Working with the new consumer: An interview with Mike Walsh

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

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.

What role does social media play in debt collection?

By on April 8th, 2020 in Industry Insights

Social media in the business world is typically used in a few select ways: individuals that use platforms like LinkedIn to connect with one another, businesses that engage with directly with consumers on platforms’ brand pages, and businesses that place advertisements to reach specific audiences of prospective customers. 

In the debt collection industry, the use of social media is regulated by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau when used as a channel by which traditional call-to-collect debt collection agencies attempt to reach consumers that they couldn’t reach by phone must comply with the Federal Debt Communication Practices Act (FDCPA) and other state and city consumer protection laws. 

The CFPB’s new debt collection rule addresses appropriate ways to use social media (among many other things), but the rule doesn’t explore the use of social media as a tool beyond private messaging. Social media platforms are very useful tools for digital debt collection agencies and creditors to communicate with consumers but not in the way you might think.

Two things you should not do with social media

Friend request

Sending friend requests to join a consumers’ social network without making it clear that the purpose of your friend request is to collect a debt is a deceptive practice. Businesses attempting to reach a consumer should never attempt to have an agent attempt to secretly infiltrate a personal network in this way.

Instead, if you are going to send a friend request to a consumer, your message should be similar to the Zortman message and make your intent behind the request clear. Beyond that,  and must be a private request (see below on third party disclosure concerns). 

Post on feeds

Posting a debt collection communication on a public-facing account that allows others to see the content of the message on their feed, is an explicit violation of the FDCPA’s prohibition on third-party disclosure. This would publicly expose the existence of that consumer’s debt to anyone who can view the page and is akin to the old (now prohibited) practice of public debtor boards that the FDCPA sought to end.

This doesn’t mean that social media platforms are entirely unusable in the collections space. They can actually prove to be great places to share resources and provide easy access to your team so that consumers can reach you at their discretion.

How social media can help digital debt collection

Directing to support teams

The easiest way to make effective use of social media platforms for your business is to clearly present your company’s website, phone number(s), email address(es), and mailing address(es) online. Increasing visibility and keeping your lines of communication open can lead to greater engagement. 

This is especially important for digital debt collection agencies that make use of payment portals and other online tools as you can guide consumers directly to the answers they’re looking for.

With a public-facing social media account, you will find that consumers will reach out to you with questions—even questions related to their specific accounts. You want to make sure that you are prepared to answer these questions in a discreet but helpful manner so that the consumers get the information they need without any extra disclosures about their debt. 

Consumers expect this ease of access from any business, and it can make an enormous difference in the collections industry that remains largely call-based. Here’s an example of a consumer reaching directly out to our team on Twitter!

The identity of this consumer has been anonymized here, but this is a public-facing post directly on our feed.

Brand Awareness 

Social media platforms offer businesses the opportunity to advertise directly to specific customers based on their online activity. Collections agencies can use social media advertisements to build on brand awareness and help gain customer trust. Providing a hyperlinked statement about your company such as your mission, motto, or BBB rating that will appear in the personal advertising feed is not a collection communication – as long as it does not explicitly address that the consumer is in collections and cannot be shared to their social networks. 

It allows the consumer, if they choose, an easy way to investigate a company’s website, identify your business as legitimate, and gain trust in your brand.

The role of social media in debt collection continues to evolve as legislative bodies more clearly identify how it is currently being used and how those uses overlap with existing legislation. Social media platforms are an omnipresent part of consumers’ lives, and it may seem like an easy way to reach them, but the most important thing to consider is the compliance and security of their information on evolving channels. 

Mastering digital communications is easier when you choose a team at the forefront of the industry. Interested in learning more about digital debt collection? Check-in with our team.

4 ways collections can help consumers in a recession

By on April 1st, 2020 in Industry Insights

Consumer debt in the United States continues to climb into the tens of trillions of dollars, and as unemployment numbers continue to rise consumers are expected to continue to pay for essential services such as rent and utilities, companies are likely to see an exponential rise in delinquencies. All of these things together can cause financial spirals, especially for those already struggling to pay their bills.

In the midst of troubling economic downturn, it is the debt collection industry’s responsibility to remain a financial service and not create more damaging burdens. Here are four things you and your company can do to continue collecting and maintain customer relationships and loyalty even through challenging economic hardships.

Acknowledge the challenge

Communication is key. Your consumers have to know that they are seen and heard. Your mission has to help consumers navigate the challenges they’re facing.

Visitors to TrueAccord’s consumer website immediately see a banner drawing direct attention to the economic crisis. The banner links to a page with resources for those impacted (and available to those who are not impacted by COVID19) helping to answer the most frequently asked questions related to those with upcoming payments and in settlement plans. 

Provide non-collection related communications

Send communications that do not imply the existence of a debt. Do not mention any account, the balance due, or a demand for payment. Instead, provide other resources that can help anyone during this pandemic, like work from home opportunities, childcare assistance programs, and local resources for those in financial distress, including area food pantries and safe shelters. By providing tools that can aid consumers in need of help, you can be a guiding force for overcoming their financial burdens. 

Individuals in debt often need these resources year-round, not just in the middle of a crisis. These can include tools such as budgeting resources, debt payment calendars, or links to job boards for companies still hiring.

You may also consider sharing less direct financial resources such as educational tools that may be especially helpful to individuals seeking to improve their situation and parents hoping to address their family’s needs.

Extend payment plan lengths

One step that creditors can take that is simple but impactful and can help to alleviate financial concerns is to extend the length of consumers’ payment plans. Agreeing to longer payment plans gives consumers more time to pay, creating lower monthly payment rates, and leaving more dollars they can allocate to more immediate needs. 

Machine-learning and artificial intelligence can help to guide meaningful payment plan offerings. Read more about how new technologies are shaping digital debt collection.

Another step allows consumers to defer a payment. For many consumers in settlement arrangements, deferral may provide the assistance they need while not resulting in the loss of the settlement offer. In fact, North Carolina recognized this and passed this emergency law to make sure all consumers in the state have this option for the next 30 days.

Give consumers the power to manage their debts themselves

Implementing digital collections tools into your business can empower and educate consumers. Online portals and payment systems offer thousands of consumers the ease of access that they require of other financial institutions. 

Ideally, digital tools should extend beyond just payment options and should include opportunities for consumers to:

  • Make adjustments to the length and amount of their payment plans
  • Skip or defer a payment without losing a settlement
  • Dispute all or a portion of their debt
  • Apply for hardship pauses
  • Enter bankruptcy information

All without needing to speak to an agent.

The best debt collection practices should prioritize consumers’ needs and enable them to control their finances. It’s critically important to provide consumers with flexibility and the ability to customize when and how they pay.

Many in debt have tight budgets, live paycheck to paycheck, and sometimes are forced to choose between basic needs and paying bills. Leading the collections industry with compassion and empathy for those in need can make a lasting impact on consumers and creditors alike. 

Want to learn more about what we’re doing at TrueAccord and how we can help your consumers? Get in touch with us!

How can you help protect New Yorkers from aggressive collections?

By on March 17th, 2020 in User Experience

The collections industry continues to expand its digital footprint as growing consumer preference for digital channels combines with stricter regulations on call volume and call rates. Digital communications are standard today, but a key law passed in 2014 by the New York State Department of Financial Services of New York limits third-party collectors’ abilities to connect with consumers via email. 

We’ve seen the impact that digital communications can have on people’s lives, and you can help your fellow New Yorkers by sending the governor and your local official an email using the template at the end of this article!

The law (23 NYCRR 1)

Many existing collections laws are rooted in the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) from 1977, long before emailing, text messaging, and direct voicemail technologies existed. In an age of growing prefernece for digital communication, New York’s 2015 law—§ 1.6 of 23 NYCRR 1—states that collectors may only contact consumers via email if they have:

  1. Voluntarily provided an electronic mail account to the debt collector which the consumer has affirmed is not an electronic mail account furnished or owned by the consumer’s employer; and
  2. Consented in writing to receive electronic mail correspondence from the debt collector in reference to a specific debt. A consumer’s electronic signature constitutes written consent under this section. 

Shortly after the law took effect the New York Department of Financial Services compiled a list of answers to frequently asked questions. You can review them here.

These laws were put in place to protect consumers from collectors excessively emailing them, but consumers are not required to opt-in for debt collectors trying to call them on the phone. In the State of Collections 2019 report published by TransUnion and Aite Group, one collections industry leader said that “right-party contact has fallen off a cliff,” and for many debt collectors, this means that their existing call-based strategy is suddenly becoming unviable. 

On the other hand, we’ve found that consumers provide their email address opting into electronic communications with their creditors. In fact, 95% of accounts placed with TrueAccord come with an email address provided with the placement file. Of those we reach with our digital-first strategy, 65% of them open at least one email, and 35% click at least one link to begin the process of repayment.

When debts go unpaid, some creditors and collectors turn to legal action, and New York is suffering a resurgence of lawsuits since the passage of the 2015 debt collection law. In fact, 2017 saw a 61% increase in debt collection suits according to the New York State Unified Court System. In other states across the country, TrueAccord has seen dramatic growth in consumer debt repayment using email and other digital channels as the primary mode of communication. 

At TrueAccord up to 96% of accounts are resolved without speaking to an agent and nearly one-third of users prefer to manage their accounts outside of the “presumptively convenient” hours (8 am to 9 pm) legally outlined by the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.

Consumers understand the ease of this digital management system and regularly share their positive experiences with a digital-oriented collection strategy. Here are a few:

  1. I liked that the email system was used rather than phone calls. I found it easy to use, and it helped me to gather information, figure out a plan, and get the bill paid. It was a small balance, but during this time, it seemed bigger to me. Thank you for your service.
  2. This was the best way for me to take care of my outstanding debts since I’m always on the road. Thank you for taking your time with me and not blowing up my phone!
  3. TrueAccord has been friendly and helpful, and your systems are always up and running for me to use. You should be proud!

The power of digital communication

Digital channels give people the power to access and manage their debts on their own time without having to work directly with call-center agents. Moreover, it provides greater consumer protection by providing a paper trail of debt communications, unlike aggressive phone calls that consumers most likely wouldn’t be able to record. The more hassle-free options that folks have to pay, the more likely they are to get out of debt and avoid aggressive call-and-collect agencies.

We want to encourage New Yorkers to make their preferences for easily accessible digital channels to be heard. Pay off your debts on your time, not on an emotionally charged phone call or in a courtroom. 

Reach out to Governor Cuomo by clicking here with the template below and make your voice heard. Once you’ve sent your email, share this information using #CollectWithoutCalls and let the governor’s office know that digital is easier for everyone!

Email template

The following text may be used as a template for reaching Governor Cuomo or other elected officials in your state. Please replace any content in the parentheses with your own information.

Subject: RE: 23 NYCRR 1

Dear Governor Cuomo,

My name is (your first and last name) and I am a (family member/service provider/advocate/community member) who resides in your district.

I feel that 23 NYCRR 1 concerning debt collection by third-party debt collectors and debt buyers places an undue burden on consumers in debt. It limits the ease and efficacy of digital communications and gives priority to intrusive and aggressive call-and-collect agencies. I prefer to use email and the internet to manage my own finances, and permitting 3rd-party collectors to email me directly (if / when) I am in debt gives me the ability to manage my accounts on my own time rather than at the collector’s discretion.

Please read here for more information about consumer preferences and see the movement on social media. #CollectWithoutCalls

Sincerely,

(Your name)

(Your city)