In the fourth quarter of 2011, Access Receivables, a Baltimore-based debt collection agency, implemented a new debt recovery strategy under the slogan “Nice People Collect More.” Last week, the company released the findings from its first five months of operating under the process, measured between November 1, 2011 and March 31, 2012. From among those results, Access Receivables has shown an overall increase in payments for the measured period of 40.1%; an increase in educational debt recoveries of 70.1%, a substantial drop in the number of accounts entering a litigation stream, and zero complaints relating to the new program.
Following the public announcement about this data, Tom Gillespie, president of Access Receivables, granted an exclusive interview with insideARM.com to dig a little deeper into the company’s success with a debt collection philosophy that defies conventional stereotypes about the accounts receivable management industry and challenges mainstream media depictions of the debt collection process as adversarial to consumers. In short, I sat down with Mr. Gillespie to get the skinny on this departure from what has been perceived as traditional debt collection practices.
Access Receivables’ recent press release mentioned a new employee “awards program” tied to customer service metrics. Explain a little more about how that program works, and how it differs from traditional collection representative incentive programs.
We have a program we call Circle of Champions. There are basically three parts—three criteria—associated with the award. One is production. The second is passing several certifications and training. And when I say passing, they have to get a “B” [grade] or higher in their certification testing. I’m pleased to say that our overall score after retraining all of our employees with this new model was over 90% [“A-” or better]. And the test is very hard; I wrote it myself. The third part is that the representative has to get at least one debtor testimonial letter or verified debtor communication. And that’s one of the keys to our new approach. If we’re doing the right things, the debtor is going to be so appreciative of what we’ve done that he or she is going to send us a letter or an email saying, hey—I really thank you for helping me understand my credit and helping me do better at managing my finances. Those three components are the required building blocks of our new awards program.
Does this only function at the front line collector level?
Actually, our managers and supervisors have also had to undergo a separate certification to become certified credit counselors in addition to normal certifications required to be a debt collector. Let me be clear—we are not a credit counseling company. We don’t charge for that as a service. But as a part of our collection counseling with consumers—which is really what we do now—we want to be sure that our people are all thoroughly trained in all aspects of credit counseling as well as collections.
So is the program working? Are your collection representatives actually getting positive testimonial responses from the consumers they assist?
Yes. In fact, they’re posted on our website when we receive one. [See “What Our Debtors Think” on the Access Receivables site.]
You’ve also established a “virtual collector” interface on your website. Can you explain how that technology works?
We combined our efforts with a company called InterProse, a vendor of ours since 1999. In 2008 we came up with a patent-pending idea for an avatar-based virtual collector that takes a debtor through the steps of collection and the debtor does not have to call us or ever talk to a collector. In fact, we send out a statement stuffer with our letters that says, “Collections doesn’t have to be stressful. You don’t have to talk to a collector.” So if a debtor doesn’t want to talk to a collector—because they’re embarrassed… or for any reason—they can go to the site and self-resolve through the virtual collector. In addition, in the right column on http://2mybill.com/ we’ve developed a new program for online chat. I don’t know if anyone else in the ARM industry is doing this right now, but consumers are doing it all day long. The average person in America participates in something like 3,500 “chats” per month. And our platform translates in 17 languages right now, which has really helped us in the student loan area because a lot of our student debtors are international. Look, no matter which ARM company you are, it’s hard to find a collector who speaks Mandarin Chinese. But this portal allows the borrower to type in Chinese, the collection representative receives the chat in English, then he or she types back in English, and the borrower receives the response in Chinese. It’s very cool. On the first day we put the software in place we had three accounts resolved over online chat.
Have you discovered any other benefits of using consumer-friendly technology in your collection efforts?
In fact, yes. This work isn’t all about account resolutions; it’s about communicating. Sometimes consumers don’t in fact owe the debt. And that’s important communication too. Our job is not just to collect money. It’s to resolve balances for our clients. Sometimes our clients have erroneous debt because there was a billing error or a misapplied payment. And that’s just as important to figure out. One of the things we try to educate consumers and businesspeople about is that if they don’t communicate—and they ignore attempts to contact them—eventually it gets reported to the credit bureaus. And that’s bad, especially if a mistake has been made.
You’ve also launched a website for consumer financial education called Why Credit Matters. What’s its function?
This site is one of the fundamental elements of our overall approach to debt collection. Look, the debtor is not the bad guy. This is an educational website that has nothing on it that says, pay your bill. Instead it contains a bunch of information on debt settlement, bankruptcy, business credit, consumer credit, credit scores, etc. In fact, we even provide links to the Federal government—to the FTC—if they feel they’ve been abused by a collection agency. Consumers can use this site to understand a host of things about how the credit model has changed since 2008 and what that, for example, means about financial success in today’s economy.
How has that credit model changed?
If you’re between the ages of 18-45, you never in your life had to even worry about a credit score until 2009. It really wasn’t important for you. When you were in college and you had no job prospects, you were probably sent solicitations to for $20,000.00 lines of revolving credit. Older guys, guys like me, grew up understanding that if you didn’t have a good credit score, you couldn’t get credit. But there’s a giant generation of people from 18-45 who are really struggling now because all of a sudden somebody changed the game in the middle of it—and they don’t understand why or how. So we’re trying to educate them on the fact that now, if your credit score is bad, you’re not going to get that new refrigerator—at any price. Prior to 2009 it was all about, “What’s my payment? Ok, you’re charging me 25% interest. Fine. What’s my monthly payment?”—whether it was a car or a house or anything. Now the game has changed: you can’t get the car, you can’t get the house, and you can’t get the fridge. And consumers are very frustrated. But once they understand that the game has changed, they can then take responsibility.
That word carries a lot of weight. What does “responsibility” mean to you in this context?
Responsibility is a key word. To me it means people being able to take responsibility for their own financial future. And once people see that they can take responsibility for their own future, more often than not they want to pay their debts. Just saying “I don’t care; report me to the credit bureau” isn’t productive. We try to educate consumers to understand that not caring only damages their future credit prospects. It’s nothing personal with me. You’re actually harming yourself.
Michael Klozotsky is the Chief Content Officer at insideARM.com. He’s kind of nice (most of the time).