When American Express is no longer American

While visiting a grocery store to do some shopping, I ran my American Express card through the automated machine at the checkout counter and entered my zip code when prompted. A few seconds later, the clerk handed me a slip indicating that my card had been rejected due to an invalid zip code. All I could think was, “Oh no. Not this again.” I have called American Express several times to update my zip code and address since a move in December, but, for some reason, it is still not correct.

I decided to call again and, after hearing the recorded voice welcoming me to the card services line, heard the dreaded background tones, ultimately transferring me to an outsourced call center in India.

I have no doubt that outsourcing call center business is saving companies such as American Express and Dell money, but I wonder if these call centers provide the best customer service possible. I guess my customer service concerns don’t factor heavily into the equation when these corporations can more competitively cut costs by outsourcing, avoiding U.S. labor laws and paying their employees pennies on the dollar.

In any case, I was transferred to a call center, where I was told numerous times, “Mr. Hill, I am sorry that this happened to you but I would be happy to assist you in updating your address and zip code in our system.” When I asked why it hadn’t been updated during my previous calls — you guessed it — I was told, “Mr. Hill, I am sorry that this happened to you but I would be happy…” Rather than providing a solution to my problem, the representative merely continued to repeat the same monotonous statement.

Thomas L. Friedman, a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner and foreign affairs columnist for The New York Times, recently took a trip to India to investigate the effects of globalization on America and India. Arguably, he says, the strength of America is in its innovation, which can certainly have positive impacts for both nations. Friedman is a smart individual and may very well be correct, but his theory certainly doesn’t matter to me when a task as simple as updating my address can’t be done by a customer service center of outsourced jobs.

After failing to get my point across about the number of unsuccessful attempts by previous American Express employees to update my information and being promised by a supervisor that this wouldn’t occur again (something I have heard before), I asked to be transferred to a call center in the United States. My request clearly confused them because I was put on hold several times as they tried to figure out how I could be connected to someone in America. I was then told that when I call the toll-free line it is automatically transferred to call centers all over the world. Therefore, if I wished to continue calling, I may eventually get someone in the United States–kind of like telephone roulette. I did try calling back and after speaking to someone in a Canadian call center, I was given a long distance number to a Ft. Lauderdale office where Monday through Friday I can speak to the switchboard operator and hopefully be transferred to an American Express representative in America.

In the end, I don’t fault the call center workers themselves, because they are only doing their jobs. However, there is definitely something missing from outsourcing: namely a sympathetic employee who can sense the frustration I’m experiencing, identify with it and actually fix the problem. After all, can an employee in India truly identify with me holding up the line at a grocery store because my credit card won’t work?

In fairness to American Express, after several complaints regarding their call center system, the company credited my account with $50. American Express is just one of many companies currently exploring outsourcing as a means to maximize profits by limiting overhead. I, however, just think they may be going about it the wrong way.

Aaron Hill is a sophomore majoring in chemistry.