How One Human-Centered Insight Led to $4 Billion in Growth for American Express

How One Human-Centered Insight Led to $4 Billion in Growth for American Express

The straight story of organizational transformation, from leaders on the inside
Andrew Blum
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In 2015, American Express (Amex) came to IDEO for help putting the finishing touches on a new consumer credit card. Its reward structure was fixed—but what else might it be? They were in search of a feature that would excite Card Members, especially millennials coming of age financially. Everything was in place, but their project whiteboard had one last empty box.

The IDEO and American Express teams paired up for a design sprint, and in the first few weeks of research, after extensive qualitative interviews, an idea emerged: a new, transparent and easy-to-use way to split large purchases into equal monthly payments, with a fixed fee and no interest. The feature, called Pay It Plan It, launched in the market in 2017. Since then, it has been used to create five million payment plans, totaling nearly $4 billion in lending. It represents a notable, widespread behavior change. Card Members are spending differently, by design.

But getting here took more than just a bright idea. At a large organization like American Express, in a complicated and highly regulated industry, and in a smartphone-first environment, transforming an insight about consumer behavior into a beloved tool for Card Members required a particular flavor of corporate agility. At the time, there was nothing like Pay It Plan It—at American Express, or elsewhere. Bringing it to Card Members would require a substantial technical and financial investment, affecting everything from payment terms to the way the smartphone app handled swipes. All of that was doable, but leaders still had to do it—they had to make the heavy lift to usher a concept sketch into becoming a meaningful part of customers’ lives. The success of Pay It Plan It as a feature driven by emotional insights—while driving the bottom line—has made it a beacon inside American Express. For many, it marked a new way of working within the company, a transformational shift in the way ideas are conceived and implemented.

The following story recounts the development of Pay It Plan It, told through the voices of the IDEO and American Express team members who worked on it.

1. Plus, and...

In 2015, Amex was looking for something new to engage consumers—particularly younger professionals who wanted to avoid the pitfalls of credit card debt. Innovation within the consumer lending space had traditionally been all about rewards and cash back perks, but Amex was committed to finding something different that empowered their Card Members. Was there something else? And if so, what?

Kyoko King is currently VP, Global Commercial Services at American Express; at the time of Pay It Plan It, she worked on consumer products, focused on new product innovation.
“It felt like a race to the bottom. We kept throwing more rewards at the customer, so they win out, but there's no actual edge. That was the challenge we set out to solve.”

Leigh Cohen is a Design Lead at IDEO, and a team member on the original design sprint.
“I remember we wrote on the white board, plus, and, next to an empty box. The reward structure of this new card was already defined—but then what? What goes in the box? What is this thing? It can be very daunting to come up with something that not only makes sense to Card Members, but also makes sense to American Express, and is also a smart way to help people spend appropriately and confidently.”

Jenny Shum is currently VP, Head of US Small & Mid Market B2B Marketing at American Express; at the time of Pay It Plan It, she was VP of Consumer Lending Products.
“We had aspirations to reinvent what a credit card could be, and the role it plays in a consumer’s life. But this is a very regulated industry, and we were afraid that we would come up with a brilliant idea we couldn’t deliver. And yet we didn’t want to be constrained by that.”

2. An emotional insight

Over a series of consumer interviews conducted across the country, the team honed in on a key set of desires: credit card users wanted more flexibility and transparency in how they paid for big purchases, and they wanted to feel like they had autonomy in how they pay for the things they buy.

Kyoko King, Amex: “We had done the side-by-side comparison of Amex versus other cards, we had done task forces looking at debit versus credit. We always had the knowledge that customers don't like our credit cards, but I don't think we ever went so far as to say, ‘They just emotionally don't like it.’ I remember IDEO saying to us, ‘It makes them feel bad. You guys make them feel bad. Customers have no control, no transparency.’ But here IDEO just said, ‘It's an emotional problem, therefore, the solution has to be emotional.’”

Travis Lee is Managing Director and Partner at IDEO, and guided the initial sprint.
“American Express is a service company. They think of themselves as trying to serve their customers as human beings—and the card is a means through which they provide service. It’s not their product. And that’s very different from a lot of companies. So what if we can think of lending as a service?”

Kyoko King, Amex: “Our team at Amex was all about growing lending—lending, lending, lending. That was even what it said on my business card. And then IDEO came in and said, ‘Well, it's all about paying. No one is thinking that Amex is lending them money. It's all about when they can pay.’”

3. We could really break things!

As clear as it was that credit card users wanted more flexibility and control—not just more rewards and perks—so too was the realization that the Amex/IDEO team had let the genie out of the bottle: implementing this wouldn’t be easy. This wasn’t just another lending feature, but would require a fundamental rethinking of how Card Members paid their bills.

Dory Butler is VP, Digital Product Management; she led the digital team that implemented Pay It Plan It.
“People were nervous. We could really break things! It involved significant changes to our payment hierarchy, our accounts receivable systems, how we calculated what customers owed to us, and so on.”

Jenny Shum, Amex: “We were certainly aware of the potential this product could have—and we’d sized the financial benefits—but what was different here was the process of understanding true customer needs.”

Kyoko King, Amex: “You know when you sign a car lease or a mortgage, and there’s a stack of papers that you have to sign with ten different signatures, every couple pages? That's what we were trying to put onto our credit card. I remember our compliance person sitting me down and saying, ‘You're trying to put a closed loan into an open credit product.’ That was the first time I realized we were creating something so complicated—even if to a consumer it made complete sense and felt so simple.”

Dory Butler, Amex: “As a company, we've identified opportunities and gone after them in the past. But many times those opportunities are highly driven by business outcomes, and not as highly driven by customer outcomes. Pay It Plan It was all because of a customer need, but we could see that the business benefit of that would flow and follow.”

Kyoko King, Amex: “After that initial sprint it was kind of a no-brainer. If we could do this, we should do this. But it was very clear that we should do it only if the experience stays as simple as what we’re proposing. If it becomes a series of terms and conditions and things you have to click and fill out, then we’ll lose the essence of what it is we're delivering.”

4. Buy-in for the buy-in

Given the complexity of the implementation—and the simplicity of the desired result—the Amex/IDEO team planned an unusual internal communications strategy, rooted in the emotional insight at the heart of Pay It Plan It.

Leigh Cohen, IDEO: “Executives across American Express had to understand the value this product was going to bring—the emotional value to Card Members, and the financial value to its business. We wanted them to see the overlap between the financial confidence Pay It Plan It could bring, and their brand values of trust and security. And they had to see how it was delivering upon their internal objective as an organization to be thinking about smart lending, and what lending looks like for their current members.”

Kyoko King, Amex: “We couldn't pitch this in a PowerPoint deck. We had to translate that consumer insight to the pricing team, the technology team; we had to change minimum due, payment hierarchy, grace—three different components that are extremely difficult to touch. It was like a house of cards: everything could fall down. Usually if you touch any one of them, all those teams are like, ‘No, no, no, it's not worth it!’ It just wasn't something you could understand in a really rational format; there was so much emotion to it, there was a customer need we were solving for. Usually we had bullet points and boxes with words, and a P&L or business case that’s about the numbers. But here we began with sketches and drawings of what this could look like. That was very different than how we operated before. It was new. And it incited interest.”

Kelly Bjork is a Senior Design Director at IDEO; she helped lead the team that designed and implemented Pay It Plan It.
“These are rational people! You were talking to C-suite level folks who have their bill on AutoPay. They don't think about these things. So our work was putting them in the shoes, if you will, of the Card Member who this was targeted for. It's kind of that simple.”

Jenny Shum, Amex: “The magic of Pay It Plan It is that it gives consumers the confidence that they have a lending solution if they need it. I don’t think we necessarily went in with this intention, but that directly aligned to Amex’s brand heritage, of giving consumers control. The brand team saw how exciting this was, even before the business unit decided to invest in making it real.”

Dory Butler, Amex: “You have to continuously sell-in these ideas internally to have the level of investment that you need to do them right.”

Travis Lee, IDEO: “Innovation at this scale can't happen purely grassroots. You can't just get a single team leader excited about it, and expect it to happen. You have to get everyone’s buy-in, you have to get everyone’s excitement, you have to make sure they understand why it matters to do it, even if it's gonna be hard. And you also have to get the CMO pumped. All of these people have to greenlight it in their own way.”

5. How it spurred organizational change

In 2017, Pay It Plan It launched under a strategy nicknamed “Big Bang,” rolling out to 21 million customers in 30 days. As of August 2020, it is available to almost all US consumer Card Members, who have collectively created nearly five million Plans, totaling nearly $4 billion in purchases, with an average Plan size of $789. But as much as they have embraced Pay It Plan It, so too did Amex executives. The unique story of its implementation became company lore: here was an emotional insight that unlocked significant business outcomes.

Kyoko King, Amex: “The internal teams could see it: this was reflective of all the data and information we have seen and heard for years and years. But this is a new way to approach the problem! I often talk about it in terms of learning a new language. Amex internally thinks of itself as a rational company based on CBAs and models. The breakthrough—and the thing I'm most proud of—was bringing that customer emotion into internal decision-making, seeing Amex become emotional rather than purely rational.”

Jenny Shum, Amex: “Kyoko and I joke that we feel like we walked through a doorway to an alternate universe that we can’t turn back from. This is a long-term strategic investment that would have been hard to write the business case for—but that was also the exciting part, because it is transforming a business, versus delivering an incremental product. The challenge now is whether we will be able to galvanize the organization in a similar way, towards solutions for our customers.”

Leigh Cohen, IDEO: “The pieces came together in this perfect storm: the Amex leadership focusing our IDEO team on the opportunities that were strategic within their organization; our team's ability to unpack and uncover an emotional resonance with the Card Member, that really spoke to them wanting to be a more confident spender on credit; and then the internal buy-in and belief that this not only resonated internally, but also could convert externally.“

Kyoko King, Amex: “To be honest, this began as an eight-week engagement of just asking, ‘Okay, let's see what you guys can think of: a slap-on feature to our credit card.’ So for it to then result in something that was implemented across all of our cards—that is a big, big deal.”

Kelly Bjork, IDEO: “Getting something like this to market feels like sort of a small miracle to me.”

Jenny Shum, Amex: What has followed me from this project is really understanding the emotion of the customer—not just the words they tell us, but what worries them and why.

Illustrations by FagoStudio.

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Andrew Blum
Andrew Blum is an independent journalist and author writing about technology, infrastructure and design. His most recent book, The Weather Machine: A Journey Inside the Forecast, looks at the global system behind our everyday apps.
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