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American Express’ Stephanie Schultz: We differentiate customer service by using a blend of automation and human assistance

  • American Express' Digital Labs wants to make the company a bigger part of its customers' lives.
  • VP Stephanie Schultz describes her team's work with new payments technology and messaging platforms.

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American Express’ Stephanie Schultz: We differentiate customer service by using a blend of automation and human assistance

Stephanie Schultz is the vp and head of emerging strategic partnerships at American Express. In that position, she designs plans and executes partnerships focused around emerging payments and new commerce experiences. Stephanie joins us on the podcast to discuss the role the Digital Labs team plays at American Express. We drill down to explore the digital payment and emerging technology trends she’s seeing that are influencing consumer behaviors.

Lastly, we chat about what American Express is doing with bots and how the company sees the future of human/machine interaction.

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The following excerpts were edited for clarity.

The American Express Digital Labs team

We're living in an increasingly digital and connected world. This has not only changed consumer behavior but it's also had a direct impact on how consumers choose to make payments and engage with brands. The Amex Digital Labs team was established about two years ago with the mission to make American Express a more essential part of our customers' digital lives.

We're really an innovation hub within the company designed to incubate ideas, test new capabilities, and really focus on developing the next generation of digital payments, servicing, and membership experiences for our customers.

As the payments landscape evolves quickly, we think this innovative and external mindset is critical to remain competitive in our industry.

New payment trends

There are three key trends we're really watching right now. Mobile payments continue to gain momentum around the world. In many instances, mobile has become the preferred means for consumers to make transactions because it's faster and more frictionless. Standardization and modernization of payments infrastructure is also helping catalyze growth in the space.

We've partnered globally with top mobile wallets like Apple Pay, Google Pay and Samsung Pay. We're also experimenting with our own mobile payments solutions -- we recently launched QR payments in the Amex mobile app for card members in Singapore.

Amex's Stephanie Schultz
Amex's Stephanie Schultz

The second trend I'd highlight is we're seeing continued innovation across new payment form factors, from smart watches to IoT devices. We're exploring how this can help enhance the customer experience to improve speed, ease, and seamlessness of payments. At last year's US Open tennis tournament, we introduced the Amex Band, a contactless payment wristband that allowed cardmembers to pay for purchases and unlock offers onsite all with the tap of the wrist.

The last trend is the digitization of customer service. Customers expect better and faster answers and want to engage with us across a wider breadth of channels based on convenience. We've also seen how improvements in AI and machine learning are helping brands deliver more efficient and personalized services across more of these platforms and devices.

We're trying to take advantage of this shift and insert our services into these platforms. For example, we developed a skill for Amazon Alexa that allows us to give our card members access to information using voice commands. This morning, I asked Alexa to check my latest account balances while eating my breakfast.

Amex's interest in platforms

Our primary focus is to meet our cardmembers on the devices and platforms where they're already spending time. One area is peer to peer payments. Last year, we announced a new strategic partnership with PayPal. PayPal and Venmo are leading P2P payment apps in the US and are particularly relevant for Millennial and Gen Z users. We're working with PayPal and Venmo on a deep mobile integration that will live in the Amex mobile app with new delightful automated features that enhance the payment experience. We'll reveal more about this soon.

Another interesting area is seeing how mobile messaging and chat apps have emerged as an important communication channel. Usage on mobile devices is concentrated in a handful of messaging apps. We've been testing different messaging experiences to make it easier for our customers to contact us through their channels of choice. We're doing it through our own mobile app and across Messages on iOS and Facebook Messenger.

Blending the role of humans and bots

One of the ways we're differentiating our customer service at Amex is by using a blend of automation and human assistance to deliver the best possible experience. We think the human touch is essential, especially in solving complex issues.

One analogy I like to use is around drinking a very fine glass of wine. Do you really care if the grapes were harvested by a human or machine? Probably not -- all that matters is how it tastes. I think about customer service the same way. It's not about humans versus bots -- it's humans and bots. It's about how you combine the efficiency of automation with human touch so that you're delivering personalized, fast, and high touch service.

Acquiring new tech platforms

Our journey with Mezi is a great example of our partnership strategy. When we first began working with the Mezi team, we had a strategic investment and worked together on a small pilot around its new digital travel assistant capabilities. Within Digital Labs, we aim to test, learn quickly and run pilots to better evaluate customer response and determine a path for longer term partnerships.

Following the success of the pilot we ran with Mezi, we decided to further enhance our relationship through an acquisition. And since then, we've rolled out mobile concierge features from the pilot into the Amex mobile app for our US Platinum Card members. These card members can access basic account servicing needs, and also find and book flights, hotels and dining through an asynchronous messaging experience.

Creating a successful partnership

I believe when selecting strategic partners, it's really critical to find a partner with complementary values and goals that are aligned. For us, it's about working with partners as equally obsessed with the customer experience as we are -- from the digital giants like Amazon and Apple to smaller startups like Mezi. That mission of creating the best digital customer experience is always our north star. Then we use the strengths and assets of both parties to deliver on that shared goal.

It's important to recognize with partnerships that it's a marathon and not a sprint. Our longstanding partnerships exist because of this approach. Partnerships are complex and you need to be able to navigate through them and improve along the way.

The future of digital payments

I'm excited by a lot. If I had to pick one thing, it would be how the space is evolving so rapidly across all verticals. In five to ten years, the way we pay could be completely different. I'm really excited to see the adoption of these emerging technologies and how this can unlock better customer experiences.

Take retail. Imagine a world where there's a complete removal of the traditional checkout experience. Right beside our Manhattan headquarters, Amazon just opened a Go store. It's a cashierless store that eliminates checkout line wait time. You scan a QR code to enter, take what you want from the shelves, and walk out. It's that simple.

With all this innovation, it's important to note that there will remain many ways to pay. The industry will remain fragmented for some time. There will be some customers that adapt quickly to changes, while others may still prefer to use traditional means to pay. While I'm really excited about the potential some of these new experiences will unlock, we'll need to ensure we're still meeting a variety of customer needs and preferences across a pretty wide spectrum.

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