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Happy employees mean happy customers at AmEx

Koh Yat-chung, chief executive officer for Greater China and Southeast Asia at American Express International (AmEx), puts winning a Best Employer award three times in a row down to group effort.

"This is a tribute on a tripartite basis - to our brand, to our employees and also to our customers who have been supporting us and making our job a lot more meaningful," he says.

Koh believes that two things set AmEx apart from other financial services companies.

"The two things that actually differentiate us from everyone else - because this is a space which is highly competitive and highly innovative - are our brand and our employees. This is a space where you develop a new product [and] someone can replicate it very quickly. They can even copy the look of your product. But there are two things they cannot replicate. Number one is our brand. And our brand is actually supported by our employees."

Koh believes that the company's success is based on a core strategy built around a pure focus on serving the customer. That entails safeguarding the reputation of the brand, ensuring employees uphold the brand promise, and being constantly innovative.

"This is a business where day to day we have many interactions and many touch-points with customers, and we need to make sure that every one of them is excellent," he says.

The brand comes first, he explains. "We want to be the most respected service brand in the world. That's what we aspire to be. When people look at American Express, it must represent something. It represents fantastic customer service; it represent safety and security."

Maintaining the integrity of the brand means making sure that employees' dealings with customers are consistently excellent.

"Every touch-point is not just an interaction of sorts," Koh says. "We must always wow the customers with how good we are, how caring we are. It's not just a transaction - it's a relationship that we want to establish."

Retention of the best people and product innovation are constant challenges in a fast-paced global city such as Hong Kong.

"The moment you stop, you go down vis-a-vis what other competitors are doing out there. So we are very mindful about that - getting the new space and being innovative," Koh says.

"We exist because of customers, and the people who serve the customers are our employees. So we need to think of new ways to continue to excite our customers with new products, with the way we serve our customers."

One example of the company's innovation is its initiative to thank its customers in person. Based on the belief that excellent customer service is founded on a clear and unwavering focus on customers, AmEx gets the whole company involved in face-to-face events with clients.

"We have a programme called `Reaching out with a smile' where we invite our employees ... to go out there for the full day to essentially say thank you to all the merchants who accept American Express cards. We do it twice a year now."

Another people innovation that Koh believes will soon become widespread among talent-hungry companies is what he calls `disability confidence' - a trend that can radically alter the labour market.

"From research, we found out that 650 million people are actually disabled - with about 400 million in this part of the world. All of us talk about the talent squeeze [and] ageing economies. I think there's a big talent pool that we should all be tapping on," he says.