Andrea Shiah: Taking a customer-centric stance at American Express Andrea Shiah: Taking a customer-centric stance at American Express

Andrea Shiah: Taking a customer-centric stance at American Express
16 Feb 2018

Andrea Shiah may have worked at US financial services giant American Express (Amex) for more than two decades, but she only started heading up its payroll team about four years ago. Despite having no background in the field at all, since taking over as vice president and head of global payroll services, she has transformed the function to make it more customer-centric.

Here Andrea talks to editor Cath Everett about the reasons behind her career switch and why giving a fresh pair of eyes to something can sometimes help to shake things up - in a positive way.

What was your role previously and why did you decide to head up Amex’s payroll department?

I have a marketing background, so my focus has always been on the end-customer and understanding their needs. But I’ve held various roles across a number of American Express business units, which include managing our largest merchant accounts, overseeing our OPEN credit card portfolio and the Consumer Platinum and Centurion card portfolios.

As for ‘why payroll?’ our HR team was looking for someone who could introduce a customer-centric approach when dealing with our employee base. At first, I thought this job wouldn’t truly leverage my knowledge or experience. But as I found out more about it, I realised it could be an interesting challenge – and it’s turned out to be one of the roles I’ve enjoyed most. I’ve learned so much and have a great team around me.

Given that you don’t have a payroll background, what was your first step when taking the job on?

When I started in the summer of 2014, I came into the role thinking about what employees needed from us. It’s a completely different way of approaching payroll because the focus is usually on processes rather than end-users – although that is now starting to change more at an industry level.

I spent a lot of time collecting data, determining why employees needed to call us and identifying the root cause of errors in order to understand what they were experiencing. We already tracked queries, but not in a way that helped me understand why employees were calling, and when I reached out to vendors and industry experts, a lot of them said: ‘Why do you need this?’

The biggest challenge that we faced was the absence of data so we began to devise an approach to help us capture, analyse and report on it. At the time, there was no infrastructure in place to do so.

I then worked with my team to create a game plan and it generated pretty quick results. It took me three months to reorient things towards ‘what the employee needs’ and I simplified our findings into four buckets. Employees should always be: 

  1. Paid accurately and on time;
  2. Understand what they are being paid;
  3. Be able to make changes to personal or professional information easily;
  4. Have unique issues resolved quickly as they appear.

 What action did you take to tackle these issues?

When I looked at the data, I saw we had a huge volume of calls, and the number one issue was resetting passwords. So in 2015, we launched single sign-on functionality to enable employees to access the ePayroll site using their regular company intranet user ID and password rather than unique credentials, which they could never remember – and the number of calls dropped dramatically.

Another big issue related to employees misunderstanding their payslips as there were only a limited number of characters to describe each item. So we changed that situation to make things more understandable.

We also redesigned our website around tasks that employees need to complete. We found that five tasks accounted for about 80% of the activities that most people undertake. So if they click on the link to that activity, everything they require to complete that task is now readily available, including forms, frequently asked questions and other helpful documents.

Also by understanding and addressing the reasons why employees called payroll servicing in the first place, we were able to cut our call volumes in half, eliminating 75,000 per year. If you assume each employee spends 10 minutes on a servicing call, eliminating 75,000 of them means saving 12,500 hours each year. That is the equivalent of 6.25 full-time employees-worth of time, which is a meaningful amount.

In addition, introducing self-service functionality increased from 34% to 84% as more employees started using the website to find information.

This situation was a win-win for everybody. Employees had a better user experience and my team benefited from operational improvements. Because we didn’t have to spend as much time servicing queries, we could prioritise other requirements more effectively.

How difficult was it to effect and manage this kind of change?

We had already reached a point where payroll was stable as we had consolidated and automated various activities, which meant that everything was running smoothly. As a result, the time was right to focus on employee needs.

Most payroll organisations tend to say they’re too busy to track data. But the reality is that if you track it, you can understand why errors are occurring and then proactively avoid them, eliminating a lot of queries that take the team a long time to answer. So it’s a mindset shift more than anything.

Where did most of the errors came from?

It’s really interesting because, when you see a pay error, you automatically assume it must be payroll’s fault. But payroll is actually part of a long, end-to-end process that includes inputs into, and interfaces with, upstream systems. There are also outputs to accounting systems, tax organisations and banks.

Therefore, when we looked at our error data, we found the majority came from outside of payroll – from inaccurate or late information being submitted.

So it’s important to think through how best to help employees and leaders understand the importance of their actions and what impact they have on the error process. It’s not about blaming anyone, but it is the beauty of tracking data because it can tell the story for you.

There may be as many as 25 different systems feeding into payroll, which could well be managed by different organisations. This makes it challenging to think the process through from end-to-end. But if you have data, it’s possible to have a credible and focused discussion with the people looking after front-end processes. It’s about working together to lessen errors and make things simpler for employees.

But in practice, we found that 80% of errors come from 20% of activities, which means you can address most issues by dealing with your top sources of information. This decision to understand our data led to some strong measurable results such as reducing payroll errors by 25%.

What is your opinion of payroll now after having headed up the function for a few years?

I have a deep admiration for payroll professionals. Pay is the most important thing to employees so payroll has a critical role in ensuring things go right. As a result, I’ve found that payroll professionals are very diligent and are prepared to take responsibility. They also have to ensure a lot of controls are in place and be prepared for any planned or unplanned changes that might arise and impact the payroll process.

I’ve found consistently in most countries around the world that payroll professionals make incredible efforts to ensure payments are made accurately and on time – and that fact isn’t always recognised. I spend a lot of time articulating to our leaders about what goes into processing pay because payroll professionals are all too often unsung heroes.

 

 

Andrea Shiah may have worked at US financial services giant American Express (Amex) for more than two decades, but she only started heading up its payroll team about four years ago. Despite having no background in the field at all, since taking over as vice president and head of global payroll services, she has transformed the function to make it more customer-centric.

Here Andrea talks to editor Cath Everett about the reasons behind her career switch and why giving a fresh pair of eyes to something can sometimes help to shake things up - in a positive way.

What was your role previously and why did you decide to head up Amex’s payroll department?

I have a marketing background, so my focus has always been on the end-customer and understanding their needs. But I’ve held various roles across a number of American Express business units, which include managing our largest merchant accounts, overseeing our OPEN credit card portfolio and the Consumer Platinum and Centurion card portfolios.

As for ‘why payroll?’ our HR team was looking for someone who could introduce a customer-centric approach when dealing with our employee base. At first, I thought this job wouldn’t truly leverage my knowledge or experience. But as I found out more about it, I realised it could be an interesting challenge – and it’s turned out to be one of the roles I’ve enjoyed most. I’ve learned so much and have a great team around me.

Given that you don’t have a payroll background, what was your first step when taking the job on?

When I started in the summer of 2014, I came into the role thinking about what employees needed from us. It’s a completely different way of approaching payroll because the focus is usually on processes rather than end-users – although that is now starting to change more at an industry level.

I spent a lot of time collecting data, determining why employees needed to call us and identifying the root cause of errors in order to understand what they were experiencing. We already tracked queries, but not in a way that helped me understand why employees were calling, and when I reached out to vendors and industry experts, a lot of them said: ‘Why do you need this?’

The biggest challenge that we faced was the absence of data so we began to devise an approach to help us capture, analyse and report on it. At the time, there was no infrastructure in place to do so.

I then worked with my team to create a game plan and it generated pretty quick results. It took me three months to reorient things towards ‘what the employee needs’ and I simplified our findings into four buckets. Employees should always be: 

  1. Paid accurately and on time;
  2. Understand what they are being paid;
  3. Be able to make changes to personal or professional information easily;
  4. Have unique issues resolved quickly as they appear.

 What action did you take to tackle these issues?

When I looked at the data, I saw we had a huge volume of calls, and the number one issue was resetting passwords. So in 2015, we launched single sign-on functionality to enable employees to access the ePayroll site using their regular company intranet user ID and password rather than unique credentials, which they could never remember – and the number of calls dropped dramatically.

Another big issue related to employees misunderstanding their payslips as there were only a limited number of characters to describe each item. So we changed that situation to make things more understandable.

We also redesigned our website around tasks that employees need to complete. We found that five tasks accounted for about 80% of the activities that most people undertake. So if they click on the link to that activity, everything they require to complete that task is now readily available, including forms, frequently asked questions and other helpful documents.

Also by understanding and addressing the reasons why employees called payroll servicing in the first place, we were able to cut our call volumes in half, eliminating 75,000 per year. If you assume each employee spends 10 minutes on a servicing call, eliminating 75,000 of them means saving 12,500 hours each year. That is the equivalent of 6.25 full-time employees-worth of time, which is a meaningful amount.

In addition, introducing self-service functionality increased from 34% to 84% as more employees started using the website to find information.

This situation was a win-win for everybody. Employees had a better user experience and my team benefited from operational improvements. Because we didn’t have to spend as much time servicing queries, we could prioritise other requirements more effectively.

How difficult was it to effect and manage this kind of change?

We had already reached a point where payroll was stable as we had consolidated and automated various activities, which meant that everything was running smoothly. As a result, the time was right to focus on employee needs.

Most payroll organisations tend to say they’re too busy to track data. But the reality is that if you track it, you can understand why errors are occurring and then proactively avoid them, eliminating a lot of queries that take the team a long time to answer. So it’s a mindset shift more than anything.

Where did most of the errors came from?

It’s really interesting because, when you see a pay error, you automatically assume it must be payroll’s fault. But payroll is actually part of a long, end-to-end process that includes inputs into, and interfaces with, upstream systems. There are also outputs to accounting systems, tax organisations and banks.

Therefore, when we looked at our error data, we found the majority came from outside of payroll – from inaccurate or late information being submitted.

So it’s important to think through how best to help employees and leaders understand the importance of their actions and what impact they have on the error process. It’s not about blaming anyone, but it is the beauty of tracking data because it can tell the story for you.

There may be as many as 25 different systems feeding into payroll, which could well be managed by different organisations. This makes it challenging to think the process through from end-to-end. But if you have data, it’s possible to have a credible and focused discussion with the people looking after front-end processes. It’s about working together to lessen errors and make things simpler for employees.

But in practice, we found that 80% of errors come from 20% of activities, which means you can address most issues by dealing with your top sources of information. This decision to understand our data led to some strong measurable results such as reducing payroll errors by 25%.

What is your opinion of payroll now after having headed up the function for a few years?

I have a deep admiration for payroll professionals. Pay is the most important thing to employees so payroll has a critical role in ensuring things go right. As a result, I’ve found that payroll professionals are very diligent and are prepared to take responsibility. They also have to ensure a lot of controls are in place and be prepared for any planned or unplanned changes that might arise and impact the payroll process.

I’ve found consistently in most countries around the world that payroll professionals make incredible efforts to ensure payments are made accurately and on time – and that fact isn’t always recognised. I spend a lot of time articulating to our leaders about what goes into processing pay because payroll professionals are all too often unsung heroes.