A couple of years ago, this writer penned a paean praising American Express, " Real people tout AmEx's stellar customer service." He did so because Miranda, a friend of his, who'd been a loyal cardmember since the 1950s, had suggested he should: Her experience had been extraordinarily good, and excellence should be recognized. Recently, he met Miranda again, and she couldn't find terms strong enough to express her contempt for the company. After five or six decades during which she'd never once missed a payment, she needed to spend more on her card than she usually does, but was told that her purchase of three trans-Atlantic airline tickets to attend a family funeral had already maxed it out. "No preset spending limit" doesn't mean no limit at all, and her previous modest spending patterns seriously disadvantaged her. Miranda was genuinely shocked and outraged that her loyalty, exemplary payment record and not inconsiderable assets appeared to count for nothing either to American Express's computer systems or the call center agent to whom she spoke. That single bad experience transformed her from a strong advocate for the card issuer into an equally vocal critic. When asked about experiences like Miranda's, Elizabeth Crosta, American Express vice president of public affairs, explained that the company sometimes had to change credit lines. "Our intent is to strike the right balance between accommodating our cardmembers' spending needs and, at the same time, prudently managing credit risk -- for us and for our cardmembers," she said. "To determine credit lines, we look at the customer's overall credit profile, which covers many factors such as overall debt levels, reported income, credit bureau reports and payment history with American Express, as well as other lenders."
American Express still great
Of course, AmEx has changed little over the last few years. It's launched new products and services, and no doubt it's upgraded its IT systems and restructured some of its departments. But its customer service ethos seems pretty constant. In August 2013, it topped the J.D. Power U.S. Credit Card Satisfaction Study list for the seventh consecutive year. It may well do so again when the 2014 results are published, although Discover is an increasingly strong contender.