September 25th, 2009 by Christopher Musico

I recently had the opportunity to take a week-long vacation around the Labor Day holiday. You know, one of the prime shopping holidays of the year. I was looking for some fall clothes with the American Express gift cards I received due to my being a loyal member, accruing enough points for a $25 and $50 one.

I used the $25 one with no issue. When I was in line at Express buying sweaters using my $50 card, the fun really began. The order could not be completed. Obviously, this was annoying on all fronts. There was a line of people behind me, and the cashier got his manager to come over and call American Express, trying to get the issue ironed out. After being on hold for 15 minutes, a live person finally took the call and refused to talk to the manager. He wanted to speak with me.

I take the phone, and the agent says that there is a “technical glitch” with my gift card through no fault of my own. I say, OK, fine — authorize my purchase over the phone and send me a gift card for the remaining balance. I didn’t think this was an overly complicated task. Credit card companies authorize charges over the phone all the time. It goes with the territory.

Well, apparently this is not the case with American Express gift cards. He refused to do it, saying it was not possible. He said he would send me a new gift card. He was missing the point: I needed the money now. At that moment. At the point of sale. This sale wasn’t going to last the three-to-five days it would take to send me a new card.

I informed the agent of this obvious point, that I was on vacation, and wouldn’t be able to get the card until I returned more than a week later to my apartment. He said that he would have the card expedited. It was seriously like talking to a brick wall.

I told him that unless he had an individual walking around the mall I was in at that moment with spare American Express gift cards, his solution was simply unacceptable. I asked him to look up my information, since I have had an American Express card since early 2007. He said it was not possible because the gift card department is a separate and has no visibility to the rest of the organization. One, I don’t believe that to be true — I’m sure he could have accessed the information. Two, if that is true, then shame on you, American Express. Talk about silos.

I told him his solutions were unacceptable and I wanted to speak with his supervisor. There was a 15 or 20 second pause and then the agent said, “I am the supervisor.” Uh, really? I told him he was lying, and he just simply said over and over he was the supervisor. I clearly wasn’t going to get through to him.

I wanted to speak with someone else, anyone else, at American Express about this experience and that simply giving me a replacement gift card was not enough. He told me I would have to wait on hold again, have to do an interactive customer feedback survey, and then try to speak with someone. How much work do I have to do? I’ve already wasted about 20 minutes of my life on the phone with this agent already, holding up a line of customers at Express. I hung up, and the manager at that point decided to give me the sweaters free of charge. That was nice of Express. Seriously. I expressed my thanks, and wrote emails to the proper customer service channels to register my feedback.

American Express … not so much. That was, quite literally, the worst customer experience I have ever had over the phone. For a company that touted delivering you enough cash or a new card to cover overseas expenses if you lost your card within a day, you can’t authorize a $45 purchase on a gift card you gave to me? Really?

I wrote a very strongly worded email to the customer service team at American Express. I won’t divulge the letter, but I essentially addressed the following points:

  • I’m a loyal member.
  • I pay all of my bills on time.
  • The agent admitted the gift card had a glitch that was American Express’ fault.
  • He refused to look into my information, or to transfer me to anyone else.
  • He missed the point that I was losing out on the sale at that moment – a gift card a few days later wouldn’t help.
  • Why should I remain a credit card holder if this is what I can expect when I try to use a gift card you issue me?
  • This is a really awful time to be losing customers, and you’re going to lose me unless you can convince me what makes you different.

Emails are generally responded to within one or two days. I got a response back in three hours, crediting me 6,500 points — worth another $50 gift card — as what the letter deemed a “goodwill gesture”. It was also stated that the situation would be handled internally, and thanked me profusely for being a loyal member of American Express.

Now, could American Express really fix that moment post-mortem? No. But, no one is perfect and service mistakes do happen. It is how you recover from them that counts. I think that crediting me for another gift card and responding fairly quickly was a good start. I won’t cancel my card– but every time I use an American Express gift card from now on, I will use it with trepidation.

For customer service teams out there – while you can’t always make the particular situation right, what do you believe to be the best way to “try to make the best” of the situation, and keep loyal customers?

American express just modified their cards and maybe that is where the issue arose from? They are no longer charging maintenance fees which is great but they probably shouldn’t have from the beginning!

Comment by Gift Card Rescue — — October 2, 2009 @ 6:10 am

I saw that news as well — that actually wasn’t the issue. I had literally just received the cards a few days before I went shopping Labor Day weekend. I agree with you, though. It’s absolutely ridiculous to be charging maintenance fees for gift cards.

Comment by Christopher Musico — — October 2, 2009 @ 8:24 am

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