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Yahoo, Amex talk up different customer service approaches

American Express and Yahoo tackle customer service with their own twists and both claim they are spending less than they once did.

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- At a time when relationship building is priority one for customer service organizations, Yahoo Inc. dares to admit what some companies believe but few will say: Not every call is important to the overall customer service strategy.

“There are customers with low value,” Manish Sinha, vice president of global customer advocacy at Yahoo said during a keynote address at the RightNow user conference held here this week. Before the show, news broke that RightNow will be acquired by Oracle Corp. for $1.5 billion.

Meanwhile, an American Express executive who spoke separately during the address advocated that every caller is entitled to individual treatment. The company has gone as far as to trademark the term relationship care.

“Each customer is an opportunity,” said Tammy Weinbaum, senior vice president and general manager for American Express Service Centers in Phoenix and Salt Lake City.

Sinha, who joined Yahoo from Microsoft two years ago, said he has organized Yahoo’s customer service priorities into three simple categories: Critical, normal and “no support.” Regarding the latter, he said, “some of you may freak out,” but it is crucial for agents to determine what customers warrant no customer service investment and to move those callers along as fast as possible.

As an example, he said a person may call to report inappropriate content in a Yahoo community, and while the company values that information, this person is likely not a customer service opportunity.

 “Why do they need agent support?” asked Sinha. “Move them to the right person” within the Yahoo organization that handles community content. 

American Express’s customer service strategy
In contrast, American Express’ Weinbaum said the company has been adopting changes to help zero in on every customer. Customer feedback has made it clear customers didn’t want to be treated “like the masses.”

“Even a simple address change is a value transaction,” Weinbaum said.

To support this philosophy, the company dropped the title of agent and calls contact center workers “customer care professionals.”

Weinbaum said the company has changed its hiring process and will recruit from outside its industry, bringing on new contact center employees  from the hospitality and health care industries.

The company has shifted its training focus as well, and while employees continue to be trained on new agent desktop tools, about 70% of their overall training is focused on “customer treatment and engagement,” Weinbaum said.

Also, American Express scuttled an investment in a quality monitoring program that it found was “de-motivating employees,” Weinbaum said. Instead the company is encouraging employees “to let their personalities come through” when speaking with customers.

Yahoo’s Sinha agreed it is important to unleash agents from scripts. He said agents are better able to assess a caller if they are empowered to think on their own. The way to make this approach work, according to Sinha, is to give agents the tools and decision-making authority to quickly categorize a customer.

“You need a process to differentiate,” Sinha said. “You have to decide who are your higher-value customers and provide an experience much higher for these customers.”

Sinha said that because agents at Yahoo are encouraged to move along low-value calls, they can spend more time on callers who are better business opportunities.

“We tell our agents you are a brand ambassador,” Sinha said, “You are Yahoo.”

Both companies said their customer service approaches are paying off. Sinha said Yahoo said the overall customer care budget has declined for the past two years, in part because agents are spending more time with higher value customers and writing content for the knowledge bases and less time on low-value calls.

American Express, according to Weinbaum, spent less in 2011 on its customer service investment than in 2006. “We eliminated a lot of waste along the way,” Weinbaum added.

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