In 1996, American Express announced they were entering the student lending industry—a decision that was met with tremendous goodwill throughout the financial aid marketplace. Having purchased Educational Funding Company shortly before, American Express had a strong core team, a few outstanding sales representatives, and the weight of a giant brand to help push their cause forward. However, as the company prepared to launch this new student lending division, it faced a unique marketing challenge: With a household name in financial services and a sterling reputation, how would American Express stand out in an industry that had already defined its role before it had even opened its doors?
This may not seem like a significant problem—certainly, American Express already had the kind of name recognition most companies longed to have, and the company was very well-respected. However, the student lending division had to grow its sales force from four to fifty in record time, which posed an immediate personnel challenge. And the main issue with starting at the top? You had no margin for error.
American Express needed to win and win big, very quickly.
Charged with leading the new sales team for American Express Educational Loans, Fabrizio Balestri first set out to attract and develop an outstanding sales force, training them on the growing student lending market and ensuring that they understood the high-value selling proposition at American Express. In addition, he opened an ongoing dialogue with the contacts he’d already developed through his previous years in student lending.
American Express needed to make a significant impact on the marketplace, and to do that, it had to go above and beyond the pre-set expectations of the industry. Because the company represented a best-in-class financial powerhouse, the industry believed it would be solid, predictable and, well—a bit boring.
Fabrizio’s team knew they were better than that.
Upon consulting with the internal team and experts in the industry, and after taking the pulse of the needs of schools and families nationwide, Fabrizio and his sales force identified services and innovations that would make American Express Educational Loans excel. These included the Second Look® credit review program for Parent Loans; a consultative and highly-knowledgeable Academic Services Team; and a Family Resources Unit that took the traditional Call Center mentality and transferred it into a warm and caring information center handling any question a parent or student might have.
The results were immediate and powerful. Suddenly, American Express sales representatives had more to offer new school contacts than just the expected package of a strong company and credible products. They were out there with never-before-seen services, a completely new twist on customer care, and a bright, engaging approach that was represented throughout the organization—from field personnel to the call center teams to senior management. Continuing to leverage the power of the Advisory Board concept first pioneered at Educational Funding Company, American Express listened to schools and the families they helped, and improved its services continually. In addition, the sales team brought the full value of American Express to the industry, featuring American Express businesses such as the Financial Advisors Group at school financial planning seminars and Financial Aid meetings nationwide.
Student lending is a cyclical process, but within one selling season, American Express was making tremendous inroads with schools, working to gain their trust as a lender and financial aid resource to families, and continually striving for service excellence in its day-to-day interactions. After that first year, volume increased exponentially. The educational loans division grew from $0 in volume to over a billion in five short years—a feat that was virtually unheard-of in the highly competitive and densely packed student lending marketplace.
Fabrizio’s work to reenergize the American Express Brand—and the sales team—continued to pay dividends, even after market conditions following the tragedy of 9/11 led American Express to exit the student lending industry and focus on its core financial services business. By always being open to new opportunities and ways to serve, the management and sales teams soon found themselves embarking on another new adventure: a start-up student loan company that would once again redefine the industry in record time.