Difficult Conversations – Equipping collections agents for optimal support

Written by Jonathan Paton
24 Nov 2023
Customer Service Debt People and Culture

Christmas is on the horizon, and Black Friday sales are everywhere you look. As always, consumer spending will naturally increase as we navigate this period, with more outgoings increasing the pressure in critical areas, such as energy and credit card bills.

It’s inevitable that many consumers will find themselves in financial difficulty over the coming months, opting to reach out to their service provider for additional support. This presents many challenges for the organisations involved, particularly around how they’re set up to mitigate these peaks in demand, while ensuring that positive servicing performance is maintained. But that isn’t the direct focus of this blog.

Proactive customer contact, self-service opportunities, and simplified processes can all reduce inbound contact volumes, but many customers will always require conversations to help them.

We know that more ‘customer collections department’ conversations are going to take place, so it’s vitally important that front-line agents are equipped for success. This means being able to have those difficult conversations effectively with customers, to help them now and in the long term.

In this blog, you’ll find guidance on how to upskill and empower agents, focussing specifically on delivering the right outcomes in difficult situations.

What makes an optimal collections conversation?

Helping customers who are in financial difficulty is hard, and it requires a very different skillset to general customer servicing.

General Customer Servicing - Key Skills:
  • Relationship building and support
  • Initial query resolution and support
  • Specific action re-routing to dedicated teams or specialists
  • General account updates – changes to product or meter readings
  • Taking customer-driven payment
Pre-Arrears Support and Collections - Key Skills:
  • Negotiation and conflict management
  • Persuasion and resilience – i.e., payment is overdue
  • Vulnerability recognition and handling
  • Financial stress recognition to achieve sustainable outcomes
  • Risk mitigation – financial and relationship objectives

Often collections agents receive process and keystroke level training, but no significant variation to enable an optimal collections conversation.

This only comes when agents:

  • Dig into challenging areas from feeling empowerment to lean into difficult conversations
  • Use safer language to make customers feel more comfortable, and help customers to understand that by not tackling their debt challenge, they may drive longer term stresses
  • Gain commitment from customers to get them into a sustainable ongoing payment position, rather than just focusing on short term cash collection – something that can also be driven from clarity of focus, provided by leadership

It’s also not uncommon to see frontline agents passing numerous customers to third party debt charities, when they feel like they can’t help the customer themselves. In reality, these charitable support outlets should only be required for those customers who require significant help and guidance and only when the business cannot help any further.

This can be reduced if agents have the additional investment in skills and development, as well as making the journey for the customer simpler through less handoffs and companies to engage with.

Delivering better outcomes, on both sides of the table

So to sum things up, as well as looking at the proactive servicing process opportunities, organisations should also invest time in their collections agents. This means empowering them to be confident and lean into difficult conversations - the type that can really help the customer. They’ll also be able to help customers earlier, driving further benefits for the business in reduced repeat calls and lower debt.

At BFY, as part of our broader Transformation capabilities across operational debt management, we also provide tailored frontline collections training. These modules are designed to instil a focus on the ‘people’ element of servicing customers, particularly those who require the most help. We can give your collections teams greater confidence to support your customers, unlocking value for your business in the process.

If you would like to find out more, contact Jonathan Paton.

Jonathan Paton

Jon specialises in Customer Operations leadership, customer contact, and operational service delivery transformation/improvement.

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