Amex handles 8 Million Calls a Year in Europe

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BRISTOL, UK --- American Express handles 8 million calls a year at its nine European call centers and another 350,000 at its facility here which specializes in travelers checks.

That's one reason the company has not tried to centralize call centers in one location with a multi-lingual staff. The sheer volume would overwhelm any centralized operation.

Call centers field a bewildering array of calls, Jim Hobby, Amex's manager of European call centers, said, ranging from corporate and consumer cardholders to merchants and service providers.

"They are a one stop shop for any card member inquiry. We offer emergency card replacement and travel service assistance and we do it worldwide.

"Our phones are the first point of entry for customers. We handle anything from lost cards or stolen passports to pleas for help -'I'm in a hotel and am ill,' for example-or any unique things travelers may encounter.

"Our operators are trained to know where to move those types of inquiries. They might not handle these problems themselves but they will put callers in touch with someone within American Express who can help them."

Local call centers usually handle one market at a time except in Scandinavia where Stockholm handle deals with calls from all the Nordic countries and has staff that speak all four languages - Swedish, Norwegian, Danish and Finnish.

Brighton is one of three global centers that deal only with travelers checks. The other centers are in Sydney and Salt Lake City. "We are the largest employer in Brighton so we run a very substantial operation."

"We support 14 languages here," Hobby added, "including Arabic, Swedish and Japanese and if we need more people we can pull them from our written correspondence center, which is also located in Brighton."

The city has two universities and several language schools from whom Amex can draw staff. "But we recruit across Europe, if we have to." Personnel must speak English, their native tongue and one other language.

The company has looked at outsourcing and is always analyzing alternatives "but we've always come back to handling customer service ourselves. You can control service quality better if you do it on your own."

Amex has been a call center pioneer in Europe with the Brighton center dating back to 1977 and the others following suit before the decade ended. That has meant keeping up with user friendly modern technology.

"That allows our associates to listen to customers rather than worry about the IT platform. PCs have helped enormously because we can use them to do some of the work our reps used to do."

Computers can access ten databases at one time and bring back information in an organized manner "rather than have an associate go into each system separately. With a complex inquiry that greatly improved our first contact resolution."

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