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BirdsEye View

taking customer service to the next level

 I have long been an admirer of American Express, a financial services company that continues to innovate in a way that truly makes a difference in its customers’ lives in general, and their interactions with AMEX in particular.

I can see you rolling your eyes now, thinking you bank doesn’t have the resources that AMEX has, nor can you offer the kind of experiences it can offer.  While true, the key lessons I find in the AMEX card strategy is their audacity.  AMEX innovates the experience, dares to redefine what is possible, and, in the process, continues to occupy the uncatchably first position among all cards.  The same approach is applicable to you, my readers, and to any product or service you offer.

The first credit card that was willing to take a credit risk on me was American Express.  Like many others, I haven’t forgotten that.  As my credit score improved, so did the card eligibility and associated experiences AMEX offered me.  In time, I was offered the Centurion card (a.k.a The Black Card).

When I first received it I sent it back.  “No card could be worth this fee”, I thought.  My husband Dick was wiser.  “Give it a try for a year and see if it pencils out”, he said.  Our very first trip with the card paid for the outrageous annual fee and more.  We got upgraded to a suite that made our trip to Denmark truly extraordinary.  And, I was hooked.

The primary card appeal is not its benefits, but rather is its exclusivity, I’m told. One must be invited to apply for an Amex Centurion, and the criteria for invitations is shrouded in mystery.  You don’t get invited simply by spending vast sums of money.  WHERE you spend the money and what you spend it on matter greatly. 

Thinking through the enviable cachet the card carries yields several thoughts:

Exclusivity matters, and it can be delivered through a card, a personal banker, a private banker etc.  Universal availability will not build a mystique around the product and the experience it delivers.

The high-end Centurion card target customer has extremely high expectations and little tolerance for errors.  Delivering on that promise is integral to the brand.

This target segment is comprised of individuals whose price elasticity is extremely high, so long as they get the perceived value they expect.

Are you rolling your eyes again?  Let’s think this through.  How is this different from the family office services you offer through your wealth division?  Or the unique benefits accruing to your best commercial customers?  The goal is the same: treating your best customers to the very best experiences you can offer.  The card is merely a vehicle for that delivery, as is your own product line. A face-to-face meeting, a special holiday gift to select customers, these and other small touches can make a difference in your most valued customers’ minds.  While we don’t have AMEX resources, there are things we CAN do they CAN’T.

The Centurion Card has been around now for some time, and imitations abound, both in terms of the card itself (color, medium) and the exclusive experiences associated with it (a spot at the Masters golf tournament; a seat at Eleven Madison park, etc.).  The product itself has also changed, where the outstanding (and outsourced) concierge service has been replaced with an in-house group which is far less dedicated or customized toward 1:1 service as the previous model has been.  I started questioning the value of the $5,000 annual fee again.

AMEX has realized that product differentiation has been waning, and it redefined what the card is all about.   “More than just a card, Centurion membership unlocks a lifestyle like none other,” explained the company, "providing Centurion members with access to unique experiences across the arts and culture spectrum, superior travel experiences and the support of a dedicated team in concierge to help curate and facilitate personalised requests."  This is a different definition of what this card is about.  It is no longer just about cachet, exclusivity and experience.  It has been redesigned and refreshed to lay a greater claim of the customers’ mind and wallet share.  AMEX used the card to launch what it calls “Centurion Living”.

“The Centurion Living point of view is that a desire for experience and knowledge outweighs the desire for things – and that a sense of curiosity just might be the key to a life well-lived.  Our intention is not merely to entertain, but to pay homage to the unmitigated joy of discovery.”

AMEX will now curate and offer each new season a year’s worth of global experiences that celebrate what it means to be alive in the world today (a lofty goal indeed).  AMEX doesn’t only want to give you the experiences you love the most.  It also launched “Centurion Living “introductions”, a program especially curated for those who have always wanted to know more about certain arts and culture territories but never had the time.

All Centurion Living events are complimentary, exclusively for Centurion, and truly global.

AMEX has reset the bar here, redefining its goals and horizon for this product way beyond what it has ever been.  It moved the conversation from things and the money needed to buy them to experiences, life, and access to people and places others will be hard-pressed to achieve.  For example, it picked top-notch, well-known luminaries in fields such as world music, literary, dance, soul etc., and offers its members access to these names and the experiences they create.  Similarly, under the “introductions” program, it offers topics such as Ceremonial Japan, The Scottish Highlands, Fine Wine and Wellness (run by Gwyneth Paltrow).  Each one of these events in either category is offered in a specific location (for example, Japanese Art is offered in Tokyo) on specific dates so one can plan their attendance.

Last, Centurion partnered with Prada to create a unique leather bracelet which, in addition to being a Prada accessory, can be used as a payment vehicle.  

These numerous innovations were introduced to members via two leather-bound volumes, true to the impeccable Centurion clean and elegant design lines.

The New Centurion beginning struck me in many ways:

The vision for the “product” was redefined and widely expanded

The product is transitioning from a payment mechanism for things to an experience acquisition vehicle

The “cool” aspects of the product have been taken to the next level, combining fashion with payment functionality a-la Apple Watch

Each of the experiences offered, while free, will generate huge interchange revenue for AMEX by the participants, from purchasing airfare and hotel suites to high-end meals and shopping

The card has now created the most effective segmentation of the uber high-end customer list.  AMEX controls access to that list through its dedicated magazines and advertising to this group (including special gifts AMEX sends its active Centurion members on their birthday).  That list, and access to its advertising, it worth its weight in gold.

Customer loyalty is extremely strong due to the on-going innovation, modernization of the brand and the product and the flawless services provided

All of my readers can borrow an idea, a page, an experience or a strategy from AMEX.  Can you get YoYo Ma to play cello to a select group of your customers?  No you can’t.  But can you offer other experiences that would be uniquely yours and reflect your history, values and localness?  Yes you can.  Perhaps you could innovate an experience, redefine what’s possible and “give it a try for a year to see if it pencils out”, just like Dick and I did when we tried the Centurion card for the first year.  Let your customers taste the out-of-this-world service differentiation you can offer, the unexpected delights their bank can provide to the highest value customers.  It is addictive…  And remember:  we have all learned to be more agile during the pandemic.  This is one more area where we can put that agility to work.

This article is about brand refresh, critical reviews of current offering and thinking intensely about the next five years and your company’s role in your customers’ lives during that period.  It’s a wonderful tool to challenge your own thinking and take your brand and customer experience to the next level.