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

And one of the things that we did in our service despite the fact that for years we had great service, around 10 years ago, we said we’re going to revamp it. We’re going to reinvent the way we do service. We think people are too robotic. We think there were too-rule focused and we want to empower the people who are serving our customers, whether that’s online or offline. And we literally changed fundamental aspects of our service. And that leads to a very important point, which I believe in strongly is you always want to create the company that will put yourself out of business. That’s the way you constantly need to think, and if you believe that you are successful, and you get arrogant about that success, that success becomes a rut.

Andrew Baldwin: Specifically on one service point, I love your customer service representatives so much so that I probably confide in them more than my own parents sometimes. And they are consistently and always friendly. What’s the secret training or recruitment process that you use to always have that consistency, because I actually view that as a pretty big competitive advantage?

Ken Chenault: It’s a big advantage — here’s the simple answer to that. And it took us a while to get there, is attitude makes a difference. Because actually hire people who like to serve people. That is a stunning insight. I mean, give me a break. And so you in fact can interview people. You can test people, you can assess people who really do have the attributes and have the desire to serve and really enjoy it. There are some people — in fact, when I talk to even senior people and I interview them, I talk about service as a higher purpose, I get some people say, hey, that’s not a purpose for me. It’s not a higher purpose for me. That’s fine. And I don’t want to hire you. Because at the end of the day you’ve really got to believe in what the core mission is. But attitude really does make a difference and you can interview, you can assess for it. You can empower people. But sometimes companies get so bogged down in policies and rules that for us, as terrific as we were historically as a service company, we did not explicitly enough focus on the attitude of people that we were hiring.

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And now over the last 20 years, our retention rates, our customer SAT scores are off the graph and our service levels are really strong. Because we have people who really enjoy serving people. And that everyone does.

Andrew Baldwin: A couple weeks ago Jack Dorsey was on the stage here. And he was talking about kind of the shift in almost commerce and payments that everything from, how we buy, where we buy, what we used to buy is going to change, and talked about Square’s e-wallet. How does a company that’s been around for 163 years kind of fit in with this model? And are we going to stop carrying credit cards?

Ken Chenault: We could. And frankly I don’t care. Because it’s really what spurring the cards. So Jack actually talked too, before he started Square. We work with Square. They acquire a lot of merchants for us. What I think is absolutely terrific is that Jack is empowering small merchants and really helping small business. We’re the largest provider to small business. So the synergy is really strong.

What. I think is important and the way you change is, I believe commerce is changing dramatically. And the way I talk about our company now is that part of our objective is bring buyers and sellers together. And the advantage that we have, and this is an advantage that Jack recognizes, and I give him a lot of credit for, is Square is built off an existing payments infrastructure. That’s a real advantage. So he has been innovative, what he hasn’t done is to say I’ve got to change everything. That’s one of the reasons why I like the mobile app Uber, because they’re building off an existing platform and they’re innovating and changing the payments experience.

So for us, what we’ve said is we have a major major advantage in that we are the most integrated payments platform of anyone. So we acquire merchants. We process merchant transactions. We are an issuer and we authorize transactions all over the world. There is no other card company, no one in payments who has a fully integrated payments model; we’re the only one.

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Now what that does is we talk about a close loop. And that means we have information on the end-user customer and the merchant. And the ability to do modeling and algorithms with that data is going to give us frankly an even bigger advantage going forward than in the past. Because the convergence of online, offline unleashes the assets and capabilities that we have in the platform. So part of what we started to do almost a decade ago was to say, we really are going to embrace the digital transformation. And what we’ve done is with existing people in the company, people have really been able to change. Those who weren’t, are no longer with the company. Because the reality is that they had to keep up with the change.

What I’ve also done is bring in people from outside the company and have a mix and match. So we promote probably 60% to 65% of our people from within. But we also bring in people from the outside. I’ll give you one way that I dramatize this to our board, is I had a voice-over of someone talking about what the brand meant to them. And they talked about Amex and trust, security, service, reinvention. And then as you pan down you saw the nose earrings, the earrings and the tattoos. And I said welcome to the new American Express. Because the point is this reinvention is critical. So I think that the assets are there, the partnerships. I’ll just mention one that I’m excited about with Twitter where we’re using our closed loop platform where you can do tweet to buy. We’re the only ones that can do that with Twitter. So when it was announced all these folks were calling up Twitter and saying we would like do the same thing. And Twitter responded the problem is, Amex is the only one that has the platform.

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