We’re witnessing a digital shift in the ARM industry. So, how might you need to staff differently to make sure you can keep up? Jim Beck, COO of MRS BPO sat down with iA Strategy & Tech's Erin Kerr to discuss:
- How new technology and shifting business models are changing personnel strategy
- How giving space and permission to employees to innovate can lead to big wins in your organization
- Why you shouldn't overlook the tremendous value in small-scale innovation
- What the shift to compliance in 2008 and 2009 can teach us about the current digital transformation today
Watch the full video interview or read the full transcript (below).
Erin Kerr (EK): Let's get into it. So, if you didn't have any search engines, how would you research an obscure topic?
Jim Beck (JB): Well, since I've already dated myself, once I'll date myself again, that I am old enough to have lived before search engines, and before the internet. But you know, historically what I would have said is, you know, I'm a big reader. And so I would do a ton of research on what has been written about that topic. The great thing about search engines is whatever was written and published becomes dated very, very quickly. So then, I also talk to people and interview people. I think that doing that today is where you can get more current written information, being able to speak to people and get their perspectives is equally important. And I still do that today and would still do that if there were many search engines, but I do remember doing research projects with microfiche and things like that shows that I might be a little bit older than most of our audience today.
EK: I wouldn't be so sure about that, but maybe. So, another question, just generally speaking, is what's the most innovative decision that you've made or your company has made. Can you tell me a little bit about it?
JK: I feel very lucky to be part of a very innovative organization. So I'll start with the organization. And I think sometimes when people think through innovation, that it's like one of those very big words and people really try to think that it has to be something completely groundbreaking. I'd say one of the more innovative things that MRS has done as an organization really comes down to a risk analysis and I'll explain what that means in a minute. But, we have been for years texting to a large portion of our customer base. And so many people have said, you know, how can you do that? Is there a risk? And we really took the time to analyze what that risk was and come up with solutions that mitigated that risk. And it really boiled down to TCPA and FDCPA risks.
And what could we come up with [was] a solution that mitigated both of those risks and that really, if you think about it in that way, it makes innovation seem a little less daunting. And so I thought that was a great example at the organization.
Another good example is our conversational IVR Adam that was kind of spurred from a developer taking a class and learning about creating an Alexa type product. And he brought it into the office and now it's his full-time job. And he has another developer who works with him and they work on it full-time, but that really came from an employee thinking this would be a neat product for the workspace.
The last example I'll give is our agent portal, or I'm sorry, our customer portal, which [came] from another employee had buying a hot water heater. The experience he had buying that hot water heater [impressed him] and he said, well, that would be great for our customers. He brought that concept into the organization and pitched it.
None of those were innovative ideas that I had, but they came up through the organization. And I had a role in listening to those ideas and trying to understand what the vision was that they were painting. As an executive, I helped give them that space to sell that idea and get it through the organization and then champion it once I bought into it and believed in it. And that's an equally important part of innovation as well. So in none of those three examples was I the creative mind behind it, but in some of those examples I have helped with development down the line.
EK: That reminds me a lot of the interview that I did a couple of months ago with Michael Meyer. Who's also at MRS. We talked through how a company can innovate and how important that listening to its employees is through that process. And what you've just given us are concrete examples of allowing your employees to innovate and, you know, trusting them enough to run with their innovations. So that's a great example.
JB: It's hard to give [these projects] that time and space when we have a lot going on. But it's important to make sure you go back to those roots and create. It's a good reminder for me and for everybody. So, with Reg F coming up - I don't mean to date your video - but with that coming up very, very quickly, making sure we take a step back to think how we can innovate, within our organization, outside of just getting things accomplished for Reg F or whatever projects we have coming up - that is important.
EK: I think it's a good reminder for a lot of our audience. We become singularly focused a lot in this industry because of the regulations, but, there's always that technology solution to a lot of those and keep your eyes open for them. So that's great advice. Along the same lines, how do you know when it's time to innovate your business model versus your core products?
JB: So many of these questions can seem so big - especially when you use a term like "business model." Well, my business is successful today. I don't need to go and innovate to change my entire business model. But I think you should have a process in place where you're finding areas where you can pick up efficiencies, where you can look at things really through two lenses. One, how do you run a better organization and a better business and can you pick up efficiencies there. And then two, where can you make it better for the customers?
Where can it be easier for them to complete paying their bill or making whatever they're trying to accomplish with their account easier for them to complete. And I think if you really look at your business through those two lenses, you should always be innovating rather than having to make it something so daunting that you need to change your entire business model. And some projects are that big and will require years of innovation and years of development and work, but some pieces of innovation are really just making incremental progress - about saying, okay, I want to find some way to contact people better. What can that be? It can be differences in your work schedules. It can be differences in the data you buy. All of that can [add up to] small steps of innovation that I'm a big believer in.
EK: Yeah, that's great. And, not to mention Michael Meyer again, but he had a similar philosophy, so it's great to see that the whole organization is thinking in that way. So, along similar lines, what current industry problems do you think will require the most innovative solutions?
JB: I don't know if it is a new problem, but you know, the usage of phone has decreased over time. So, you limit the number of attempts per account very quickly to seven in seven days. And so I do think [it's important] how we get more information to our customers and to our clients' customers. [It's good to] think about how we can have that information at the customer's fingertips. The importance of that is just going to keep increasing. I think it has been there and has increased over time, but I think that that's going to keep increasing as we go. So, whether it's self-service portals, whether it's the ability for customers to receive information via email or text message and what that information is and the content of those messages, I really think that that is an immediate need.
And then, I also think that as these new channels become, well, it's silly to call them new. We're talking about innovation like email that has been around for 35 years. But as these channels become more a part of our customer outreach, how do you connect them all and make it really a truly seamless experience for the customer? They can't just seem like disparate outreaches from a text message, an email, a call. Maybe the person making the phone call doesn't know that that email happened and what the content is there. So making sure you tie them all together into one seamless message is I think critically important. [It's] something that, you know, I'm not positive that anybody's tackled it exactly the way that they want to. But I think it needs to be tackled.
EK: I think that's a challenge that many agencies are facing. And even beyond that, some of the collections branches of some of the creditors are facing that as well. So I agree with you. I think that's going to require a lot of innovation and brain power.
JB: I agree. And I think we need to look at some other industries that have done well, whether it's marketing, whether it's in retail, which has done a really good job of the kind of a full end-to-end marketing or outreach to customers. And, you know, I'm really, really interested in spending a lot of time looking at what companies have been successful in that way. I know we all have stories where we have pulled up other social media or Amazon and have seen that exact product we were thinking about. And how did you know, how did that happen and how do we take some of those learnings into our industry? I really think that that's what's next.
EK: I think none of the problems that the industry faces are necessarily unique. So, I think that's a great piece of advice. So during the iA Strategy and Tech conference earlier this year in 2021, you said you think the future looks like an investment in your operators, changing from managing output to managing strategic workflows, being able to analyze data and to turn that into a work strategy that is efficient, strategic and smart. And I want to break that down a little bit further with some more specific questions. So does this shift in mindset that you're describing change how agencies are hiring and should it, if it hasn't yet?
JB: Absolutely. I mean, at a time where we now have been able to expand our workforce from just where our physical locations are - I see you're at home right now, I'm actually in the office or in one of our offices. But, I'm at home working often and we have the ability to expand that workforce and then we also expect to get different sets of skills introduced into our organizations. So, it's starting now. I think our workforce management, our analytics - they are going to look very different. Regarding some of the things we talked about before, we may be hiring people that are more into marketing than traditional collections. As you know, our number of attempts will decrease. We need to start thinking and investing in different outreach people that specialize in email people that specialize in text delivery.
So I think a lot of the skills that we're bringing into our organizations will change. I think on the agent side it'll change as well. I think our agents will go from being just great negotiators, great at follow-up, to also having to have different writing skills, different technical skills, [the ability to] work across multiple platforms.You may see an agent that may communicate via email, may communicate verbally and then may follow up with an automatic text. And so there, the agent workforce is going to change over time. I think we, as an organization have started on the prior discussion points. And I think we know that the agent piece will change pretty quickly here, but we haven't mapped out exactly what that looks like yet.
EK: Okay. So you covered a lot of ground there. And I just want to make sure that everyone's clear. Are there new roles and personnel that agencies need to consider integrating into their operations departments? I know you mentioned workforce management and some of the analytics and marketing, anything else?
JB: I also think some BA functions [will change]. You know, I think really understanding what the operation is trying to accomplish and making sure that you have the right technical support to do that is key. And that translation really seems to present itself as a need. I think as an organization, we're trying to figure out exactly that right setup. You know, there's a lot of communication between myself and it and our operators and it, and I think really us being able to put those into true requirements so it's easier for our IT team to accomplish exactly what we're looking for is something that we can grow as an organization. I'm sure many in the industry are thinking the same thing. Maybe that BA type function in the organization. That's another one that comes to mind off the top of my head.
EK: I think that's super important as well. You know, as the technical challenges grow and technology becomes more necessary to function, really, especially in light of Reg F, you need people who can speak that language. So, that's a great point there. And then I know you said that you guys have started with the workforce management and the BAs and the PMs. Does it change how you're training your agents and what new types of training needs to be available?
JB: Yes. And, you know, again, a lot of the learnings that we had from the pandemic can be translated. We started training or we had a long period of time where we were training people remotely and changing some of what that training looked like, where it was less of a trainer standing right in front of an agent explaining some of those things and more modules that they would take on their own, like some self learning, portions. And I think that that changed our workforce a little bit, in terms of who we've hired over the last 18 months or so. And I think that will continue to change. So as we train them, we will start training them on, you know, how, how do you follow up with an email professional, you know, professionally, what can you say in writing that's different than what you can say, verbally, and in some cases there's not much many things that are are different.
And then, how do we script most of a written communication that still answers customer's questions, whether that's a chat, whether that's a text, or whether that's via email. And so I think a lot of training will go into how to use those types of tools and how to use them in a professional and compliant environment. I think that a lot of it will look very similar, but there'll be some very, very specific differences there. So I'm excited about it. Like I said, at the beginning of this, I've been in this industry for a long time. And, sometimes it’s invigorating to do something different. I've been guilty of calling this a horse-and-buggy industry and I'm excited that that may not be the case, over the next X number of years. So the agent changes are going to be one of the more exciting ones because we get to even our existing staff. We get to really invest in some different skills for them. And I'm excited about that as well.
EK: It certainly seems like we're in the midst of a pretty big shift in that regard. So it is exciting to watch that happen. And looking into the future a little further, where do you see this convergence of regulations like Regulation F and changing customer behavior leading?
JB: In 2008, 2009, you saw a lot of agencies by necessity have to really invest in compliance. And that they did not have a choice but to make that investment. I think Reg F is going to almost be the same thing, but for technology and changes in how we contact customers, where agencies will be forced and have no other choice, but to really invest in different outreach, in different staffing and to be able to do that, they know they're going to have to hire some different people. So I think it all kind of converges where I think that a lot of agencies that have been reluctant to innovate or reluctant to invest in technology will be forced to be successful in the future. And I think that that point is coming right around now. So again, that will force some of the excitement because I think that there are some tools that we could have used in this industry for many years that we didn't by and large. And I think we will now, and I'm excited about that.
EK: And circling back to what we said earlier, none of the problems that this industry is facing are new, and they're not necessarily specific to the collections industry. So where should agencies look to find what's coming next in the ARM industry?
JB: You can take that question a couple of ways. I mean, I think one thing that I will say is that this industry, when I first got into it, I mean, it's always been very competitive and still is to this day. But I do think that there are people in this industry that really want to see the industry evolve over time. And there was some, you know, a large list of companies that are open to discussion and talking about what they're doing as an organization. And MRS is definitely one of those. So I would definitely encourage people to look within their peer groups, to find out what's happening and ask some questions there. And then I would also encourage people to look outside of this industry and say, how are other industries, other companies successful in contacting people, in understanding customer behavior and, and really ensuring that they're doing what they can to, you know, have the most effective outreach that they can. And so,I would ask people to look at their peer groups, look at a lot of organizations like yours, then also look outside of this industry and say, okay, how are they doing it? So there are three kinds of three spots that I think people should be looking at. Not just one of them, but all three.
EK: I think you're absolutely right about that. And just a little plug for the Innovation Council since this is Think Differently. If you're interested in more information about that, I'd be happy to hear from you. So thank you so much, Jim, for all of that. Any kind of final thoughts before we close out?
JB: No, I think we've covered a lot and I enjoyed our discussion and it's always great talking to you.
EK: Thanks so much for joining me today. Again, this was an edition of Think differently, and this is a feature of the iA Innovation Council, and it's been great to have you today, Jim. Thanks so much.
Note: This interview is part of the iA Think Differently series. Written by or recorded with members of the iA Innovation Council, the series of articles and videos showcases thought leadership in analytics, communications, payments, and compliance technology for the accounts receivable management industry.