Michael Klozotsky

Next week at Debt Connection Symposium & Expo 2011 my colleague, Naveen Hariprasad, and I will be presenting a nuts & bolts type seminar for agency, asset buyer, and collection law firm folks on the importance of current online marketing practices for the ARM industry—with an emphasis on “Monday Morning Solutions” that ARM firms can implement themselves (at little to no cost) as well as longer term approaches that may require external resources and expertise, but produce measurable results, drive sales, and increase revenue.

If you’re going to be in Las Vegas next week make sure you attend our session: Maximizing Your Marketing Dollar: Online Brand Management Strategies for the ARM Industry or pull us aside and talk with us about your marketing objectives. If you’re not signed up for DCS2011 yet, there’s still time to register.

For those of you who won’t be at DCS this year (kindly provide a written doctor’s excuse) and as a first course nibble (think: cocktail weenie on a colorful toothpick) for those who will, I wanted to share some thoughts on a frequently overlooked characteristic of ARM companies that sets them apart—regardless of size—from almost every other small business or giant industry in the United States.

The concept is pretty straightforward: collection industry websites always speak to a variety of audiences at the same time. Note that I said “always speak”—your company’s site should intentionally take those diverse users into account, but failure to do won’t prevent your site from delivering a message you intended for one group (your clients, for example) to another group (your customers, “consumers”) that probably doesn’t share the first group’s enthusiasm for phrases like, our agency will work tirelessly (but ethically and legally, of course) to pursue scofflaws and deadbeat debtors to the ends of the Earth to recover every last penny that is owed to you.

Before I outline a few examples of the serious mess that can land at your company’s physical doorstep if you don’t control the messaging your website communicates to the world online, let me say this: having a corporate website is no longer an optional line-item on your balance sheet, nor will it suffice to put up a digital version of a highway billboard or a super-sized business card. Dynamic, content-rich, lead generating, and customer service-oriented websites have become an indispensible portal to your debt collection business. There is no turning back from this.

So where do you go from here? To your audience(s)!

Think about a retail business such as a tropical fish store. “Here Fishy Fishy” probably uses a relatively elementary business model: get some fish, sell some fish, and maybe help connect a small community of fish lovers (as a goodwill gesture and to foster repeat business). Here Fishy Fishy’s website basically needs to promote the store and the therapeutic powers of pet fish, communicate simple FAQ info about the shop, and maybe sell some fish food flakes and aquatic themed t-shirts. The website needs to convey these messages to one audience: consumers who want tropical fish. Here Fishy Fishy’s audience looks like this:

The Typical Tropical Fish Store Audience

Debt collectors, your audience looks like this:

It's Not an Audience, It's Audiences. And They Can be Monstrously Difficult

Yes, that’s the long misunderstood fresh water mini-monster of the animal kingdom, the hydra, which possesses amazing regenerative power, curiously has not been observed to die of old age (or to age at all, for that matter), and can sport as many as 12 tentacles filled with poison. Are you with me here? (Comes back again and again, doesn’t really die, and must be dealt with in as many as a dozen ways at once—perhaps selling clownfish is looking more and more attractive.)

Nonsense, you say. My agency only need concern itself with two groups: clients and debtors. A two-tentacled hydra at best. Really not much more than an amoeba with an overinflated ego.  Let’s look under the microscope, shall we? Here’s my computation of a typical ARM service provider’s audience—or the number of (potentially) stinging tentacles on its hydra:

  1. Current Clients
  2. Prospective Clients
  3. Current Customers (debtors under payment arrangements)
  4. Potential Customers (debtors aware of collection efforts but who have yet to respond)
  5. Current Employees
  6. Job-seekers
  7. Regulators, Lawmakers, Consumer Advocacy Groups
  8. Consumer Attorneys
  9. Pissed-off Consumers (former customers, targets, or the generally irate)
  10. Local and National Media

That’s a hydra with 10 tentacles, and the hard truth is this: you might not consciously intend (or even want) to interact with every one of those groups, but they’re all out there looking at you, often simultaneously and certainly from radically divergent perspectives. You cannot control them, but you can take charge of your website’s message to mitigate the risk of getting stung without sacrificing the essential work your website needs to do to nurture client relationships, secure payments from debtors, promote your brand to hot prospects, and showcase your corporate culture to top candidates for employment.

A few closing takeaways and tips:

  • Recognize the exceptional nature of your business and the ARM industry in relation to multiple online audiences.
  • Take a close look at the copy on your website. Does messaging meant to appeal to creditors run the risk—in substance or tone—of insulting your customers? (Think about it: if in an effort to “impress” creditors you unintentionally disrespect your customers—who then resist or refuse to pay—how well have you served your clients… and how long will you retain them?) Can you make slight modifications to copy (i.e. replacing the word “debtor” with “consumer” or “customer”) without diluting your message?
  • Highlight your people. Among the most important things ARM companies do in cities and towns across the country is provide jobs and boost local economies. Yet I am continually amazed by collection agency websites promoting companies that seem to have no staff, no management teams, and no owners. Let’s face it, most Americans view collection agencies as heartless corporations and collection reps as faceless monsters or robots with telephones. Promote your people at all levels of the organization. It’s pretty hard for any of the groups listed above to attack human beings instead of stereotypes or to discredit the benefits of job creation on local economies and individual families.
  • Develop engaging content and lead capture mechanisms around it. Like the example above, leverage what you’ve already got (a downloadable case study, a white paper based on a training method you employ). And if you’re stumped for content ideas, stretched-thin on people who can write, or have no clue in the world how to build an appropriate lead capture mechanism into your website, seek assistance and advice from experts, preferably a person or company with ARM industry knowledge and experience. Your business website is a tool. Use it (and continue to learn how to use it more effectively). Because like almost any tool that’s neglected or used improperly, it can be turned into a weapon against you.
  • Leverage your website as a legitimate sales channel. Just as traveling salesmen have pretty much gone the way of the Lindy Hop, clinging to the belief that ARM clients can only be attracted and secured on the phone or face to face is at best mildly naive. At worst, it’s leaving money on the table–and why would you want to do that? A basic way to bolster sales efforts through your website is to evaluate your contact forms. Many collection agency sites I see have a catch-all contact form, lacking basic information about how a message will be handled, in what time frame, by whom, or even the common courtesy of thanking the user for submitting a question, business inquiry, or complaint. You see, we’re back to those multiple audiences again. Why are you funneling a potential client looking to place accounts through the same contact form as a job seeker or disgruntled debtor? And though I’m afraid of the answer I’m soliciting, just one individual at your company receiving and/or responding to those three types of inquiries?  Separate your contact forms; establish clear expectations for how an inquiry will be handled; and as it relates to sales, publicize your sales representatives’ names, titles, and contact info prominently on your site (or at least on the sales-focused contact form). Think I’m overstating the risk? Ask yourself how long you’d sit in a restaurant if no server bothered to come to your table and you had no clue whom to ask for service or when that help might come–and then look at a one-size-fits-all, generic contact form and imagine how long it might take a creditor vetting your company to move onto another service provider with a just a few clicks of a mouse?


Michael Klozotsky is the managing editor of insideARM.com.