Debt collection is a highly regulated industry and as such, is notoriously slow to change. While there are a number of reasons for this, the end result is a growing gap between consumer’s expectations and the services creditors offer.
TrueAccord’s recent report, Consumer Debt in the Age of COVID-19, found that during times of economic uncertainty, this gap can grow even wider. Repayments may be irregular for the foreseeable future, so when consumers do choose to pay, it’s up to collectors to make the process as simple as possible. Now more than ever, it’s clear that the collections industry needs to catch up with other financial services and provide modern solutions for the consumers it services.
Debt collectors can pave the way for an improved consumer experience with context-aware messaging, flexibility, and opportunities for consumers to engage on their own terms.
Use Context-Aware Messaging
A consumer’s relationship with a debt collector begins well before any payment activities. While this relationship has traditionally been built on a series of letters and phone calls, today, it’s crucial to leverage digital channels and a context-aware approach.
Consumers expect a personalized experience from their financial services, and debt collection should be no different. Customizing communications based on context improves engagement and enhances the customer experience. To succeed, digital debt collectors must leverage their messages from robust content libraries, selecting the right communication at the right time.
A key part of finding the “right” message is striking the right tone. Financial hardships are challenging to navigate and as a debt collector, being patient and offering solutions can make a world of difference.
At TrueAccord, our machine learning engine, Heartbeat, chooses the “right” message to send from thousands of legally approved communications based on the millions of people TrueAccord has worked with in the past. We’ve found that the right content in an email can increase click-through rates by 20%.
To be sure, optimizing content is about tone and timing — not increased frequency of communications. In fact, there are many safeguards in place to protect consumers from email overload. Not only will email service providers identify those who over-email as spam, but consumers can also independently unsubscribe or flag messages as spam if they feel harassed.
Provide Flexible Options
Offering consumers flexible payment options is not only better for customer experience, but it can have a dramatic impact on payment plan retention as well. Our research shows that consumers are 50% less likely to drop off of a flexible payment arrangement.
While flexibility has always been a differentiator for debt collectors, it is especially important during times of economic hardship and uncertainty. Consumers are more likely to begin a payment plan if they are confident that they can adjust their payments to accommodate uneven or unpredictable cash flow. We’ve found that consumers are more inclined to pay off debts that they feel are manageable and are owed to a company they trust.
Introduce Self-Service Options
Today, consumers take care of most of their financial needs without ever talking to a human, and paying a debt shouldn’t be any different. Online self-service tools have become the norm across financial institutions and debt collectors need to follow suit to best serve consumers.
All debt collectors should set up a payment portal so that consumers can seamlessly make payments online. This type of self-service tool reduces friction for the consumer by removing the need to speak to an agent and allowing them to pay at any time, not just during business hours. Our data shows that 17% of consumers access our website before 8:00 a.m. or after 9:00 p.m — times when they could never talk to an agent.
To truly match the convenience of online banking, digital tools must also allow consumers to take a variety of actions including (but not limited to):
- Adjusting the length and installment amount on their payment plan
- Deferring a payment
- Disputing all or a portion of their debt
- Entering bankruptcy information
- Applying for a hardship pause on their debt.
Implement Smarter Staffing
In times of national economic uncertainty, payments are likely to be inconsistent. For example, during the coronavirus crisis, we may see spikes in payment activity as individuals receive governmental aid or businesses are able to hire back their workers. Unfortunately, staffing becomes very complicated when there is uncertain demand. On top of that, operating a call center is currently harder than ever, with most states still requiring staff to work from home—a challenge for compliance, IT, and HR.
One step companies can take is to prepare for spikes in payments based on leading indicators of future demand. These can include factors such as economic indicators (like unemployment rate), governmental aid programs (like the CARES Act), and consumer digital engagement trends (like click-through rates on emails). While these indicators won’t provide enough time to train a whole new team of agents, they may signal a good time to bring in your seasonal staff.
But in order to succeed in the long-term, debt collection agencies must introduce a digital-first model. Once someone decides to pay a debt, having digital payment options alleviates pressure on the call center. At TrueAccord, 95% of consumers resolve their debts without ever speaking with an agent.
Needless to say, humans are still crucial. While machines are great at handling routine requests, there is no replacement for a well-trained agent to help customers with more complex situations. However, with the help of digital tools, each agent is more efficient. At TrueAccord, each agent is able to service more than 80,000 accounts (and counting) vs. a traditional agency’s 1,000-2,500. This type of hybrid model provides the best possible customer experience, even during busy times.
During times of economic uncertainty, debt collectors must adapt to an operating model that empowers consumers to manage their debts in the way that makes most sense for them. Based on historical trends, as well as the consumer behaviors we’ve seen in the first few months of the coronavirus pandemic, we recommend that all companies collecting debt should use context-aware messaging, provide flexible options, introduce self-service options, and implement smarter staffing.