Greene v. TrueAccord further refines email best practices

By on May 19th, 2020 in Compliance

The Northern District of California has confirmed what the law makes clear: a debt collector may send the initial communication by email (except in New York).

In Greene v. TrueAccord, Case No. 19-cv-06651 (N.D. Cal. May 19, 2020), the Plaintiff claimed the initial email she received and opened violated the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) and the Electronic Signatures in Global Commerce Act (E-SIGN) because she never consented to receive email from TrueAccord.

As the District Court made clear, consent is not a factor when an initial communication contains the validation notice in the body of the email. Only one week after final submissions on the motion to dismiss the Complaint, the District Court dismissed the case with prejudice also finding TrueAccord’s validation notice met the requirements of the law and TrueAccord’s emails sent during the 30-day validation period did not overshadow the initial demand.

The case

Sending the initial communication and validation notice by email

A debt collector must provide a consumer with a notice about how to dispute an account.  The law states the notice must be given either in the initial communication or in writing within 5 days of that first communication.  The FDCPA does not state what methods a collector can use to provide the validation notice in the initial communication—it only indicates that a “communication” is conveying information about a debt through any medium.  Many debt collectors have hesitated to use email and other modern forms of communications that consumers prefer because these modes are not addressed in the FDCPA.  

In this case, Plaintiff argued that TrueAccord violated the FDCPA by sending the validation notice in an initial communication by email without the consumer’s consent.  Plaintiff argued that TrueAccord did not follow the E-SIGN Act, which outlines the requirements for obtaining consent to email a consumer documents that must be provided in writing.  

However, as the Court recognized, the E-Sign Act applies to notices that must be provided in writing.  Under the FDCPA, the validation notice is not required to be provided in writing if it is given in the initial communication.  Since TrueAccord provided the validation notice in the body of the initial communication, E-SIGN does not apply.  The Court ruled TrueAccord properly delivered the validation notice in the body of the initial email.

“The Court also agreed with the CFPB’s proposal on the fact that the subject line should contain the name of the creditor and one additional piece of information about the debt other than the amount.”

The Court, in finding that an initial communication can be made electronically, pointed to the fact that “a communication” is broadly defined and can be sent across any medium. Additionally, the Court pointed out that despite amending the FDCPA in 2006 Congress has not made any effort to amend the statute to account for newer communication technologies that have developed.  The Court also recognized the CFPB’s proposed rulemaking permits a validation notice as part of an initial communication in the body of an email. 

The Court explained that when using email to send the initial communication the notice must be reasonably conveyed to the consumer. This requires the notice to appear in the body of the email—not in an attachment where it could be “hidden from the eyes” of the consumer. 

The Court also agreed with the CFPB’s proposal on the fact that the subject line should contain the name of the creditor and one additional piece of information about the debt other than the amount. This ensures “the consumer’s attention is focused on the email . . . as many . . . make decisions to read, ignore, or delete emails on the basis of the subject line.” 

While TrueAccord’s subject line did not contain this information (it read “This needs your attention”), the Plaintiff received the email and opened it.  While the Court noted that the subject line did not convey that the purpose of the email was to collect a debt, the Plaintiff still opened the email with the validation notice in the body.  Therefore, Plaintiff had no standing to make an argument that the subject misled her from opening and receiving the notice when she actually opened it. 

Use of the term “send” instead of “mailed”

Plaintiff also argued that the validation notice in the body of the email was incorrect and misleading because the statute reads “a copy of such verification . . . will be mailed to the consumer.” Yet, the notice in TrueAccord’s email used the word “send” instead of the word “mailed.” 

When evaluating whether or not a collection communication violates the FDCPA, Courts use the “least sophisticated consumer standard.”  This standard is designed to protect all consumers in the spirit of the FDCPA, not just the consumer who filed a lawsuit.  

In looking at the challenged language under this least sophisticated consumer standard, the Court held that there is no requirement for a validation notice to track the language of the statute verbatim.  The Court stated that: 

“…the fact that TrueAccord’s notice departed from the statutory language could not plausibly have deceived or misled the least sophisticated consumer reading the notice.” 

Instead, the consumer would understand from the use of the word “send” that a copy of the verification could be physically mailed or electronically mailed; as the Court noted, electronic mailing of validation documents is permitted in compliance with the E-SIGN Act.

Subsequent email communications did not overshadow the validation notice

Plaintiff also claimed that multiple demands for payment during the thirty-day validation period violated the FDCPA because these emails overshadowed the initial communication containing the validation notice.  The FDCPA protects consumers from collection efforts and communications sent during the thirty-day validation period that overshadow the consumer’s right to dispute.  Typically, communications that demand immediate payment or offer deadlines prior to the expiration of the thirty days constitute overshadowing.

In dismissing Plaintiff’s theory, the Court found that the FDCPA does not put any limits on the number of times a debt collector can communicate with a consumer during the validation period.  The Court noted that while it is possible that the number and timing of communications sent to a consumer could be relevant in an evaluation of whether the communications overshadow the notice, the number of communications in this case—seven within a 30day period—is not excessive. 

The Court also looked at the content of all these emails.  The emails clearly conveyed that TrueAccord would like a payment. They did not include:

  • Language requiring a payment
  • Language suggesting that a payment should be made prior to the expiration of the 30-day validation period

The Court noted there was no real expression of urgency and all emails had a prominent out of statute disclosure stating that, because of the age of the debt, the creditor will not sue Plaintiff or report it to a credit reporting agency.  By taking this “non-threatening content” of the communications in consideration with the number of emails sent, the Court did not find it plausible that the least sophisticated consumer could be misled or that the emails overshadowed the validation notice.

What lessons can we learn from this case?

Greene is only the second case ever to evaluate how to properly provide the validation notice by email.  It provides good guidance to follow:

  • Placing the notice in the body of the email, not behind a password or through a link with seven steps to download (like in LaVallee) and
  • Including the name of the creditor and one additional piece of information in the subject line. This step brings the consumer’s attention to the initial email as relating to the debt (this is also forthcoming in the CFPB rule).

Greene is also the first case ever to evaluate the content of email communications sent during the validation period.  It provides good guidance to follow regarding appropriate tone, frequency, and payment requests.  Of interest, the Court noted that TrueAccord included a “Dispute this Debt” link on all emails.  The Court felt that it’s smaller font size and placement at the footer of the emails “buried” the link; but ultimately that fact:

“…did not mean that the original validation notice ha[d] been overshadowed, particularly given the specific facts before the Court.”  

The text appeared in the footer of all emails, along with our mailing address, phone number, office hours, and Privacy Policy.  

Email is a core part of an omnichannel, digital collection strategy, but it doesn’t evolve overnight. It’s important that you have the experience and infrastructure in place to send and deliver emails on a mass scale so that they’re delivered to the consumer’s inbox. Cases like this are shaping the future of digital debt collection practices and how consumers interact with their debts. 

Want to learn more about how TrueAccord remains at the forefront of regulatory change? Reach out to our team!

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 Interviews

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!

What is email deliverability and why does it matter to collections?

By on April 16th, 2020 in Product and Technology

Without the ability to successfully deliver your collection emails to a consumer’s inbox, email cannot be a successful collection method for your agency.  Email deliverability is the measure of the ability to successfully deliver an email to a user’s inbox. It is perhaps the most relevant KPI in an email-first digital collection strategy.  Several factors can influence whether or not your emails even reach people including spam filters, sending times and volume, and even the content of the message itself.

Want to learn more about building a scalable email strategy? Check out these tips from our team of deliverability experts!

A high deliverability rate then means that you are creating the right content, sharing it at the right time, and engaging your consumers. By measuring engagement through clicks, you can combine these statistics with an online payment portal to create an easily-tracked customer journey to payment without ever picking up the phone. 

Pivoting to tracking deliverability rates, clicks, online payment totals, and payment plans created creates a full digital ecosystem of KPIs with better engagement than traditional call-to-collect models. Here are a few tips for making email an effective part of your collections strategy.

Borrow email metrics from marketing experts

Our own email deliverability experts have years of experience working in the digital marketing space. KPIs like open rates, click-through rates, and conversion rates aren’t just for marketing teams working on generating leads, they can offer insight into the effectiveness of your collections efforts and help you understand whether or not you’re actually reaching your consumers. 

Tracking deliverability rates, clicks, online payment totals, and payment plans created creates a full digital ecosystem of KPIs with better engagement than traditional call-to-collect models. This is a lot of data to keep track of, and digital debt collection tools can provide some assistance in tracking digital and other tracking performance data

Emails also don’t depend on urgency in the same way that phone calls do. Customers appreciate the convenience of managing their finances on their own time (25% of our customers access their accounts outside of the call hours designated of 8am-9pm by the TCPA). Analyzing open rates for different send times provides a deeper understanding of when your consumers like to be reached.

Email marketing metrics not only accomplish the same goals as more traditional call-based KPIs, but you also have an even clearer vision of your collections performance.

Authenticate and build domain reputation 

Email authentication allows ISPs (Yahoo, Gmail, AOL, etc.) to properly identify an email’s sender. Any time an email is sent to and reaches a consumer, you are representing your company’s brand and reputation with that email. The actual process of email authentication requires the implementation of several authentication standards:

Sender Policy Framework (SPF)

This allows the owner of a domain to determine which servers their emails are sent from.

DomainKeys Identified Mail (DKIM)

DKIM is an encryption system that allows the email sender to claim responsibility for a message. That encrypted information can then be verified by the ISP. 

Domain-based Message Authentication Reporting and Conformance (DMARC)

This standard (and policy-making organization) further expands on these and adds linkage to the author (“From:”) domain name to improve and monitor the protection of the domain from fraudulent email. The DMARC organization continues to update policies related to domain security.

Brand Indicators for Message Identification (BIMI)

BIMI helps users to identify brands based on images included alongside their emails. Consider them an email preview profile picture to help users immediately recognize the email’s sender.*

*In order to integrate BIMI, you must have the other three standards mentioned here established first.

Interested in learning more about these standards? The Validity blog has a great series on SPF, DKIM, and DMARC for you to read here

An authenticated domain helps to boost your domain reputation. If your send domain (the part of an email address after the @ sign) has a poor reputation, it is more likely to be relegated to a user’s spam inbox. Taking the proper steps to build authentication standards can secure your reputation against a massive hurdle that you’ll encounter otherwise. 

Validate and increase RPC rates

Email validation is the process of ensuring that the emails you are sending to are valid and deliverable. Where authentication focuses on establishing your own email domains, validation verifies whether or not the consumer email addresses that you have on file are valid emails. 

Sending an email to a non-existent email address will cause the email to bounce; you will receive a notice that the email could not successfully be delivered. A high bounce rate from emailing too many invalid users will be perceived by ISPs as poor list management—a common practice of batch email scammers—and your sender reputation will be damaged and your deliverability will drop.

In the digital collections world, sending to valid email addresses is also directly related to your right party contact rate. By validating your email lists, you can quickly identify which of your consumers have valid contact information in your system. With this information on hand, you can directly reach out to those that do, build your domain reputation, and learn which of your customers you’ll have to reach out to for updated information.

Not every traditional debt collection agency is using email extensively, but it is an invaluable tool in the age of digital communication. Understanding the technical aspects of email deliverability and the challenges that come with properly scaling your digital communications will help you overcome contact hurdles that are more challenging now than ever before.

Are you ready to build a future-proofed digital collections strategy? Get in touch with our team to learn what we can do to help.