Ken Chenault, CEO of American Express at View From The Top Talk (Transcript)

And I then put together a mantra for the company. Because we wanted to have all 60,000 plus employees focused on what we needed to do and it was really simple: Stay liquid. Stay profitable and in the hope for it was selectively invest in growth. So even in the most challenging times, I wanted to reinforce that we were not going to take our eye off the ball of really being focused on growth. But staying liquid was critical.

And fortunately within around 30 days we’d raised around 8 billion in deposits. We now have over 40 billion in deposits. That gave me a lot of hope and gave the organization and the company a lot of hope. Because I said why would people be putting money in with us if they thought we were going out of business, number one. Number two, we were able to stay profitable. And that was critical. Third, was what I also looked at as far as customer health was how many customers traded down from our more expensive products to less priced products. And the reality is almost zero. And we had hardly anyone who left the franchise. That gave me a lot of confidence.

Then the third thing that we were able to do, back to the mantra, is we were very clear to people in the company where we were investing. And that allowed us to come out of the crisis frankly really roaring. So the momentum of the company was very very strong. And my experience frankly over thirty years is what you see with companies is it really is what happens during a crisis is how the companies act, how balanced they are. The majority of companies, in fact, hunker in the bunker — don’t really have a broader perspective, don’t focus on growth. And then generally two to three years after a crisis you start to see this demarcation that’s caused and that’s exactly what happened for us. Fortunately we were on the positive side of that.

Andrew Baldwin: And speaking on a lighter note, over those 30 years and even maybe more specifically over the last 12 as CEO, is there one day that you look to and you’re like, man, that is the day why — that’s the reason why I do this. This is a great day, this is kind of what gets me excited and just passionate about the business. Is there one day you’ll look back to?

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Ken Chenault: I would say literally there are fortunately hundreds of days. Because my view in business is, if you’re not having fun, it’s not worth it. But I’ll give you one example that again was a tragedy but gave me a lot of pride is, I think everyone certainly remembers the tsunami. And you’ve got the problem — and the reality was that our employees around the world with literally no instructions from top management did incredible things to serve people. And that just gave me incredible pride because when people feel empowered to make a difference and literally make up policies on their own. But it was because they really believed in the service mission and the service ethic of the company. That’s where I felt great but fortunately I have literally hundreds of examples like that that make me feel great about being in the company.

Andrew Baldwin: You are making my transitions really easy to the next question. So the next question is actually about customer service. When I think about American Express, I think it’s the gold standard of service. And in fact, you’ve taken a really boring piece of plastic and turned it into a club that has a cult following. This room is full of aspiring entrepreneurs or managers who want to build equally great brands, equally great service cultures. How did American Express do it and what would you — what knowledge or advice would you provide to them?

Ken Chenault: Yes, here is what I think is very very important in building a brand is, if you think about what are the attributes of the most powerful brands — brands are really about bringing a rational and emotional connection. Because the best brands have a personal engagement and the best brands and the brands that are really long term are those brands that in fact have, what I call, a higher purpose. That it’s more than just selling a product, that you’re changing people’s lives, you’re impacting people’s lives, you’re allowing people to have fun. And when you have a brand that combines that rational value proposition with an emotional connection, it’s really powerful.

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What people forget, because the card has been so successful, is the company started off as a freight-forwarding company. And what’s critical is the reinvention of the company over 163 years. One was that commitment to service was really critical. The point I make about our traveler’s check business is that it had no income requirement. Anyone could get it. It was used all over the world. That helped build the brand allowing us to offer a card. Right now part of what I do particularly with the partnerships that we have with a number of digital companies, I say the form factor is irrelevant. The reality is think about the card as a platform to deliver service. So what’s important is that you’ve got to understand, to create a brand you need a core mission. And for us we want to be the most respected service brand. Trust of the brand is very critical. Service is very critical. Security is very critical.

And then what you’ve got to do is constantly innovate. Because if you want to be a leading brand, you’ve got to innovate in the marketplace all the time. And what I would also emphasize with respect to service is what I found is, and I say this publicly, and certainly I’m very competitive, I want to win. So I don’t foolishly give out secrets. But the reality is that most companies don’t want to make a commitment to service. One is, because it’s a long term investment. Two is, they don’t have the right metrics in place to know they’re getting the returns. We, in fact, know what service interactions will generate levels of spending. We know what will drive retention and loyalty of our customers.

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