Making debt collection solutions human

What turns a good debt collection platform into a great debt collection platform? Adrian Westlake says the answer is empathy.

Making debt collection solutions human

Collections is an emotional business as well as a transactional one. When a company and one of its customers find themselves on opposite sides of a debt collection solution, it means the collective ‘plan A’ has failed. A collection solution’s job is to broker a ‘plan B’. On paper, this is an easy job for software: It’s a matter of figuring out what a customer can afford and how a financial institution can get its money back as quickly as possible.

In practice, it’s much more complicated. People aren’t robots, and neither are the companies they’re dealing with. Finding yourself unable to meet your financial obligations can be distressing. Customers may be angry, upset, frustrated, anxious, or reluctant to face the reality of their situation. Meanwhile, organisations can begin to lose trust in customers that don’t meet their agreed obligations, particularly if those customers are also uncommunicative.

This human context is important ethically and financially. Simply, a debt collection solution that acknowledges and accommodates the emotional state of the customer and the vendor is more likely to produce a plan that works. Software may struggle to grasp this, but the people involved in debt collection don’t. They already know it. To understand that, you need only listen to them working. And that’s exactly what we did at iDigital.

The UX Evolution

For the last year or so, our work at ieDigital has been guided by a new user experience vision: UX Evolution. At its heart are three words that embody the kind of software we want to create: fresh, tailored and human. Creating software that’s ‘human’ means creating software that embodies values such as respect, empathy, security and confidence – things that are only possible if you really understand your users and what they’re going through.

To understand what this means for collections, we sent our product owner, head of business analysis, head of product, and the head of development from our client delivery division to a call centre operated by a very well-known Japanese car manufacturer.

Our task was to listen to the dialogue between customers and call centre agents. We wanted to know how users felt and how good call centre staff deals with them. We learned that a good agent is conversational and works at the customer’s speed; that they reassure customers and make them feel understood; that they help customers relax and feel in control of their situation.

All the calls we listened to were insightful, but one made me very aware of how much and how quickly a customer’s mood can change if they’re treated correctly.

Develop a mutual understanding

The call was from an anxious mother whose daughter had recently become a student. Her daughter could no longer afford to make the repayments on her car and the family were unable to change the ownership of the vehicle. The mother was clearly very anxious at the beginning of the call, but thanks to the emotional intelligence of the call centre operator, she left the call feeling happy. I witnessed a complete turnaround in her emotional state in no time at all.

It was clear that a best-of-breed debt collection solution must aim for the same thing: it must converse with users, do so in their own language, develop a mutual understanding, and move at a speed that’s comfortable so that users can feel in control.

Our work with this particular car manufacturer was hugely valuable, but I wanted to know more. For vendors, a debt collection scenario starts when a customer makes contact on the phone, via a website, or on an app, but for users that’s just another chapter in a bigger story that started some time ago, when they started getting into debt. I wanted to know more about that.

Guide people through the process

To understand the journey that people go through, I spoke to somebody occupying a senior position at a debt collection charity. I was keen to understand who calls the charity and what life changes and behaviours might lead to debt. My contact and I spoke about how unemployment and illness can lead to debt, how some people find it difficult to control their spending, and the complex relationship between mental health issues and financial difficulties. We also spoke about the stigma that people can feel about debt, and how that stigma can sometimes prevent them from talking about their debt and acting to resolve it.

Most importantly, we spoke about how the charity deals with people in those situations. Again, it was clear that language, empathy and understanding is everything. We must talk as a friend and guide people through the process.

What companies (eg the car manufacturer) want from customers in debt isn’t blood – it’s commitment. What customers in debt want is control and reassurance. When those things come together, the trust that was lost when plan A failed can be regained.

A debt collection solution that’s overbearing, robotic and transactional can’t deliver that, but one that’s built to be a little more human can.


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