The Gentle Touch

Collections teams must balance structure and empathy when training agents to identify and support customers with vulnerabilities.

Instead of following scripts, frontline collections staff are being trained to use emotional intelligence, empathy and listening skills. “Agents have to find their own way of speaking to customers. They need to get the customer’s trust, engage with them and be able to identify triggers,” says Arrow Global Head of Operations, Adelle Smith.

Identifying vulnerability is the first step in the process. Staff are trained to listen for the nuances on a call. They may be speaking to an individual with dementia who doesn’t recall previous conversations, or someone struggling with their mental health and feeling suicidal.

Some flags of potential vulnerability may not be obvious. “Calling to change address could be because the customer is in prison,” says Adelle. “We can’t cover everything. That comes with experience on the live floor with
constant monitoring and calibration.” John Thompson, Head of Compliance at
Hoist Finance, agrees: “Early identification of vulnerability is key to ensuring the best outcome for a customer during the collections process. Our representatives are trained to effectively engage with our customers so
that they can explain their current situation, which in turn allows us to adapt our processes – thereby ensuring their account is correctly managed. It is often not the vulnerable condition that drives any change in how we manage their account, but instead the impact that vulnerable condition has on the
customer.”

Evolving List

At Cabot Credit Management, there is an volving list of 50-60 vulnerabilities, from learning difficulties to terminal illnesses and mental health conditions. “We have to make sure we are factoring in all of these considerations,” says Cabot Financial Customer Operations Enhancement Manager, Emma Bantges.
Clearly it’s not possible to train agents in all of these areas: “We are not medical professionals, but we do have a duty to understand the impact of vulnerability,” says ARC Europe’s Operations Director, David Sheridan. “It’s about getting the balance right.”

Debbie Nolan, Chief Executive of Arvato Financial Solutions UK, agrees: “We don’t expect them to be experts on any of these things. We train them to adopt an empathetic approach and get the information without causing distress.”

Some potential vulnerabilities will not affect a person’s ability to deal with their finances. “Someone identified as having a terminal illness is very different to a builder who has fallen off a ladder and broken his leg and will be returning
to work when his leg has mended,” she says. Not everyone wants their account ring-fenced for specialist treatment. “We wouldn’t force a
customer to have support. The customer may feel they are quite capable of dealing with their finances,” says Emma.

Beyond the Models

There are many training models that have been developed to help shape approaches to vulnerability. For example, Chris Fitch and Colin Trend at the Money Advice Trust developed TEXAS – a framework used when a
customer is giving information. 

Chris Collins, HR and Customer Experience Director at Intrum UK, points also to BRUCE – a tool to recognise red flags around mental health and BLAKE – a conversational structure when customers are disclosing suicidal thoughts (which supplements its suicide first aid programme ASIST). However, Chris says the fundamentals of training are more nuanced than a framework: “It’s about equipping people: understanding procedure and having the emotional intelligence to ask questions at the right time,” he says. “We don’t want people to feel confined to the framework. Things like TEXAS can be very sequential but agents who are more experienced know when to ask those questions in the call.”

Agents need to maintain consistency and manage their emotions. “The first
call of the day should be the same as the last. We all have these models, but the emotional intelligence and advanced communications required to direct those models in the right way is where you get the differentiation,” he says.

Training has to be ongoing to be effective. “It’s not a case of training people
on dealing with customers in vulnerable circumstances in isolation. Vulnerability isn’t like that – there is a myriad of circumstances we can be presented with.” Aside from ongoing individual coaching and development, agents at Intrum have on average 14 days of training a year.

Adelle agrees models need to be used sensibly: “We used to try and train a lot
of different models and found people got confused. Now we train the TEXAS model and encourage the agents to use that as a guide. Experienced agents are extremely gifted in the art of conversation. They need to be able to take the time to reassure the customer that they really are interested in them.”

Third-party Links

Within Hoist Finance, John Thompson says its contact centre representatives
have detailed and in-depth training on how to identify vulnerability using a
variety of guidance processes including TEXAS, BRUCE and CARERS. “We have
an excellent working relationship with StepChange Debt Charity to ensure
effective referrals to a third-party agency who can offer additional support not
only for customer who are financially vulnerable but those who need on-going
support and advice,” he explains.

“We are also introducing more detailed Risk Factors which will help us identify
customers who have the potential to become vulnerable or who are demonstrating signs of an unconfirmed vulnerability.” It’s not just frontline staff who need training on vulnerability. Managers and those setting policies
and providing technology need to take part in training so they understand the
challenges.

All organisations are training their teams on vulnerability from day one. Customers in vulnerable circumstances feature heavily in their induction
processes and organisations refresh this regularly. Mechanisms for doing this
include visits from charities and other specialist organisations, such as MIND,
Macmillan and suicide prevention charities, to enhance training in specific
areas.

“Organisations like Macmillan come in and help us identify more complex
triggers,” says Emma. “We start with the sensitive support team and filter through the organisation.” At ARC, Customer Support Manager, Danielle Halligan, says there is a buddy system for three months during which agents have no collections targets. As well as annual refreshers there are also workshops every month that are based on call scoring feedback. “We
develop bespoke training, looking at areas for improvement,” she says.

Technology can also help, with speech analytics able to detect trigger words and signs of distress much earlier. “Agents have a live alert to help them ensure they are consistent and fair – a widget that sits on their screen and creates a pop up if a vulnerability trigger has been recognised. It forewarns the agent and will guide them,” says Emma.

Safe Places

Technology also offers customers other avenues to manage their debts. At Arrow research shows 55 percent of 2018 online registrations were from customers with vulnerabilities who see it as a ‘safe place’. The firm is researching ways to enhance their online experience.

But technology cannot replace the need for human intervention. “I think
technology is going to help with more interactive training,” says David. “But
fundamentally a vulnerable case needs to be assessed by a human with experience and expertise.” 

Vulnerability is not an area that is diminishing. “More customers are self-identifying as vulnerable,” says Adelle. “We are asking the right questions and
identifying triggers but also externally the stigma around mental health is changing.”

The proportion of customers falling into the category of vulnerability depends
on the portfolios a company owns or is collecting on – at Intrum UK around 2,000 customer contacts out of 12,000 a month are vulnerable, while at ARC five to ten percent of the customer contacts on the collections floor fall into the category. CCM currently has more than seven million customers, with one percent of the book requiring additional support. At Arrow there has been a 0.5 percent rise in vulnerability cases, with dementia, healthcare and addiction significant factors.

Suicidal Thoughts

The most difficult situation for a team member is speaking to a person who
is suicidal. Debbie says her team has handled portfolios with instances of
customers who are having suicidal thoughts.

“Rather than putting them on hold we can get someone more experienced to
join the call, then we decide whether or not we need to alert the authorities,” she says. “The important thing is that we train people to understand there is nothing they can do about it over the phone. They need to get information and help the person they are speaking to.”

Arvato uses plenty of examples in its training that impress upon the team the
need to flag concerns and that people can be impacted very differently by similar events. “The general induction includes full vulnerability training and we have regular refresher training – for example if something comes up that we haven’t experienced before,” says Debbie. “We are constantly sharing information.”

She adds that all of the team are trained in this area, but some are more
advanced and can take over or help in specific circumstances. The company
is also building a dedicated team as clients increasingly isolate vulnerability
portfolios. 

While Arrow Global trains all agents to handle vulnerability, it also runs a
dedicated vulnerability team for one client. The staff on this team have a
15-minute debrief at the end of the day. There is also a mental health initiative for all staff, including a 24-hour telephone service. This is becoming more common. “We have an obligation to our people as well as to our customers,” says Emma. “We want to make sure that we’re supporting our employees.” Across the industry, agents are trained to take a breathing space after a distressing call. There are people available to listen to them and formal counselling processes where needed.

Positive feedback is another important aspect of support for agents. After an
agent spoke to a suicidal customer while emergency services were called, Adelle reports that the customer later called to thank him: “The authorities couldn’t believe it was a debt collection agency she’d been speaking to,” she says. “You’ve made a difference in that individual’s life by being there with the right skills.”

Article written on behalf of CICM.