin offering some courses on site this fall. It seems there’s always something extra going on somewhere in the building.
Camaraza has been instrumental in establishing many of these offerings. The need for such programs surfaced during the initial talks with employees at the outset of the Relationship Care program. “Bringing the childcare center here has made the most difference internally, even with employees who do not have kids,” Camaraza says.
“We’re trying to bring many conveniences right here so people do not need to run around so much during their lunch hours,” she explains. “We want to bring activities to them, so they do not have to go outside to get them.”
Camaraza’s lunch hour was spent in an informal meeting with a handful of American Express employees in Dish with Doria roundtable sessions, as they are known. “I bring in lunch and I listen to them. It’s a forum for them to share with me what I and the management teams can do to help them,” she explains.
At this day’s lunch, Camaraza learned firsthand the impact of the employee empowerment that she and Jim Bush, executive vice president of World Services at American Express, have instituted throughout the American Express customer service teams. One key to successful customer service for American Express is building relationships with customers in personal ways. Sam Andujar, a customer care professional, relayed his pleasure at being able to inject his own personality into each customer interaction. “I can still be me because they don’t strip me of my personality when I go on a call,” he says.
This plays out in myriad ways. For instance, CSRs are trained to pick up on cues from the caller; perhaps a baby is crying or the background noise suggests the caller is in a busy place, like an airport. Recognizing that and tailoring the conversation to the circumstances can help build a customer relationship.
Also helpful is that CSRs at the company aren’t constrained by a per-call time limit. Nor must they memorize a script.
“We let them be extraordinary,” Bush says. “We give them the freedom to let their personalities come through.”
This is part of the broader service ethos at American Express that involves training CSRs to build relationships by listening, assessing needs, and helping customers get the most out of their membership. American Express increases customer loyalty and spending by highlighting unused card benefits during customer service calls.
In addition, American Express operates under a different metric than many other companies do. The focus is on what the customer thinks of the company after an interaction, and American Express gauges that sentiment by looking at whether customers would recommend American Express to a friend.
When Camaraza introduced the “Recommend to a Friend” concept at the facility, there were naysayers who argued that it would increase call handling time and, therefore, costs. But, according to Camaraza, average call handling time has been decreasing steadily ever since.
Urban League Meeting
After lunch, Camaraza met with representatives of the Urban League of Broward County, one of several charities in which American Express is involved. In fact, Camaraza in January was elected chairperson of the Urban League’s board of directors. She also serves on the executive committee of the local chapter of the American Heart Association, and, as the leader of American Express’ efforts to promote philanthropy and volunteerism in south Florida, she funnels to local charities about $1 million a year in grants.
During this particular meeting, some members of the Urban League gave details about a garden and farmers market to which American Express contributed, as well as a community center under construction thanks to support from American Express.
That meeting concluded Camaraza’s appointments for the day, and she returned to her office to answer emails and phone calls. While her typical day involves non-stop face time, Camaraza wishes she could spend more time on the contact center floor. “The impact on the customer care professional's daily life is incredible,” she says.
That’s one reason Camaraza maintains an open-door policy. “If we take good care of our people, they will take good care of our customers,” she states.
Camaraza defines her role in the contact center as “ensuring, through all of American Express’ touch points, that we deliver extraordinary care to the customer every day.”
However, despite that mission, Camaraza—who has been in her current role for six years—spends most of her day meeting with employees to discuss issues affecting their personal and professional lives, getting status reports from her teams and relaying that information to the upper echelons of the company, greeting and training new hires, coordinating American Express’ volunteer and community initiatives, and sitting down with politicians, government regulators, and corporate executives.
“I organize my meetings between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. and try to cram as much as I can into them. I do not get a lot of downtime,” notes Camaraza, who also oversees a smaller facility located in Weston, Fla., that houses American Express’ Global Billing and Payment Services.
“Authenticity and Humility”
The reason Camaraza makes herself so available to employees at every level is simple: “Authenticity and humility are traits I really value. In an environment like this, people need to see you to work their tails off for you,” she says.
That bold philosophy has paid huge dividends for American Express. “People are very loyal and committed to the American Express brand here, and the tenure of our employees translates into loyalty, and that translates into tremendous customer service,” Camaraza states.
The average employee at the south Florida facility has spent 14 years at the company, and some have been there much longer, even 35 or 40 years of service. Camaraza herself is a 24-year veteran, initially as publisher of an American Express–owned travel magazine. After taking a maternity leave, Camaraza returned to run Establishment Services in Latin America and the Caribbean, where she was responsible for signing new merchants to accept the American Express card, managing merchant relationships, and growing American Express’ business in the region. Prior to her current role, she was vice president of the U.S. Establishment Services business.
In between meetings, Camaraza has been known to get on the phone with customers. “I randomly listen to calls in our call-recording system, and I travel around with a headset so I can plug into calls,” she says. “A week doesn’t go by where I’m not plugging into some calls.”
Camaraza also reviews how CSRs handle calls, giving direct feedback whenever possible. Her managers dedicate about 75 percent of their time to coaching agents as well. “We believe feedback is a gift here,” she says.
Though the phone is still the biggest contact channel, Camaraza gets email daily from customers having problems with their cards, and she tries to respond to all of them.
In another move to improve the facility, Camaraza is helping to implement a click-to-chat offering on the American Express Web site. She says it is “slowly starting to get some volume.” When she started at the facility, about 5 percent of the dispute resolution requests came through the Web. Now the Web accounts for about 20 percent of that traffic.
Social Media Efforts
Camaraza is also steering another important strategy: social media. Though it’s “experimental,” five full-time employees are currently involved in Twitter and FlyerTalk, an interactive community that provides up-to-date information on travel-related loyalty rewards programs.
In July, American Express also launched a first-of-its-kind application on Facebook. Called “Link, Like, Love,” the application delivers to members deals, access, and experiences based on the likes, interests, and social connections of card members and their Facebook friends. Card members can link their cards to the program and select deals. In the coming months, American Express also will deliver Membership Rewards points offers, entertainment access, exclusive content, and special events through the application, all based on a card member’s Facebook social graph.
As of late July, American Express’ customer service forum on Twitter (@askamex) had 10,500 followers and nearly 21,000 tweets. “Social media for us is limited, though,” Camaraza says, “because there’s a lot you can’t do in a public forum because of privacy issues.”
As for a mobile presence, Camaraza believes the company must play catch-up. “Everything we’re doing now needs to be available on a mobile platform,” she says. “People are using their mobile devices for more and more.”
But Camaraza is aware of the all-work and no-play adage. “We all spend so much time here that we want it to be fun,” she says, noting that she avails herself of the Pilates classes and other programs at the on-site fitness center.
With the time she has left in the week, Camaraza trains new hires, squeezes in employee recognition at least once a month, and performs monthly business unit reviews. She examines service-level targets and scores, as well as receives updates on programs, projects, and initiatives at American Express.
When she finally gets home, Camaraza finds herself thumbing through company reports.
For related stories, see "Marketing Muscle Extends to Satellite Hospital in Sullivan," "Redefining IVR's Role Pays Off," and "Feedback from CSRs Spawns Relationship Care."
News Editor Leonard Klie can be reached at email@example.com.