Working with the new consumer: An interview with Mike Walsh

By on May 28th, 2020 in Company News, Industry Insights

TrueAccord is bringing together industry experts to continue the collections revolution. Today, we’re joined by Mike Walsh, TrueAccord’s Vice President of Enterprise Sales. With over twenty years of experience in the collections industry, Mike has been an active part of the evolution of collection practices and standards. His more recent work has been focused on helping drive technological and customer-focused change, and we discuss what those changes look like for collectors and consumers alike.

Mike Walsh, TrueAccord’s Vice President of Enterprise Sales

What can you tell us about your background in collections?

I got started in the industry in 1996, right out of college. Everyone’s dream is to go into collections and sales, right? I started in a position primarily handling client servicing. Even back then I saw that people have a negative view of the industry, but my experience has been really positive. I’ve met a lot of great people in collections and continue to build great relationships. 

This really is a relationship-oriented business. The industry is based on trust, and I learned early on that your reputation is really what you’re selling. Whether you’re in client services or on the phone with consumers, you have to constantly build a reputable brand. 

Looking to bolster your brand reputation? Here are some tips to get you started.

I’m thankful that I have been able to work on teams where I really believed in the product and the people. Your reputation and your company’s reputation are directly tied together, and it’s great to feel confident in both.

You were directly involved in the collections process for many years and more recently, you’ve turned to working with companies that aim to optimize and customize others’ collections processes. Can you talk a bit about how you feel your experience working in collections management has shaped your perspective on these newer tools and services?

More than anything else I’ve seen customers change. It’s gotten more and more difficult to reach consumers over the phone; people just aren’t answering phone calls anymore. It’s part of what I call the “Amazoning of America”—consumers don’t call in to order a product or a service, they pull it up on their phone, press a button, and they’re done. 

Understanding how we as an industry help the customer in light of these changes is tough. Adjusting to these needs efficiently in an effort to provide a better user experience has always been my focus. Giving people the ability to choose is more important now than ever. You hate to tell someone “oh, we don’t do that” when they request a specific way of doing business with you. 

In order to adapt to this changing customer, I always keep my eyes open for new tools with enhanced efficiencies and use that to help guide my professional pursuits. If a product or service benefits the customer, that benefit will trickle up to the client. This is how I found VoApps, and it’s part of why I joined TrueAccord. Both companies focus on how to improve the customer experience in a way that is less intrusive to the consumer. 

Even social media channels can provide another way for consumers to find you. The more flexibility that your team can offer, the easier it is for the customer.

Every consumer-facing industry is looking for ways to be less intrusive, and, as a consumer myself, I totally understand. That evolution important to me. I have a special needs son, so my time is very valuable. If someone is calling me it had better be important, and if it isn’t, my first thought is “why didn’t you just text me this?” 

Going off of that: it’s clear that you see the value in emerging technologies and changing behaviors in the industry. What are some patterns that you’ve seen develop in your career that have driven these changes, and why is now the time for these new approaches to collecting?

The development of customer-focused and customer supported technologies drive changes in the industry. When I was on the phones in the 1990s working as a collector we had “hot contact times” from 6 pm to 8 pm—the best time to reach people. Then the rise in cell phones made contact centers completely rethink how they were getting in touch with people. The evening “hot contact times” didn’t exist anymore when people started carrying their phones in their pockets.

Right now there is a need to provide a collections experience focused on customer service. People rate everything. Consumers are reviewing restaurants as if they’re big-screen TVs, and they want to share that information—and share it quickly. If you’re aware of this, you can harness it. You can build your company around consumer choice and those choices, in turn, will support your brand.

In debt collection, that means developing your product based on your consumer’s needs and experimenting to determine what consumers prefer and what they do not. Consider how they want to connect and when? How do they like to do business? Then build more of what they prefer.

Did that at all impact your decision to join TrueAccord?

I couldn’t fathom that a collection agency had a positive Google Review rating until I first saw TrueAccord’s 4.8 out of 5 stars. It helps illustrate the importance of building a platform based on meeting consumers’ needs and making sure that they associate your brand with a positive experience. 

What do you think comes next for the collections space?

I’ve always been a big believer in the power of behavior science and machine learning. It doesn’t surprise me that its application to the collection industry, especially by a company focused firmly on a customer-focused approach, is disrupting one of the oldest industries in the world. The big reason I’m here is to help the team bring this customer-focused future to the rest of the industry.

Are you ready to build a customer-focused debt collection experience for your business? Talk with our team today to learn how we can help.

TrueAccord discusses adapting to work-from-home

By on May 21st, 2020 in Company News, Industry Insights

TrueAccord’s Director of Service Operations, Cassie Cox, and our General Counsel & Chief Compliance Officer, Tim Collins, hosted a webinar on May 13th, 2020 to talk through collections continuity in light of the COVID-19 crisis. The team discussed adjusting to regulatory changes, how to effectively manage a work-from-home approach in collections, and what the future of the industry may look like. 

How are federal and state regulations changing?

Federal-level regulatory updates

The pandemic has prompted the US federal government to examine how it can work to aid Americans in need. Following the CARES Act, the House has proposed a new, $3 trillion relief package, and we are likely to see other potential stimulus packages discussed as the Senate proposes their own stimulus plan. Major industry organizations like insideARM and the ACA International are watching these unfold closely, as should we all. 

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s activity has not slowed during the pandemic, and they are on track to meet their examination goals this year. Remote auditing processes are in place and buzzing. They may not be in your offices, but the CFPB’s teams are still actively working to ensure the industry remains compliant.

State-level regulatory updates

Several states, including Massachusetts and New Jersey, are pursuing legislation that directly impacts the ability of collectors to reach consumers. Massachusetts’ Attorney General recently enacted an emergency law that outright banned collections efforts.

This was fought by the ACA, and the law was declared too broad and in violation of First Amendment rights, but the changing playing field does not end there. New Jersey has worked to pass similar legislation which has now been narrowed to primarily impact medical debt collection practices. 

There will also likely be a heightened focus on state budgets and an increase in understanding how to bolster state economies. 

As of this writing, forty-seven US states are either reopening or partially reopening by lifting shelter-in-place orders. Twenty of these state legislatures are now back in session and may begin to make other changes that collectors should keep an eye on. There will also likely be a heightened focus on state budgets and an increase in understanding how to bolster state economies. 

One major change that seems to be for the better is the newfound flexibility for collection agencies and other companies to allow employees to work from home. This behavior is being echoed by Rhode Island’s new “stay healthy” order which has started the reopening process but is strongly encouraging employees to work from home when possible. Collections is beginning to adapt to the changing need, and TrueAccord was able to adapt quickly.

How is collections operations changing?

Maintaining control and information security in a work-from-home environment

TrueAccord’s team began to prepare for potential risk to our operations in early March by reviewing and updating our practices, policies, and procedures to make sure all of our teams could effectively work from home. 

Here are some of the standards we established as we transitioned 80% of our agents to work from home full-time:

  1. Replicate an effective office space
    1. Agents must have a private area in their home and commit to working their shift uninterrupted.
    2. Agents must have a minimum internet speed of 50Mb/s in order to maintain high sound quality on calls.
  2. Enhance work from home agent information security
    1. Agents do not take payments over the phone. All payments are received via IVR or guided through our secure payment portal.
    2. Agents are not permitted to have cell phones near their workplace.
    3. Agents are monitored by their supervisors via webcam with at least two random checks throughout the day. 
    4. Calls are randomly monitored by supervisors to ensure continued commitment to exceptional customer service and quality.

These were only made possible by bringing on new technologies and building processes before we dove in headfirst. We also made sure that all of our agents fully understood these new practices in advance, and they signed off on the policies ahead of time. The 20% of our team members that are still in-office (at safe distances) continue to meet the same standards as the other agents. 

Our contact centers directly support our omni-channel approach to the industry. Here’s information on three other channels we use to reach consumers.

The remaining 20% either opted to not work from home due to a lack of interest or they were not permitted due to their homes not meeting security requirements (e.g. not having a private space, not having a fast enough internet speed, etc.). 

Managing agent performance standards remotely

Call centers are filled with high-energy individuals that are driven by their wins. Maintaining the same hum and energy of an office space without sharing the same space is difficult, and we’ve taken steps to keep our agents excited about their work.

Meet (virtually) Face to face 

A robust virtual management system has been put in place to keep building our team’s connectivity. The webcams we provided to our agents not only help with security monitoring but also increase our ability to build team morale. All of our agents are dialed into (and muted on) a Google Hangout or Zoom meeting throughout the day so that at any point they can turn and see their teammates working hard. 

This practice has also extended to our new management strategy. All of our contact center team meetings are required to be on camera so that we get face time with each other. These meetings include small group meetings, individual coaching sessions, and any other 1:1 meetings as well. 

Encourage conversation

Look for opportunities to create additional team touchpoints. Our current structure includes:

  • Weekly coaching sessions
  • Weekly team meetings
  • Random, weekly 15-minute huddles

We also have a wide range of Slack channels in place for sharing anything from anecdotes to best practices. In an office environment, it’s easy for folks to look over their shoulder and share tips and tricks, and those conversations drive positive change. Slack (and other work chat tools) also provide ways to circulate urgent updates with ease.

Keep the excitement up

We’ve increased our budget for intra-day chachkes, small giveaways, and rewards. Our in-office management style was largely visual: performance trend boards, goal setting boards, and team-based competitions were huge drivers for us. Now, we’re turning to setting up more contests. In this environment, a $10 gift card can get almost as much traction as a $50 card. It’s the thrill of the win, not necessarily the prize itself. Keep the energy up!

Monitor issues closely

The first two weeks of the work-from-home experiment were an amazing honeymoon period. There were three, consecutive days of perfect attendance in our contact center. Typical efficiency metrics like production volume per hour and average handle time have remained consistent. Keeping the same levels of performance is another story entirely, and close performance management is critical to making work-from-home, well, work.

We continue to track month to date metrics and just as closely monitor individual daily performance. Though many of our agents had no issue moving to a home environment, just as with any contact center, the bottom 10% of our group semi-frequently underperforms. It’s more essential now to keep a careful eye on red flags and correct underlying issues immediately. 

The biggest concern was properly tracking things like call or work avoidance or time card manipulation. Thankfully, with all of our systems are aligned and our supervisors actively checking on their teams, the only instance we found was caught immediately. 

Terminating a remote employee

Unfortunately, this is a necessary part of any operations manager’s role. In a work-from-home world, we still want to make it as direct an experience as possible. The full investigation, conclusion, and termination conversation should all be conducted via video conference.

Beyond the human aspect of termination, there are data and security considerations that should be tested ahead of time. Your team should understand how and when data should be cleared from a remote employee’s computer, and systems should be in place for the employee to either drop off or otherwise return their gear. Remember to accommodate for the possibility of lost assets. Some folks, even under contract, may not return your stuff.

What is coming next?

Changes in the office

The COVID-19 pandemic prompted a lot of changes to the way companies operate in general. While it continues to unfold, we are likely to see more change. That said “Right now, maintaining [business continuity] means not changing anything,” said Cox. 

As shelter-in-place rules begin to lift, and we see some employees return to their offices, we will see physical changes:

  • New desk layouts
  • A possible return to cubicles or dividers and a shift away from open-plan offices
  • New air filtration standards for enclosed spaces

Changes in the industry

While the US economy recovers, we expect to see a massive wave of customers that are unable to pay their bills. Unemployment rates will continue to drive payments from slightly overdue to collections, and debt collection agencies and internal recovery teams are likely to struggle to meet the account volume. 

“Collections has long been driven by human capital,” said Collins in discussing the need for contact center agents. “Technology will have to step in and fill a new, higher demand.” He went on to add that alongside the increase in volume, we expect a change in collections mentality. In order to overcome the disparity between payment deadlines and consumers unable to meet them, there will be a rise in customizable payment plans, hardship plans, and digital, self-service tools.

Crises drive rapid evolution and change. Many business practices and technologies that were slowly gaining traction in a pre-COVID-19 world are now fast-tracked. Working from home is a must at the moment, and the collections industry has to embrace that. Moving forward, we’re likely to see new innovators that are reinventing an aging industry, and it’s time for collections to adapt. 

TrueAccord Q&A with Ohad Samet

By on May 15th, 2020 in Product and Technology

The age of digital communication has led to a dramatic shift in the way companies do business and in the way that people communicate generally. The collections industry is not exempt from this change. On April 22, TrueAccord’s CEO, Ohad Samet, spoke on how TrueAccord is pioneering a radical transformation for consumers and collectors alike, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is a summary of the webinar. 

Stop by our YouTube channel if you’d rather watch or listen to an abridged version!

COVID-19 & challenges to the call center model

Attempting to reach consumers in debt is becoming increasingly challenging. Reaching these same consumers during a rapidly evolving recession, when tens of millions of people in the US are filing for unemployment, is only making it more difficult. Beyond this, social distancing practices are limiting the ability of traditional call-and-collect based agencies. 

There has been some progress made on improving work-from-home opportunities in collections, but 78% of TrueAccord’s clients are experiencing severe disruption of their 1st- and 3rd-party call center operations. This includes some collections partners shutting down entirely.

High agent turnover rates are a common issue for collections agencies due to the difficult nature of the work. Agencies typically expect turnover rates of more than 70%, and these numbers are climbing in the midst of the pandemic. All of these factors have largely left the collections industry in a holding pattern as we wait and see what changes may come, but what else can we do today to make change?

Finding the solution today

TrueAccord is focused on building sustainable, consumer experience-focused collections systems and tools. Our machine learning algorithm, Heartbeat, is a patented, scalable, tool that personalizes the collections experience with empathy-driven content for consumers. The multi-armed bandit algorithm learns from customer interaction and optimizes based on these behaviors. 

Multi-armed bandit algorithms go beyond traditional decision trees or A/B testing. They optimize and learn as they grow! 

What’s the difference between machine learning optimization and demographic segmentation?

Demographic segmentation is dividing a group of individuals based on demographic information such as age, gender, race, marital status, etc. when deploying a process or function. Machine learning optimization is teaching a computer model to evaluate the choices individuals make to improve a process or function. For example, in the credit and collections space, debt collectors typically approach customers during tax season to discuss using any tax refund to pay existing debts.

Our Heartbeat system learned that consumers do not like these suggestions—consumers who received content without the phrase “tax refund” paid their debt during tax season (likely with their tax refund) more than those consumers who received content with the words “tax refund.”

Samet explained, millions of consumers have completed payments and established payment plans using TrueAccord’s platform (through Heartbeat). The options employed by Heartbeat are based on its historical data learned through continued experimentation without access to an individual’s demographic information. Based on the millions of users that came before them, we can depend on Heartbeat to function as a complete virtual agent with built-in years of experience.  

Customizable communication offers a personalized experience

While email is TrueAccord’s primary communication channel, Heartbeat is a multi-channel solution that includes but is not limited to, SMS (with consent), push notifications (with an opt-in), and a self-serve interactive platform. Other digital services segment channels to test with different audiences, or may specialize in one, requiring creditors to work with separate vendors. TrueAccord uses a multi-channel approach to reach consumers how they prefer.

In fact, more than 95% of users on our platform resolve their accounts without ever communicating directly with an agent. 80% of the consumers that do reach out to our team are able to resolve their accounts via email. Our dedicated team of agents is available to speak on the phone, but our digital tools allow each agent to service more than 80,000 accounts (and that number continues to grow). Some agencies are gradually scaling digital strategies, they still account for less than 30% of their overall operations.

In fact, more than 95% of users on our platform resolve their accounts without ever communicating directly with an agent.

While Heartbeat operates as the frontline of our digital strategy, TrueAccord’s phone number is always readily available. We firmly believe in using only one phone number, (866) 611-2731. This creates brand familiarity, drives engagement, and is consumer friendly. 97% of consumers ignore calls from unknown numbers because many companies buy phone numbers in all area codes. Their goal is to appear as if they are calling from the same area code as the consumer.

TrueAccord does not want to trick the consumer into answering an unknown call.  We want to make it easy for consumers to search for our number online, do their own research about TrueAccord, and respond on their time. When consumers do reach out to our team, TrueAccord agents are trained to focus on customer care and on helping consumers to build the right financial plan to meet their needs. 

Combining this approach to customer care with our machine learning algorithms allow us to expand our offerings to include new tools like a detailed self-service portal for payment plan adjustments. Consumers can customize payment plans that work for them, and this has led to a spike in plan creation and higher successful plan completion rates. 

This includes payments related to sudden surges in income like stimulus checks. Here’s what our data shows us.

TrueAccord doesn’t want to pressure consumers to make payment amounts they cannot afford and make deadlines they can’t meet. Instead, we enable the consumer to fully personalize the repayment experience into a plan that meets the consumer’s ability and time frame. “We sell the experience of being debt free.” Samet says.

A different approach to collections

Traditional call-and-collect agencies are built on foundations similar to telemarketing: high agent turnover rates result from low-base, high-commission pay rates. These collectors are incentivized to collect and meet call minimums and payment quotas that lead to a rapid rise in complaints toward the end of pay periods as deadlines loom. 

Machine learning algorithms don’t have the same stresses. The bounds of payment plans are defined by clients in advance. Heartbeat leans on historical customer data, consumer engagement behavior, and chooses content to inform consumers about the stress free experience of repaying debt using customizable on-line repayment tools. If the customer has any questions, they can always check in with our team by phone or email!

Changing the industry

TrueAccord’s changes are continuing beyond our technology. Our leadership team works directly with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) to understand evolving best practices and remain at the forefront of regulatory change. Members of our legal team also work with the Receivables Management Association (RMAi), the Consumer Relation Consortium, and Association of Credit and Collection Professionals ACA International boards to keep up with trends in collections. 

We submitted our own comments to the CFPB’s Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. You can read the full letter here!

These experiences all point in a similar direction: legislators want to see fewer phone calls, more reliance on technology, and more consumer choice in the collections space. Building compliance adherence into TrueAccord’s system drives brings these changes together in one place.

How does TrueAccord fit into existing collections strategies?

TrueAccord is able to service at any stage in the debt cycle (early, late, warehoused, etc.), across segments, with competitive results. Our platform is built to accommodate your team’s needs, and we recognize that not every collections agency works perfectly in every segment. 

We can easily increase or decrease the use of specific channels and optimize in whichever segments you see fit. While larger placement volumes provide more data and by extension clearer automated decision making, we fit into your strategy at any stage. 

Pre-charge off

The same tech that supports TrueAccord’s post-charge-off product also offers new advantages and easy onboarding within a few short weeks for early stage delinquencies. Heartbeat can  supplement your existing call center strategy. We’re also equipped to provide different levels of service in different phases. 

This can be a small change to your normal business practices: uploading a traditional “dialer file” to our system. We can email payment reminder content driving your customers to your existing teams, tools, and webpages, while maintaining your branding. This can also involve full outsourcing  through the use of our online self-service individualized payment portal as well as use of digital channels to drive engagement. 

The next steps

We continue to scale and develop new tools for consumers to self-identify their current financial needs and provide new ways to work with them to adjust payment plans. We know that demanding payments isn’t nearly as effective as empowering consumers, and finding the right middle ground helps all parties involved. 

Getting started with TrueAccord is easy with inbound file receipt or APIs and standardized, out-of-the-box reporting. It can be as simple as a .CSV upload to our secure dashboard or as complex as a long-term integration period designed to align our systems, policies, and procedures to your own.

Ready to join the future of debt collection? Do you still have questions about how TrueAccord can help your team? Get in touch with us today!

Stimulus check payments surge over tax season trends

By on May 14th, 2020 in Industry Insights

Consumer debt in the US is climbing rapidly. A 1.1% growth to $14.3 trillion in Q1 of 2020 places the total debt higher than its previous peak of $12.68 trillion in Q3 of 2008. This growth may not be directly tied to the pandemic, but it does represent a large problem as a recession looms. Our teams have the ability to see some patterns and trends that arise in our repayment plans and consumer payment habits amidst these changes. Business partners span several verticals, and our data represents a broad spectrum of consumers in debt. 

A (not so) unexpected trend

In a typical year, like many other collection agencies, we see the highest volume of debt repayment when consumers use any tax return to pay down existing debt—February to the beginning of April. This year, however, an unexpected spike in late April and May dwarfed our Year Over Year trend thanks to the CARES Act stimulus checks. 

To put this into perspective, Americans received the first major wave of CARES checks on April 15, 2020. On that day, debt repayment volumes were 22% higher than on February 26, 2020, the first-day that tax refunds were disbursed by the IRS.

The higher volume of payment plans created and money spent were matched by an exponential increase in inbound consumer engagement, both over the phone and through our online portal. TrueAccord wasn’t alone in this trend either. Consumers flooded major debt collection agencies, who saw 2.5 times the inbound call volume and 2 times online traffic compared with a regular April day. TrueAccord’s CEO, Ohad Samet, had this to add:

We are actually not surprised by this. Borrowers that we work with are in a state of financial uncertainty most of the time, so crises like this are unfortunately not far from the norm for them. A sudden inflow of cash like a tax refund or a stimulus check is an opportunity to get on more sound financial footing by paying off debt. 

When they do have money, they go to brands they feel an emotional connection to, and TrueAccord has spent years building a reputation as a trusted partner for consumers in debt. That’s why we’re seeing an unusual surge.

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the global economy in unprecedented ways, but there is still some data that helps us understand what consumer spending habits can be expected in a recession. Maintaining communication with consumers affected by the pandemic and helping them to navigate this complex financial crisis is a necessary process.

Options empower consumers to pay when they can

Several states like Nevada and Massachusetts are restricting debt collection practices in an effort to stop collection calls during a time of potential sickness or unemployment.  However, as Samet mentioned, debt collectors regularly encounter consumers who are going through hardships that often lead to their indebtedness.

During times of financial stress, it is equally important that we provide consumers options and tools to manage their accounts as they see fit and when they are able based on their personal situation. As evidenced by the sheer volume of payments submitted in our system after consumers received their stimulus checks, consumers desire to pay down their debts when they have the financial ability to do so. 

There are many resources available for consumers that are experiencing hardships, and we want to empower consumers in debt to get back on their feet.  Kelly Knepper-Stephens, VP Legal & Compliance, explains:

As a collection agency, we can help by providing consumers with the ability to self-serve using tools that offer flexible options including non-payment options, such as options to dispute, apply for hardship, stop phone calls, or unsubscribe to emails. Consumers appreciate the opportunity to make all these decisions when they have the time and ability to do so, which is why it is critical to be able to provide consumers with 24-hour self-service options.  

Empowering the consumer with these choices and with the ability to communicate in the manner they prefer (which may or may not be over the telephone) can bring relief about existing obligations during a stressful time. A lack of options can feel restricting and stressful, and our data supports the power of choice.

Want to see how a digital platform can improve your consumer engagement? Reach out to us for more information!

What is skip tracing in debt collection?

By on May 12th, 2020 in Industry Insights

When a consumer falls into debt, and they are unable to pay off their accounts, debt collectors are brought on board to recover payments on these delinquent accounts. Occasionally, a consumer, feeling they are out of options and entirely unable to complete payment on their account will stop responding to communications from a collection agency. In some instances, breaking the line of communication is entirely accidental. 

If a person moves, and they don’t update a forwarding address, letter-based communications may be completely lost, and with 95% of collection agencies continuing to send letters, this can lead to a massive drop off! Consumers that have accumulated large amounts of debt may be forced to move frequently or are left without a home entirely. These consumers know that their debts will not disappear, so how do you communicate with them to discuss and resolve their account?

What is skip tracing?

Skip tracing is the process of collectors actively locating consumers that owe money on an account. The term comes from the phrase “to skip town,” and can make it seem like these consumers are intentionally abandoning creditors’ attempts to reach them. 

How is skip tracing conducted?

Skip tracing in collections is sometimes necessary to close out these long-forgotten accounts. Skip tracers are dedicated to gathering as much information about a consumer as possible in order to clarify their most accurate and up-to-date information. As more traditional collections methods are shifting to a digital approach so too is skip tracing.

Major names in the finance world like TransUnion and Experian offer powerful, data-driven, digital skip-tracing tools that help update contact lists live. These tools draw from accessible lists of user data to pinpoint consumers that may have updated their contact information elsewhere online including:

  1. Local exchange carrier listings
  2. White pages
  3. Credit files
  4. Other proprietary lists acquired by the company

Some third-party debt collection agencies also retain a dedicated skip-tracing service in order to accommodate these hard-to-reach accounts. Unfortunately, there is a chance that some accounts are simply lost, but by employing proper tools, even in-house collections teams can minimize the number of customers that skip out. 

Another important step in reducing the need for skip tracing all together is to gather consumer email addresses as another point of contact. Over 244 million people in the US have registered email addresses. They are not tied to locations, and most importantly for consumers in large amounts of debt: they are free to open and maintain. 

It is also possible that a customer may intentionally hope to evade a creditor if they feel they are being harassed by aggressive collections techniques or if there are no payment options that work with their budget. Fostering consumer relationships with customers that are past due on their account may seem counterintuitive to some businesses, but creating a positive customer experience should be at the forefront of any collections strategy. 

This extends to offering payment plans to accommodate customers at any point in their customer lifecycle. Working with these consumers proactively to build a plan that they can afford prevents the need for reactive measures down the line. In order to effectively contact consumers in debt, teams must adapt to changing consumer preferences, actively work with their customers, and encourage them to retake control of their finances. 

Using a consumer’s preferred contact channel can go a long way in preventing lost contact. Talk to our team to learn how going digital today helps you tomorrow.

3 things to avoid with in-house collections teams

By on May 6th, 2020 in Compliance, Industry Insights

When more than one-quarter of American consumers have debts in collections it’s easy to see the rising need for any company to have a collections strategy. Working to get a dedicated internal team up and running to collect effectively can be a resource-intensive project, especially for small businesses. 

Creating the infrastructure for a collections team includes building extensive policies to protect your business from compliance violations, carefully training agents (or building incredibly complex digital infrastructure), and hiring collections and recovery experts to support these new efforts.

Once you have the logistics of your collections department sorted out, it’s time to start reaching out to your customers. Here are important things to avoid when you get started.

Wait to start collecting

“Too late” can come all too soon when it comes to recovering on aging accounts. A series of small payments or even a single large payment can cause issues for small businesses, but missed payments—especially in a recession—can pile up quickly for anyone. Avoid getting too far behind (and potentially sabotaging your growing email strategy) and get ahead of the problem.

While you gradually build an internal collections team, you can also consider partnering with a third-party debt collection agency. Having a partner on retainer can prepare you for working with a growing number of accounts as your business expands. These strategies aren’t mutually exclusive either, and you can gain greater insight into the performance of both teams by comparing their respective strategies and methods.

Reveal a debt to a third party

The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) clearly states that it is illegal to expose an individual’s debt to third parties—including friends, family, neighbors, co-workers, and employers. The FDCPA was established in 1977, and it primarily focuses its regulation toward traditional call-and-collect debt collection agencies (with a team of collectors calling consumers on the phone). 

Though the FDCPA was primarily focused on call-and-collect technologies, its rules still apply to other communication channels. Collectors attempting to call consumers must be wary of leaving voicemail messages that directly state that they are calling to collect a debt due to the potential risk of someone else listening to it. The law regulates how your teams can (and cannot) use social media to get connected with consumers. 

Use confusing or unclear verbiage

Even if you are sending messages directly to a consumer’s inbox you can potentially violate communication compliance regulations. In the case Lavallee vs. Med-1 Solutions, that the defendant (Med-1 Solutions) did not provide the consumer with the required initial disclosures. The consumer received an email and had to click an unknown link and navigate a series of tasks before accessing information related to their debt. The email did not convey any information about the debt, and the court ruled that this series of steps meant that the email did not constitute a “communication” for the purpose of collections.

Any communication to a consumer from a debt collection agency must explicitly state who it is coming from and why (read more on the mini Miranda here), and masking that intent (either purposefully or not) can lead to more compliance troubles. While it is strongly recommended that you borrow metrics from marketing teams to enhance digital communications, be careful with taking too many queues from marketing language. All content sent by TrueAccord’s teams are processed through a legal review before they’re ever sent to a consumer.

As a collector, your first step to reaching your collection goals is having a well-organized team to support your efforts. Collections and recoveries at major companies can account for hundreds of employees, but a new department won’t appear overnight. Remaining careful as you scale your team and their strategy can save you from potential lawsuits and ensure a positive consumer experience. 

Are you looking for a debt collection partner to help answer some questions? Talk to our team today to see how we can help build your digital collections strategy together.

How do you correct (or prevent) email deliverability issues?

By on May 4th, 2020 in Product and Technology

Email is only one of many powerful digital channels at your disposal when it comes to connecting with consumers. Regardless of which of these channels you decide to use to reach those consumers, you also have to decide how to measure the effectiveness of your new digital tools. 

We’ve discussed email deliverability and what it means to collections, but once you have the proper email infrastructure in place, your team’s focus should shift toward both measuring the impact of those email efforts and understanding what declining performance can mean to your collections process. Here are a few things to keep in mind so that you can minimize the impact of deliverability issues and optimize your contact rates.

Build a baseline

The first step in effectively correcting email deliverability problems is to start with a baseline that you can compare to. Measuring the impact of issues on your digital collections strategy requires your team to establish what “normal” looks like for your business. Some engagement-related metrics that matter most to email-based digital debt collection typically include:

  1. Open rates
  2. Click rates
  3. Conversion rates

For email marketers, conversion rates signal when users take a desired action after engaging with marketing material. These actions often involve making a purchase or signing up for a product demo. In collections, conversion rates are measured by a combination of email engagement metrics and the more traditional liquidation rates. The desired action your collections team is looking for is a promise to pay or a completed payment.

With a baseline set for your digital performance, you can compare your average conversion rate to any fluctuations you see in your deliverability. Tracking this data over time then helps you to clearly measure how your deliverability rates impact collections and how specific deliverability issues (send volume, send time, content, etc.) impact your bottom line.

Identify and monitor engagement with deliverability

Email deliverability rates directly reflect whether or not you are reaching consumers’ inboxes, but your engagement shows you whether or not your consumers are taking action. Tracking deliverability in tandem with engagement metrics can provide insight into what changes need to be made to accommodate potentially shrinking inboxing rates. Here are two important correlations to keep an eye on.

Stable open rates and decreased deliverability

If you notice a decline in deliverability, but consistent open rates, there is a strong chance that your email list is out of date or a newly imported list contains incorrect contact information for your consumers. Consumers in your system that are listed correctly are continuing to engage at the same rate, but you have a higher number of bounces or failed sends.

Email validation is an important step in limiting the chances of a situation like this happening as this process confirms whether or not email addresses are legitimate. Large lists may contain small typos or transpositions that would turn an otherwise valid email address into a useless string of characters.

Decreased open rates and decreased deliverability

In the event that there is a decrease in both open rates and deliverability, it is likely that your send domains (the part of an email address after the @ sign) are being blocked or blacklisted. Fewer recipients are actually receiving your emails and even fewer are opening them.

There are a number of steps an organization can take to prevent this downtrend including using multiple domains and carefully scaling an email strategy before attempting to reach thousands of consumers. Attempting to remedy these issues after they have happened may prove to be too late.

Recognize the scope of an issue

Sending collections emails at scale can mean trying to reach thousands of consumers per day. It’s difficult to imagine a process of that scale without some sent emails not bouncing or simply being ignored.

TrueAccord successfully delivered millions of emails. Want to learn how we do it? Check-in with our team today.

As we mentioned earlier, a massive downturn in deliverability can lead to email domains being blacklisted which means those messages will be relegated to spam folders across ISPs (internet service providers). TrueAccord’s in-house Head of Email Operations, Raja Datta, has some extra advice (which was also contributed to a segment for Kickbox) for those looking to prevent these issues from causing further damage.

Attempting to recover your domain authority (proving to ISPs like Google or Yahoo that you aren’t a spammer) at that stage is remarkably difficult, but if you recognize a downtrend in click-rates, you can make relatively minor changes to the content of an email (phrasing on a call to action, different subject lines, etc.) to improve engagement. 

The scale of your deliverability issue will dictate how urgently you have to respond to it and how many resources must be put toward its resolution. Tracking these potential problems early and often can lead to intercepting them before your email strategy is significantly weakened and send domains are entirely blacklisted; update your subject line now and avoid getting blocked later.

Getting to the root of deliverability issues will ensure your email strategy is sustainable for years to come. As right-party contact rates continue to fall and digital channels take priority over phone calls, starting to track your email performance now and understanding how to measure your digital strategy’s success will get your team ahead of the collections curve. 

Does this all seem a bit daunting? We get it. Talk to our team today to see how we can help perfect your digital collections strategy.

Debt collection software vs. digital collections agency

By on April 30th, 2020 in Product and Technology

Traditional call and collect strategies are becoming increasingly difficult to maintain. High agent turnover rates, plummeting right party contact rates, and ever-evolving legislation are driving companies to abandon long-standing practices and seek new solutions.

The two driving options for bringing collections strategies into the digital world are integrating digital collections software into an existing plan or partnering with a 3rd-party, digital debt collection agency. What are the key differences and which one will work for you? Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of each to help your team make a decision.

Debt Collection Software

Collections software can help existing teams build new, digital infrastructure. They cover a wide range of services including:

  • Customizable self-service portals
  • A/B testing for communication
  • Engagement reporting
  • SMS and email automation
  • Chatbots
  • Pay by text tools

These tools offer the ability to engage consumers based on their preferences for time and digital channels. They also bridge the gap between traditional collections methods and consumers that prefer emails and online portals over phone calls.

Compliance support

Software as a service (SaaS) companies in the collections space also boast built-in compliance adherence and aim to decrease the risk of agent-driven call centers.

Cons

Debt collections software solutions can offer incredibly extensive performance evaluation and automation tools, but the volume of tools available can easily become overwhelming for teams new to a digital experience. This can lead to underuse and turn a powerful tool into a wasted resource.

There is also a struggle at the industry level to help transition collections into a digital space. Call and collect strategies continue to be the norm for collections, and the voices seeking to shift the industry in a new direction are met with the Innovator’s Dilemma: “the very decision-making and resource allocation processes that are key to the success of established companies are the very processes that reject disruptive technologies…”

This caution is multiplied by the fact that these software platforms may not be all-in-one answers to a collection team’s problems. The process of integrating a single tool can be costly (in terms of both money and resources), and suddenly needing to integrate another one because the first solution did not offer a specific SMS-based tool, can mean a team starts to look more like they’re putting together technology tech stacks than a collection strategy.

Lastly, traditional call and collect teams that do integrate new technologies may rewire them to drive inbound phone calls rather than focusing on the possible growth of primarily digital approaches. 

Digital debt collection agencies

Full-service digital debt collection agencies offer many of the same benefits provided by SaaS platforms, but they also provide the expanded assistance of an expert team and end-to-end service. Software companies provide account support and insight into product performance, but digital-first agencies not only have full teams and systems dedicated to product optimization, they also have agents that are trained to work in tandem with the digital tools.

Fully integrated teams also mean that agencies can offer simple, accelerated onboarding. In contrast, software platforms vary in how easily they can be integrated into an existing strategy, but successfully maximizing their performance still requires committed internal resources. 

Third-party team support

Digital debt collection agencies support their efforts with dedicated teams:

Product development

Product teams continually develop new strategies for improved digital performance including optimization of onboarding, enabling new digital tools, and continually improving the consumer user experience. 

Deliverability experts

Email deliverability teams optimize contact rates across digital channels. Deliverability metrics such as open rates and click rates become essential for evaluating the success of digital campaigns when compared to traditional call-to-collect solutions.

Building a scalable email infrastructure is incredibly challenging. Companies cannot simply start sending hundreds or thousands of emails overnight. Check out this article on how to build scalable email infrastructure.

Legal teams

Dedicated agencies require licensing and must adhere to the same regulations and laws that traditional debt collectors do. This means that digital-first agencies rely on in-house legal support and compliance to keep them up to date with evolving industry legislation. 

Account executives/success specialists

Account executives serve as liaisons between the creditor and the digital agency in a similar way they would for a SaaS platform. 

Cons

Digital-first debt collection agencies are not the norm. The biggest challenge to working with a digital agency is trying to understand a completely new approach to debt collection. When traditional call center metrics are no longer useful and your agency partner is ready to discuss open, click, and deliverability rates, there’s a hurdle that must be overcome to viewing collections through a new lens.

The industry is gradually realizing the effectiveness of digital debt collection agencies, but their naturalization will only come after existing agencies recognize the impact of using debt collection software and encountering the challenges that come with it first-hand. 

Whether your team integrates a powerful new software platform to support your internal collections efforts or brings on a third-party digital-first partner, digital debt collection is rapidly changing the collections landscape and redefining how collectors interact with consumers.  

Ready to learn more about what it means to partner with a digital-first agency? We’re happy to help. Schedule some time with our team to show you what more an agency can offer!

What consumer repayment trends can we expect from a recession?

By on April 23rd, 2020 in Industry Insights

Financial institutions around the world are seeing massive changes to the way consumers are engaging with their finances. The COVID-19 pandemic and the growing recession are also changing the way that consumers are engaging with their debts.

During the 2008 financial crisis, we actually saw that “charge-off rates for subprime consumers increased only moderately relative to pre-crash levels” according to a white paper recently published by 2nd Order Solutions and Boston Consulting Group.1

The recent historic and exponential rise in unemployment rates and the rapid onset of an economic recession, however, also means that there isn’t a precedent for precise predictions. Thankfully, based on current trends and existing data, we can see some patterns beginning to emerge.

Based on a survey conducted by Bankrate, roughly 25% of Americans expect to put their stimulus checks toward paying off a debt, and 50% plan to use their checks to pay monthly bills. TrueAccord’s consumer payment trends support this information. Our teams saw a 120% increase in contact rates as the government deposited consumers’ stimulus checks, and even amidst the crisis, we are seeing a change in the way consumers are approaching their payments.

We’re seeing a shift in consumer preferences toward long-term payment plans, rather than one-time payments. While only 30% of payments made in April 2019 were from payment plans, a year later, we now see a near-even 50% split between plan creation and single payments.

Evolving technology meeting consumer needs

Another trend outlined by Boston Consulting Group’s whitepaper highlights the role of technology amidst a recession. 

“[Financial institutions] with a more sophisticated approach to communication fared better than their peers during the crisis. Multi-channel strategies spanning phone, SMS, and email, underpinned by predictive analytics and integrated data acquisition, are commonly seen at these financial institutions.”

TrueAccord’s digital-first collections strategy is showing us first-hand the power of enabling consumers to manage their own finances, at their own pace, even in a crisis. 

Wnat to learn more about how we’re reaching consumers? Get in touch with our team today!

Citations

  1. Boston Consulting Group, 2nd Order Solutions (2020) Winning in the Next Era of Collections: Preparing collections for a recession

Operations insights: An interview with Tobias Campbell

By on April 21st, 2020 in Company News, Industry Insights

TrueAccord is redefining the collections industry, and the fastest way to do that is by building the best teams. I sat down for a conversation with Tobias Campbell, a former operations manager at a payday and installment loan company in charge of in-house collections—and our team’s newest Account Executive—to discuss his experience in the industry, what challenges he faced in traditional collections (including falling right party contact rates and high employee turnover), and why he decided to join TrueAccord.

Welcome to the team! Before we dive in, could you tell us a little about your experience in finance and how your career led you into the collections space?

Prior to my start in collections in 2016, I worked at a large bank in the retail and private banking investment portfolio space. When I had the opportunity to transition to the consumer finance industry working in-house as an operations manager for a larger consumer lending company I wanted to take the chance despite collections’ negative reputation. I knew there had to be a better way to get in touch with consumers and change that perception.

What was your focus as an operations manager when you got started?

Initially, I spent time listening to agent calls and getting a clear sense of how they engaged with customers, and I was really determined to improve our right party contact rate. I helped transform the training process for agents to use more of a sales approach.

We still coached the team on building rapport with the consumers they were reaching, but also leveraged sales strategies in an effort to increase our overall performance. Beyond new training strategies for our agents, we started to dabble a little in sending emails, but they were basic drip campaigns consisting of a few manual emails per person. 

The small changes added up, and we were able to double our right party contact rates. But ultimately those improvements were marginal. Calling to collect wasn’t sustainable and the law of diminishing returns started to kick in, especially as we ran into more call blocking apps and services. 

So when training smoothed out, what were some of the other challenges you were running into? 

Two of the biggest ones we were facing were agent turnover and trying to keep up with the volume of accounts we were managing. We had to bring new agents on pretty frequently because of the high turnover rates. When agents first start there’s an element of excitement because they’re ready to start their new job. They can make a difference. They’d start off strong, but then we’d see those same people burnout in three to six months.

TrueAccord was performing 7 times better than our internal team, and that’s including the service fee that we were paying

It’s a very difficult job. Anyone that’s ever worked in collections knows that even if you manage to get a consumer on the phone, especially with an account that’s been delinquent for more than six months, the likelihood of securing that payment is slim. It’s hard to keep agents motivated and excited through that. Plus, there’s the compliance piece. 

Having the technology in place to ensure your agents meet all of the compliance obligations is a daily struggle. No matter the number of tools available, the amount of compliance training, or the level of oversight, there is always the chance for human error when you have live agents on the phone. 

At the same time, we realized that we were just getting too big, and our internal team could not handle our volume, especially with a declining RPC rate. We had our entire collection strategy in-house for so long, so we looked at our numbers, and the further accounts went into delinquency, the harder and harder it got to reach them. There was a need for a partner that could help us in the late-stage space. 

Our CEO at the time knew Ohad [Samet, the Founder of TrueAccord] and he saw what TrueAccord was doing—leveraging technology and email, which we weren’t really using—so we decided to send over any accounts that went beyond 120 days. We kept 10% of that paper ourselves so that we could compare effectiveness rates between the mostly digital and the call-to-collect strategy. 

What did that comparison look like?

The change was night and day. After six months, we saw that TrueAccord was performing on par with our internal team’s historic performance on those portfolios, but [TrueAccord’s machine learning engine] Heartbeat kept going. At twelve months, TrueAccord was recovering twice as much as we were on a percentage of outstanding debt, and by the time I left in early 2020, TrueAccord was performing 7 times better than our internal team, and that’s including the service fee that we were paying TrueAccord. 

We had customers that would get on the phone with an agent, and they would say “hey, can you send me to TrueAccord?” They would regularly talk about having more options, more flexibility, and the most common one was “they don’t call me 3, 4, 5 times per day!”

When you started to see the difference between TrueAccord and your internal team, was there any plan to try and update your practices to something more in line with what TrueAccord was doing?

We saw consumers gravitating toward digital communications over phone calls, so we recruited a product manager to research and build a digital strategy in house. There was some conversation around improving our email messaging by making the tone softer, since our current emails felt very businesslike and, well, boring?

There was a lot of talk around needing to make these substantial changes, but we didn’t know how. We didn’t have the infrastructure in place, we wouldn’t be able to automate content personalization the way TrueAccord does. Plus, the costs needed to develop the solution were a barrier to entry, especially when we already had a partner providing those services successfully. I decided that I wanted to join TrueAccord because I saw that unfolding, and I knew that TrueAccord had a differentiated product: a flywheel for this industry.

If you had to offer a final takeaway piece of advice to other lenders doing in-house collections, what would you tell them?

Don’t lose sight of the backend of the business from a revenue perspective. There is typically an intense focus on attracting new consumers to the product, and we start to forget about previous customers that still owe money on their account.

I would advise other managers in the collections space to think about building a digital line of defense, especially in preparation for a downturn or recession. When consumers are in a difficult situation, digital approaches can better connect with them and will lead to more dollars recovered.

Are you ready to invest in a sustainable digital infrastructure? Get in touch with our team today!