Monday, 25 July 2016

Stay vigilant! The best way to help consumers during uncertain economic times.

A few weeks on from the UK’s biggest political decision and the rate of change hasn’t slowed down for a second. We’ve witnessed everything from a Prime Ministerial change, an opposition leadership contest and changing of the guard in front bench politics. 

What does this mean for our economy longer-term? Well, it’s probably too early to say and the outcome of all this change will unfold over the next few years. One thing is for sure, it’s likely to present us with both challenges and opportunities.

So now I’m beginning to think a little closer to home, about the impact these changes could have on people living with financial difficulties and a few things stand out for me.

Firstly, the Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, recently hinted that fresh stimulus measures are need to re-invigorate the economy, including potentially cutting interest rates1.  This clearly has pros and cons.  For people with variable rate mortgages this will be positive news and provide some additional relief.  For consumers managing their financial difficulties through a debt solution like a Debt Management Plan (DMP) or an Individual Voluntary Arrangements (IVAs) – our data shows that 40% of people in IVAs have mortgages – it will help with sustainability and could enable them to increase their repayments. However, for those people living on income from pensions or savings their finances will be squeezed and they may be more likely to struggle.

Secondly, the pound has dropped against the US dollar which is likely to drive up inflation over time. For people living with or at risk of financial difficulties this may result in a higher cost of living and put them at greater risk of unmanageable debts. A recent survey by YouGov2 showed that ‘a third of middle-class people would have to borrow money to pay an unexpected bill of £500’. For people already managing their financial difficulties through a debt solution, could lead to an increase in broken arrangements.

However, this may be balanced by the news that the Treasury has abandoned targets to restore government finances to a surplus3 by 2020, as a result of the requirement for additional borrowing to ensure economic contraction, which could slow the rate of contraction of the welfare state and balance some of the impacts of inflation.

The Money Advice Service published research in March which highlighted that ‘one in six people in the UK is over-indebted, but less than one in five of them seek debt advice4’ and BBA retail banking statistics show that unsecured borrowing is growing at a rate5 of 6%, coupled with low wage growth and the contraction of the welfare state – all of which begin to place an even greater burden on consumers.

Research by debt charity, StepChange6, shows that 50% of people with debt problems tend to wait at least a year before seeking advice, so the most effective way to support consumers during these uncertain times is to look out for early warning signs. Creditors should act quickly to most effectively target their support at the people with the greatest need and put treatment paths in place which both reduce the chance of financial difficulties and provide repayment solutions which can be effectively managed.

So, what should creditors do to support their customers?

1. Use internal and external data to identify customers who are in or at risk of financial difficulties. Whilst your customer may be managing their credit commitment with you effectively, they may be struggling with others. Without reviewing external data the first thing you will see is a customer disengage and move swiftly through the collections and recoveries process.

2. Develop strategies for these customers by proactively engaging them to offer additional support. Taking action early gives your customers more options and simple action now can avoid longer-term problem debt which normally results in recoveries action. If creditors don’t engage and support their customers it is more likely that they will seek debt advice, including accessing personal insolvency solutions, this can often be the right solution for customers but at this point creditors only have limited control.

Richard Haymes is Head of Financial Difficulties at TDX Group

1. Pound falls as Bank of England hints at fresh stimulus measures, 30th June 2016
2. Third of middle classes too short of cash to pay a £500 bill, 7th June 2016
3. Osbourne abandons 2020 budget surplus target, 1st July 2016
4. Press release: One in six adults struggling with debt worries, 10th March 2016
5. May 2016 figures for high street banks, 24th June 2016
6. Waiting for debt advice

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Let’s talk contact not placements

One of the items of debt collection data that needs to be reported to the FCA on GABRIEL is ‘stage of debt placement’ – in other words, how many times a debt has been placed for collection with debt collection agencies (it’s commonly known as recycling). Once a creditor has exhausted in-house attempts to recover money owed on an account, they will often place it with debt collection agencies. Typically a three-placement strategy is deployed meaning if the first agency is unsuccessful at gaining payment, the account will pass to a further two agencies, usually at ~90 or ~180 day intervals.

In capturing this data, the FCA is seeking to understand the risk associated with debt placement, which we wholeheartedly support. However, the reporting of this data is far from straightforward because the way data flows between creditor and agencies is not as complete as it should be (and this goes for the whole customer lifecycle – not just between in-house collections and out-source recoveries – but that’s a topic for another blog!).

Organisations, such as ours, have been seeking ways to capture all customer journey information in one place. At TDX Group, we’re in a good position to achieve this because of our long-term relationship with our panel of agencies and our creditor clients – but what about the rest of the industry? Achieving consistency of data capture and reporting across the board feels like a mountain to climb and it’s one our industry body, the CSA, is working hard at.

So, in the meantime, how about we all choose to think and act differently? Ultimately, a placement represents contact with someone who is in debt, but it’s not the full picture as each agency will make a number of contact attempts within a placement. Knowing your customers’ circumstances and their behaviour opens a world of opportunities to resolve the situation as quickly (efficiently) and fairly as possible.

For example, if you knew someone was very unlikely to pay you (perhaps because they lacked the means), then it benefits all to contact them just the once to verify their situation. This way, you don’t increase their anxiety by repeatedly asking them to make a payment they simply cannot make, and you save the cost of spending £3-£4 on a series of fruitless letters, calls, texts etc.

If you additionally knew that the reason for non-payment was temporary (for example, some sort of financial shock such as losing a job), but they were likely to recover in a few months, then you will create a better customer experience and get better results by holding that account with the agency who made the initial, successful contact – and returning to them in six months’ time to check-in on their circumstances.

The same approach can be applied upstream from recoveries as well. At TDX Group, if we have a client who places accounts to us for recovery and they liquidate quickly and easily, we know they should never have been passed to us in the first place, so we work with our client to identify what the problem was in their in-house collections process.

Now, don’t get me wrong; at TDX Group we’re obsessed with data – and we’re determined to make a difference by ensuring all the data we can capture, is captured in one place – but our drive behind doing this is that we want to know what to do before we take any action. We don’t want to put any account through unnecessary contact attempts, or placements if we shouldn’t or don’t have to. The only reason for placing an account with a different agency should be a discovery about the individual’s circumstances which means it is both valid and reasonable to ask another agency – perhaps a specialist – to try to contact them. Another example would be engaging a specialist trace agency if contact details are not accurate or known.

So, let’s talk more about how and why we’re making contact and what we learn as a result. This is what will drive the biggest shift in fair outcomes and improved performance.

By Richard Anderson, Head of Advisory, TDX Group