Updated: May 20, 2021
Think about all the dynamics within the walls of your business — everything from how you open your doors in the morning, collect mail, interact with consumers on the phone, communicate with clients and manage vendor relationships.
One of the most important parts of running a collection agency is building processes and systems that are replicable and scalable, which you can consistently execute on with a measurable success rate.
Now factor in COVID-19, which has been like a bull in a china shop.
There is not a system in your business that has not been affected by the coronavirus pandemic.
With all the disruption the pandemic has caused, let’s use it as an opportunity to evaluate and audit all the areas of our businesses and think about the dynamic changes that need to happen over the next 12-24 months to stay ahead of the curve and be proactive in how we prepare for the new normal. If we don’t adapt and evolve our systems, we’re going to create gaps and run into operational issues.
Failure is not an option, so let’s study our systems and rebuild them.
Collector development that focuses on call flow and building consumers’ trust and motivation is going to be the norm in the coming years, and we’re going to see a quantitative difference between collectors who have been trained in those areas and those who haven't.
Collector development, intentional training on the skills that will best support collectors to be successful in their jobs, can be broken down into these three categories: communication, critical thinking and negotiation.
When it comes to communication, even the best collectors can get lost in a call or lose control of the conversation and never collect payment. We can set collectors up to succeed by evaluating whether the phrasing and messaging they’re using with consumers is creating conflict or connection and by promoting language that creates connection and motivates consumers to pay.
From a management and scaling standpoint, providing collectors with structured communication training that teaches them exactly how to build consumers’ trust and motivation will save your agency valuable time and energy, meaning your collectors will get up to speed more quickly and fewer calls will have to be fielded by supervisors.
Communication training will also create consistency. Consumers aren’t going to talk to multiple collectors at your agency and get different information. That’s significant because mismatched communication leads to conflict, delays, confusion and mistrust.
With the industry and global push toward empathy, structured communication training is going to become even more important.
That’s because it’s not enough to tell someone to be empathetic; you have to show them how.
There’s also an opportunity for managers to get creative and hold communication contests to motivate collectors to adopt new concepts. The reality is, a collector’s voice is the most powerful asset for agencies and is often the least invested in.
Employing critical thinking skills is another important piece of collector development. As a collector, critical thinking involves being able to analyze and evaluate conversations with consumers in order to better respond to their situation.
Training on critical thinking is easier than you might think. For example, the Observe, Orient, Decide and Act (OODA) loop theory —a decision-making strategy developed by John Boyd, a fighter pilot and military strategist is powerful for collectors because it reinforces the importance of slowing down and thinking things through before making a decision instead of observing a situation and immediately reacting. As a collector, it can be easy to get caught up in heat-of-the-moment stress, but following OODA helps to eliminate restrictive behavior.
The final key piece of collector development is negotiation training. It’s not enough to train your collectors on your expectations for bringing money in; you need to teach them how to negotiate. For instance, many collectors tend to negotiate from the bottom up, meaning they’ll immediately accept a low payment arrangement offer from a consumer (like $50 per month). Well-trained negotiators start from the top down, which means they start out asking consumers to pay higher amounts each month so the debt is paid off quicker. Collectors who negotiate from the bottom up instead of the top down are leaving a lot of money on the table.
Just like building a house, a productive and successful business must start with a solid foundation that gives it structure; a base from which to grow. For agencies, that foundation is policies, processes and procedures.
ACA International provides an excellent template for this through the Blueprint Quality Management System. Blueprint breaks down the essential elements of how to structure your agency, stressing the importance of task-oriented work instructions and the value of documenting everything.
For those who aren’t familiar, work instructions are a detailed list of directions guiding a team member, step-by-step, through a specific task to its completion. If you don’t have well-documented work instructions , now is a great time to create them. And for those who already have work instructions in place, remember to reevaluate and update them based on what we’ve seen with COVID-19.
Work instructions provide massive value because they streamline training and create consistency to help you avoid mistakes and delays. Rather than relying on word-of-mouth instructions that can be misinterpreted or easily forgotten, any team member who reads a work instruction is provided with the same accurate information, every time. If you want to scale anything, consistency is key.
Additionally, work instructions can ease new team members’ anxiety over the training process and reduce their dependency on management for routine tasks.
COVID-19 has created a lot of uncertainty, and a lot is changing very rapidly. Well-documented work instructions can help ensure everyone on your team is on the same page.
To create a seamless workflow and scale an agency, leaders must also be able to continually inspire, motivate and engage their team members. With more team members working remotely because of the pandemic, many managers are expressing how hard it is to stay on top of collectors and reinforce training concepts.
Moving forward, it’s going to be important for agency leaders find new ways to engage their collectors and make mastering new skills attractive and exciting. A quick example is setting up weekly challenges that push collectors to make positive shifts in behavior and meet set goals.
When collectors are challenged to use training concepts and techniques in real time and they’re successful, they’ll want to do it again and again.
It’s like a positive feedback loop.
Technology will be another important factor in scaling your agency for a post-COVID-19 world, and the great news is that investing in technology has never been easier or more accessible for smaller agencies.
As ACA President G. Scott Purcell acknowledged in his address to ACA members at the Virtual Convention & Expo this summer, technology can be viewed as both a threat and an opportunity to the collection world.
On the one hand, there could be an increased push to replace collectors with AI chatbots and other tools. The best-case scenario would be the industry uses technology to help collectors better perform their jobs, drive down costs, improve compliance and enhance consumers’ experiences.
Using technology, for instance, agencies can get payment predictability scores so collectors can prioritize accounts that are more likely to be paid.
Technology can also help agencies establish better call flow. Tools like voice analytics can help agencies identify what words are working to move calls toward payment and what words are creating conflict with consumers and moving calls backward.
By and large, voice analytics can cut down on the time spent monitoring and reviewing calls. Supervisors can see what was said on calls without having to listen to calls
individually and can more quickly identify collectors who need additional coaching. Or, they might be able to discover patterns in consumer frustrations that could be eliminated with improved tools, features or responses from collectors.
There is also a benefit to allowing consumers to choose how they want to be communicated with and when.
By making things more convenient and less intrusive feeling for consumers, we can encourage more consumers to engage with us and stay engaged until they’ve paid off their debts.
Of course, good call flow and industry laws, rules and regulations will still need to be followed. There are certain touchpoints collectors are required to hit on in collection calls, and those will have to be upheld in the digital channel as well. More complex conversations are best turned over to human agents.
There is a lot of value in technology that improves collector training and performance and the consumer experience; it’s important that we include these tools in our post-COVID lens.
Look for Opportunities
As we look for ways to scale and thrive in a post-COVID world, consider the opportunities in these three areas: collector development, management systems and innovative technology.
The pandemic has affected how all of us operate in some way. Let’s use the disruption as an opportunity to reevaluate the way we do business. Now’s the time to ask: What isn’t working at my agency, and how do I pivot?
To learn more about how the Collection Advantage online training program can help you create a team of high-converting and empathetic collectors, book a free strategy call with me here.
This article was originally written for ACA International's Collector magazine. A copy can be viewed here.