Small business, big community

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Marcy Shinder, VP of brand marketing and strategy for American Express Open
Marcy Shinder, VP of brand marketing and strategy for American Express Open

As brand-new small business owners, Con­nie and Thomas Betts had quite a lot to deal with when they started the Cascade Alpacas Ranch and Foothills Yarn & Fiber store in Hood River, OR. Not only did they have to fix up the ranch and install the yarn store, but they had to purchase four alpacas at around $10,000. After only a few years in business, however, the Betts are reporting yearly revenues of $100,000, and say they get about 15-20 visitors to the ranch each weekend.

The Betts gained a great deal of support as members of Openforum.com, a Web site created by American Express Open, which offers cards and financing for small businesses. The site is just one of the many services that AmEx Open offers to small business owners, which also includes in-person networking opportunities, seminars, mentor programs and financial tools.

“We've tried to serve small businesses differ­ently and better, in a way that is really relevant,” explains Marcy Shinder, VP of brand marketing and strategy for Open. “We have an array of initiatives that we pursue because the way that our customers experience them is that AmEx gets them as a business owner.”

Relevance is key to customer loyalty

American Express Open's customer loyalty strategy is rooted in the concept of giving small business owners things they actually need to grow their businesses. Airline miles and cash rewards are great for consumer credit cards, but small business owners have special needs which Shinder breaks down into three categories: financial needs, access to information and social interaction or networking.

It's no surprise, then, that many of Open's initiatives are designed to give small business owners the chance to meet each other, learn about business and better control their finances.

“We're about being the card that connects customers to the best in the business — the best products and the best services,” Shinder says. “We have an amazing membership, so we're also about helping them connect to each other.”

Members of Openforum can find videos, arti­cles, expert blogs, success stories and advice from other business owners, as well as networking and publicity opportunities. The site also allows users to register for live events and webcasts, and links to the Open homepage.

Other offerings, such as Open's co-sponsored Inside the Entrepreneurial Mind forum, follow that drive to provide useful content. And Open Book, a printed collection of high-level articles, also seeks to deliver meaningful information.

The company's Plum Card, first introduced in 2007, offers trade terms (usually reserved for busi­nesses) to smaller companies and entrepreneurs. Users get early-pay discounts and deferred-payment options, all of which are designed to work with the dynamic cash flow typical of small businesses.

Top small business owners received the first 10,000 Plum Cards and were encouraged to give feedback. Suggestions and comments from the “charter members” were incorporated into the official Plum launch, which included online advertising and welcome kits for new sign-ons. Dialogues with charter members continue today, as Open searches for ways to improve and update the card and the customer experience.

A hands-on touch helps set Open apart

Customer engagement doesn't stop with col­lecting feedback. AmEx employees also attend the multiple networking events sponsored by Open and its partners in order to chat with small business owners about their needs, problems and insights. Shinder says she spends about a quarter of her time with the small business owners that make up Open's customer base.

“For me, nothing replaces being in-market with the customer at their place of business and actually seeing how they are interacting with the brand and the product,” she explains.

To bring this client interaction to the next level, Open is launching an externship program called Out of the Box, in which four to six employees will go to a customer's business to tackle a specific problem, such as branding. An Out of the Box pilot will launch in the next couple of months.

“It's going to be great for the small business owner who wears so many hats, and it's going to be so powerful for our brand,” Shinder predicts. “This will help exponentially to get insight on small businesses for our marketing team. It's the kind of thing you have to do if you want to be a cutting-edge marketing organization.”

In fact, CRM and data operations are entwined with marketing at Open. The two functions of retention and acquisition are integrated to create a singular customer experience, from first contact to follow-up service calls.

“We take a very integrated approach,” Shinder says. “We think of marketing and service as the same thing because we know the customer thinks of it as the same. Whether they are get­ting mail or talking to service reps on the phone, they don't distinguish, and we don't either. We look to make that as seamless as possible for the customer.”

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