We have seen a lot of changes over the last two years in the call center industry. Work-from-home has been normalized, consumers are demanding more flexible contact methods, and tax-time hasn’t been the dependable boon it’s been in the past. How should call centers adapt?
In this Think Differently Q&A from Collections & Recovery and insideARM, McKay Bird from TCN discusses how collections departments can and should adapt to recent consumer expectation and workforce changes, including:
- How to mitigate compliance risk when employees are working from home;
- Why compliance-first companies need to pair compliance tech with an internal, top-down approach to compliance management; and
- What companies should change (or not change) in their collections strategy going into '23
Watch the interview or read the full transcript below.
Erin Kerr: I'm here today with McKay Bird, who is the Marketing Director at TCN. As we know, collections departments are facing major challenges in this latter part of 2022 because of the turbulence of the last two years, with inflation and difficulty hiring, and a reduction in placements. We’re starting to see that shift just a little bit at least in terms of the reductions of placements.
With things in the ARM industry potentially returning to relative normalcy, we're going to talk a little bit about how agencies can adjust in order to comply with some of the new regulations that we've seen. And, since we saw a less-than-stellar 2022 tax season, how can we prepare for a better 2023?
Let's just jump into it. I'd like it if you could provide some context or background for what's going on in the call center industry right now from your perspective.
McKay Bird: What we're seeing currently in the general contact center space is a very large migration to cloud-based services, and whether that's just the general contact center tools that support the contact center tools that help optimize the agent experience.
During 2020, we saw a huge migration to a work-from-home model and a part of that, as businesses are looking to this new normal, they now need to figure out what this new hybrid workforce looks like. Some tools and some services that these call centers are actually looking to migrate to are better suited for a hybrid workforce.
What we saw early on, and this is going back to 2020, with call centers, or even collection agencies, those that work in the space regardless of vertical, was concern with security and being able to monitor your agents and making sure they were doing what they said they were doing. Tools like monitoring their desktop computer, since they weren't in a physical location, so they didn't have the ability to do that. Making sure that their work environment is secure, it's safe, and even tidy. Sometimes agents are working in the healthcare space, right? There's sensitive data that's being talked about. Sometimes there's billing information being passed back and forth through an agent and consumer and if an agent reads back details that may be that they may be protected under HIPAA compliance or even PCI compliance.
There's a security risk there, especially in a home environment. A business doesn't know who might be listening to that call. Early on we had a customer that asked specifically about Amazon Echo Assistant and Google Assistant and whether or not those devices, if they were in an immediate workplace, if they were able to listen in on those calls. We really saw some challenges early on.
But, you know, I think as we've moved more to this new normal, it's turning more into the agent experience, in combination with the consumer experience. There's a lot of talk right now of AI and ML and we haven't seen too much of how our customers are going to implement that. It's a lot of buzzwords currently, but there's definitely some trends and some moves towards artificial intelligence and machine learning in data management and running reports.
So a lot of exciting things are happening. But I think with cloud migration, some of the early concerns are managing that workforce and using AI and ML as it becomes more relevant and needed in the workplace. Because a lot of agencies say we need ML or we need AI, but they may not understand what that means or how they're going to implement it or how it might benefit them. And a lot of times cost comes into factor because they may look at it and say: well, we need ML and AI, but the cost and affordability may not be there currently for a lot of call centers.
[EK]: I appreciate you breaking that down. I do think there's a ton going on right now in that space. At the very beginning of your answer, you used the term contact center as opposed to call center, and I think that's a really important distinction to make. I didn't initially make it in my question, but I think that makes a lot more sense now given some of the additional channels that agencies are using to reach consumers. You've outlined some of the challenges that happen as a result of COVID, and how we're adjusting to the new normal, but can you describe some of the biggest challenges your clients are facing now, post-COVID, post Reg F? What's on the horizon? You mentioned AI and ML, but maybe there are some specific challenges that they're trying to address with those tools.
[MB]: I'll address Reg F first because I think the audience would benefit more from talking about compliance and Reg F, and what's happening in the industry. Obviously with the change in regulation last year, a lot of people didn't know what that meant, and what changes they may need to make.
Currently, we're kind of seeing a shift back to the ATDS. And there are some rumors of some [regulations] that might be passed with ATDS call blocking. Carriers are actually a concern of our clients just because [call blocking] is happening, right? The government came out, as you're aware, with that [reassigned number] database, being able to register your phone numbers, but there are concerns and challenges that it doesn't work a hundred percent the way that it should.
But we are getting through a lot of those challenges currently, just as an industry and understanding what that looks like. You mentioned a little bit about multichannel and some of the omnichannel communications outside of just pure voice. SMS are currently getting blocked in some regions and there are some tools and some things that you can do to help protect some of those messages and make sure that they are delivered the way that they should be. But with Reg F, currently, I think it's continuing to adopt the changes. Consumer preference has been the center of what Reg F is and what that consent looks like. A lot of organizations have found challenges in how to manage that consent and those consumer preferences and how those preferences can speak to each other on other platforms.
So, if you're using tools in one system and you need those preferences to be talking to a third party for your letter vendor, for example, or your email vendor, that can be challenging. All of those things need to be in sync because if you are communicating with somebody within the parameters, you need to be able to update and communicate that throughout your CRM or your collector platform, regardless of channel and regardless of the platform that you're using.
I think integrating all of those consumer preferences, integrating the consent in a way where it's actionable is key, especially to making sure you're adhering to compliance. Obviously there are tools and services that provide that support, as well as consent profiling. I think one of the biggest challenges in this environment currently is managing that consent and making sure it's communicated across platforms.
[EK]: That's something that I hear a lot too, McKay. It's really difficult to get your databases to talk to each other and provide a holistic service for a consumer for sure.
So we talked about Reg F, and I think we're going to keep talking about Reg F a little bit. What practical adjustments have you seen that your clients make to comply with Reg F?
[MB]: For our clients, it's easy. Our clients currently use our services and our software. We have a very strong compliance suite, our Natural Language Compliance tool. We have partnered with the Reassigned Number Database, as well as STIR/SHAKEN and all our carriers are authenticated through the FCC.
We believe that our clients are managing consumer consent. They are tracking consent effectively and are avoiding excess contact where needed. But I think you can take it a step further. There’s a training aspect to making sure that you talk about these practical adjustments, right? We've always advised our clients to take a top-down approach. [The adjustments] need to be implemented from top down and those [top down] training needs to happen because no longer does the compliance fall on the agent.
There's a lot of training that needs to go into making sure the agents understand the rules, and that they have the tools available to them to be able to manage those consent profiles and to know what's going on or access to those databases and learning to communicate with them properly. But making sure management gets through that training from a top-down approach and having those [training sessions] regularly. That’s what we've advised our clients to do, and those are clients that use our compliance tools. Right out of the gate, right when Reg F, even, those clients were able to build rules and stay in compliance.
[EK]: Something that I think I talked with TCN about earlier this year was about how compliance is really not something you can manage manually anymore. It's something you have to manage technically, right? It’s important to make that adjustment, especially at the top level of expectations, of who's really in charge of compliance.
So let's shift to operations a little bit. At the top of the call, I talked a little bit about tax time. There were reports of a slower than normal tax season in 2022, because the average consumer wasn't receiving the large payment that they're accustomed to. So in collections you have to adjust to that. What lessons do you think we can learn from this year's tax season and apply to next year?
[MB]: What’s interesting is that among our clients, we didn't notice or hear much about how tax season was affected this year, but it makes sense. I think as consumers with the stimulus and, with different federal programs that were introduced over the last couple of years, it's really shifted how consumers spend, how they're paying their bills, and how they're interacting with collectors. It makes sense as you look at the bell curve of like, okay, everybody was part of that federal program. Obviously you know, as things kind of waned and programs dried up a little bit, it makes sense that that would be the trend. I would recommend, and especially what we've been talking about with our clients, is not to make drastic changes to your strategy, especially when it comes to compliance. Don't cut corners in tracking consent.
You know, we've always believed that collections is more of a collaboration between an agent and a consumer, and that collaboration can come in many ways, whether it's a pre-negotiated price to collect the debt or if there are some other payment terms. But that collaboration and that communication needs to be thoughtful. From lessons learned, I would say, don't make any knee-jerk reactions. There are ebbs and flows, and I think with programs and different stimulus packages that’s shifted over the last couple years. We see things kind of moving more to a normal state.
[EK]: Thanks for that McKay. My final question here is really a broad one, and I think there are probably a lot of different answers you could give here. What can collections and recovery contact centers do now to prepare for a better 2023?
[MB]: I touched a little bit on this. The training aspect [is critical]. The mentality of the consumer has changed how your agents are working with them, and your agents' work environment has shifted. Providing those top-down management training goes a long way. Also, make sure that you're staying in constant communication with them, and start viewing these consumers not as debtors, but more of consumers, and figuring out how you can collaborate and make that connection with them and be able to set those expectations. There's security, compliance, adherence. I said this before, but it doesn't start with the agent necessarily. You know, there's some tasks and some things that do, but those things need to fall on the organization as a whole. It comes down to continual training and, and making sure you're aware of changes coming up. For example, we’re hearing lots of rumors of changes happening. I mentioned a few of them earlier: ATDS changes, the FCC is looking at what text blocking looks like. SMS is another one. I would say being aware of upcoming regulatory changes, and not making any knee-jerk changes to strategy.
[EK]: Well, thank you McKay. I appreciate that, and I appreciate this whole conversation. Is there anything you'd like to add at the end of this interview here?
[MB]: No,I think I've said it all. There's nothing else to add except for: if compliance is a struggle for organizations, to let us know how we might be able to help, and identify some of the concerns that you may have to let us know and give a call.
[EK]: That's great. McKay. TCN is a great resource for your clients, and you have some resources on your website for anybody in the public who wants to take a look at them as well. So make sure you check that out. Thanks so much again for joining me, McKay, and have a great rest of your day.
[MB]: Appreciate it. Thanks, Erin. Have a great day.
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