How small business owners can profit from the mistakes of a billion dollar global corporation

Do you know me? I’ve been your customer for 25+ years. It’s just really hard for me to tell that you know, much less that you care.

Yes, we’re talking about American Express.  I hope we’re NOT talking about your business, but more on that in a minute.

Earlier this week, Denny Hatch was talking about his relationship with American Express, or more accurately, about his lack of a relationship  with American Express. Denny has had an Amex card for 58 years. During the last 10-15 years, he has been – as many Amex customers – treated no better than a client who has been spending $ with Amex for 58 days.

I can also relate to Denny’s frustration. I’ve been a cardholder with Amex for 25 years.

Last summer, I was on the phone with an American Express customer service person who was, quite frankly, being rather rude.  I stopped her and asked if she realized that her treatment of me and her attitude were quickly undoing what had been a pretty positive 25 year relationship.

It was a NON-EVENT for her. It didn’t matter. Result: I cancelled 2 of the 3 Amex cards I use (both business) on the spot. Didn’t bother her a bit. Bothered me a bit, not only because I was taken aback by the attitude and lack of give-a-rip after 25 years of doing business with them, but also because I used that Platinum card for access to the Delta, Continental, and Northwest airline lounges (the only reasonably peaceful places in airports these days).

After the cancellation, you could have heard a pin drop. Not on the phone call, but in the days after I canceled.

There was no follow up of any kind in any form from anyone. There was no “How come you are canceling your membership after 25 years?” letter, card or phone call.

If anyone at Amex looks at the business expenses I’ve put through their systems, they may realize what they lost, or they may not care. For at least the last 10 years, prior to this event on the phone with this customer service rep, I put almost every expense on Amex. It kept things simple, and it ran up the Membership Rewards total (a rewards program).

From 5 figures most months (travel, trade shows, internet, office supplies, etc), down to zero, in 1 two-minute phone call.

So what does this have to do with your small business? A few things. Let’s look at what they missed in creating and maintaining the relationship. We’ll look at “The Amex way” and the “small business owner way”.

The Amex way – If you look at an American Express card, it says “Member since” and a year. It has always implied a relationship, and is very smart.

I’ve seen successful business people show off their card just to show how old that date is. A little shallow, perhaps, but the point is that they still did it.  Business people, not teenagers screaming at Hannah Montana. Looking back at Amex’s recognition of that relationship, there was no recognition (even an automated card, letter or what not) of the 1 year membership. Likewise, no recognition at 5, 10, 15, 20 or 25 years.

The small business owner way – Your small business should look at the Amex Way as a bad example – with the exception of the establishment of the relationship at the outset. The “member since” thing is smart, UNLESS you don’t back it up with behavior that reflects that they are a member of something.

The length of importance of the relationship *does* mean something to your clients. You should be recognizing your clients in every way possible when an anniversary of this nature occurs.  Send them a card every year to thank them for their business. Give them a reason to come back in, an anniversary promo of some kind.

The Amex way – Next, consider the conversation on the phone that I had with the customer service person. She didn’t care that I had been a customer for 25 years. Where in their training was the importance of long-term customers missed as a central focal point? Where did the attitude come from? No, I was not being a pain on the phone. In fact, her attitude escalated when I questioned the wisdom of running off a 25 year customer, once it became obvious that was where we were going.

The small business owner way – It should be obvious by now that small business owners need to train their customer service people regularly, and consistently and regularly remind them of the most important aspects of their business, their customers and their products/services. If one bad phone call causes the loss of a 25 year customer, how much is that training worth?

The Amex way – Still, after that horrible phone call, the relationship could have been salvaged with a follow up call or note. Not necessarily the “snotty C. Hoke letter” that Denny spoke of, but something a bit more inquisitive and concerned. Had an American Express damage control supervisor (aka a follow up caller) contacted me to ask why 2 cards were canceled on the same day, it might have been possible to resurrect the relationship.

The small business owner way -  Do you follow up on every sale? Every service call? Do you contact every customer who hasn’t been in your store for 30 days? 60 days? 90 days? Do you have a way to know if they’ve been “lost”?

Without doing these kinds of follow up, you are practically giving these customers to someone else. Worst yet, failing to follow up with them tells them you probably don’t care about how their service was performed. Not only is it a method to save a client and collect quality information about the services and products you sell, but it also gives your client a way to tell you about exceptionally good, or exceptionally bad experiences. You can catch a client about to be lost to a competitor simply by following up.

The takeaway: American Express is a multi-billion dollar global corporation. Your business isn’t. Despite that, you can learn from their mistakes and use those lessons to not only keep more clients, but keep them happier and make them less likely to go elsewhere.

One thought on “How small business owners can profit from the mistakes of a billion dollar global corporation”

  1. Mark, that ‘s why it pays sometimes to have a personal relationship with your account manager as a small biz owner. I have an Amex Starwood and I’m treated like a rockstar – cos I spend tons of money every month on my pay per click campaigns. The other person on the other end of the line won’t care if they don’t know you. This is the problem with a lot of global companies. In their defense, it’s sometimes difficult because of their size – so I always take an extra step to get a name and number to turn to whenever I have a problem or issue.

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