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With the collections department’s sole focus being on dealing with customers in financially vulnerable or difficult situations, it is impossible to avoid challenging conversations. From bushfires to droughts and now the impacts of COVID-19, many customers have turned to their financial services organisation for support. Collections agents (agents) are at the coalface and have endured a rapid increase in the intensity and volume of vulnerable customers. As vulnerability will continue to be a focus of the collections department post COVID-19 recovery, agents must be coached to ensure they can operate sustainably in the long term while maintaining fair customer outcomes.
Causes of challenging conversations
In recent years, agents with personal experience of the issues most faced by customers in financial difficulty have been hired. While this was effective at increasing empathy within collections, it often lacked balance and sustainability. Some agents became affected by their customer’s experiences and offered sympathy in place of an understanding of their situation. When a collector is not able to separate their own issues from that of the customer’s, they can lose sight of the job at hand and their ability to remain objective.
A misalignment in the coaching frameworks for a good collector-customer interaction is a major issue hindering fair customer outcomes. A good framework requires a balance between operational metrics, empathy, customer outcomes, and commercial outcomes. Leaders must set the standards for collectors by demonstrating the balance between empathy and achieving operational goals.
A collector is less effective when working with out of date technology and fragmented systems, processes, screens, and controls. Flipping from screen to screen, the conversation can become stilted and unnatural leading to unhappy, frustrated customers. This frustration can be amplified by collectors who have obstructive traits such as judgement, ego, and vagueness. All of these factors make it difficult to achieve a positive outcome for either the customer or the organisation.
When it comes to fortifying a collections function with team members with an array of skills, the process must begin at recruitment. It is during recruitment that the prominent traits of the team are established and the tone for how to handle customers is set. Spending more time testing if a candidate is right for the role will increase workforce retention and ensure future training is spent on growing the team rather than continuously training up new members of the team.
Elevating training to coaching
It is vital that a feedback and upskilling process is embedded into regular operations. The lagged process of a QA team reviewing calls has the potential to be harmful to the organisation by missing important learning opportunities. Feedback needs to be immediate to adequately ensure the most vulnerable customers are receiving the required care with capabilities continuously being improved.
Training starts with modules, learning time and development programs to assist in developing any essential skills. Coaching builds on training through knowledge sharing sessions whereby customer conversations can be shared and discussed to agree on the best way to handle each situation. Allowing these open conversations will provide an opportunity for positive feedback as well as highlight tough conversations that were well executed.
With recent global events such as the COVID-19 pandemic, it has never been more important to look after the wellbeing of employees to ensure your organisation’s sustainable success. A new trend in managing staff wellbeing is integrating wellbeing into the design of the work at an individual, team and organisational level. This can be done by simply managing capacity or building digital wellness and digital productivity. For collections staff, this could be the introduction of a rotation system for agents in specialist teams to ensure they have respite from assisting with the most challenging cases. This has the added benefit of cross skilling collectors to serve customers throughout the collections journey.
To reinforce collector wellbeing, technology should have built-in controls that can track agents’ sentiments and usual call styles, and alert on key changes. By ensuring the monitoring is aligned to fair collector-customer conversations, agents will receive timely support and feedback in coping with tough conversations.
Technology can extend the abilities of the team in dealing with difficult conversations. Technology must be designed to enable collectors to move through conversations naturally while having embedded controls that help ensure compliance. This requires a smooth progression of screens and processes for the collector to follow. The technology needs to protect the agent from doing the wrong thing, while also having real-time feedback to immediately highlight problematic areas. This will highlight any new training requirements for staff. Investing in technology will improve any people-led processes and monitoring completed to more easily identify areas of risk for an immediate response.
So, now what?
To create a collections function that is equipped to deal with the increasingly challenging environment and conversations, it is imperative that all processes and systems enable and support collectors in their work. There should be clear recruitment profiles for the roles and skills that agents are required to fill, and the recruitment process should be improved to find the right agents. Even with the right team, the wellbeing of agents must be continuously managed to ensure they can successfully interact with vulnerable customers. Technology can then be used to enable the Collector to focus more on the customer’s conversation rather than being distracted by interacting with multiple systems and screens while being assured that there are embedded controls to ensure compliance. With all of this in place, feedback sessions and knowledge sharing can be used to help agents understand what a good customer conversation looks like.
Kris is a Principal in Deloitte’s Financial Risk practice within Risk Advisory, with extensive experience spanning Credit Risk Management, Business Improvement, Data and Analytics, and Financial Services Operations – with a particular focus on Credit and Collections. With 15 years of in-industry experience, he has led strategic priorities and organisational change within the Financial Services sector, demonstrating an ability to solve complex business problems deliver significant business value through the effective use of data, analytics, people, process and technology. Kris is also an experienced Lean Six Sigma practitioner, having spent two years as a Black Belt leading strategic business transformation, process improvement, optimisation, and digitisation programs across Operations, Credit, Legal, HR and IT functions.
Tony has over 20 years’ experience specialising in enabling and delivering large, complex operational, technology and strategic change within organisations. He has successfully led large-scale transformation programs in multinational companies across a number of sectors including financial services and utilities, in Australia and globally. Tony leads the Strategic Cost Transformation in Australia as part of the broader Deloitte global capability. Tony is recognised as a strong leader of people, and is very passionate about bringing innovation to the projects he, and his team deliver based on operational and business excellence principles.
Annabel is an Analyst in the Financial Risk and Regulatory team within Risk Advisory at Deloitte. She has worked across the financial industry with a focus on credit risk and collections. Her experience is in assisting large financial institutions to improve business operations through data driven strategy design, and process automation. Annabel holds a Bachelor of Commerce degree, majoring in Business Analytics.