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Digital Age Collecting in a Regulatory Minefield

  • Written by Jeff Freedman

freedman jeffFor those of us who have been in the accounts receivable management industry for a long time, we know that collecting on debt is not for the faint of heart. We all take pride in the services we deliver but unfortunately we are also forced to deal with frivolous lawsuits from attorneys more interested in their own finances than helping their clients. Sadly, government regulators and courts around the country only muddy the waters more with contradictory statutes and inconsistent rulings.

It is no wonder that in a landscape littered with pitfalls and potential land mines, most agency owners are reticent to take risks that could improve the customer experience and enhance the bottom line. The mantra is almost always the same, “We want to try something new, but the risks of being sued are simply not worth it.” While totally understandable, the reality may be much different. Perhaps the risks can be worth it if the proper time is spent understanding precisely where the risks lie and by building the proper controls (preferably systemic controls) to ensure compliance.

Let’s take a look at a few examples. At my company, we have deployed several different digital strategies within the last couple of years that have helped make us more efficient as well as more effective.

Text Messaging

Texting is one such area. What makes texting a little more complex is the fact that you are dealing with both TCPA and FDCPA issues around consent and potential third party disclosure. When developing strategies, we recognize that nothing is foolproof, however our goal is to create a layered defense that helps mitigate risk. One way we did this was by creating our own tool that launches text messages without the use of an automated telephone dialing system (ATDS). By generating the texts in a manual fashion (requiring human intervention to send each text), we add an additional layer to any potential claim of a TCPA violation. This is not to say that we ignore consent but rather we don’t simply rely on consent as our only layer of protection. We also add another layer of protection by conducting a phone ownership scrub. This scrub enables us to gauge the likelihood that the customer we are seeking is the primary user of the phone. This adds yet another layer to our defense as we try to avoid sending text messages to the wrong party.

Finally, the messages we send are FDCPA compliant, both in terms of content and the time of day in which we launch them (the text cannot launch if it is outside of acceptable calling hours in the recipient’s time zone/address). Needless to say, this texting tool has been invaluable to us as we have increased our right party contacts by connecting with more customers who might never have engaged with us by telephone call or snail mail. We deploy many of the same controls and principles when we email customers, however it is worth noting that we have seen a much greater impact with texting than with email.

IVR

Another area where we have crossed the digital divide has been with our AI-enabled conversational IVR that we call ADAM. Unlike traditional IVRs, customers no longer have to “…listen to our entire menu as our options have changed…” At MRS, customers engage and interact with ADAM through conversation rather than by listening to menus and constantly pressing keys. While again, there is risk in deploying new technology, we believe the benefit is so substantial that it will revolutionize the way customers engage with us. Customers can now make payment arrangements, render a dispute, report a bankruptcy, to name a few, without ever having to speak to a live agent. They can also do so at times that are most convenient to them, including late into the evening or on the weekend. Countless hours have been put into quality control, testing, and training of the multitude of “responses” that create the overall user experience with ADAM.

Like with texting, our strategy has been to create layers of defense to try and mitigate risk. One example, is by always giving customers the ability to opt out to a live agent if they don’t wish to continue engaging ADAM. Other controls have been put in place to ensure that ADAM consistently gives the proper disclosures as well as verify the identity of the caller. As a further detective control, ADAM calls with customers are scored and evaluated with the same scrutiny and diligence by our quality team as those of the live agents.

Self-Help Web Portal

Customers can also engage us via our self-help portal on our webpage or even with live chat. Our goal is to give customers options that enable them to have more control in the collection process but also ensure that we are not exposing ourselves to unnecessary risk. For us, the rewards gained from our initiatives and strategies far outweigh those risks. It is also worth noting that, contrary to claims by some within our industry, not all customers are cut from the same cloth. Some prefer to engage us online, some prefer the less intrusiveness of a text, while still others prefer to engage ADAM. Then, of course, there are still those that prefer the traditional approach of speaking to a live human. We can now engage customers like never before and the results are a win for our clients, their customers, and those in our industry willing to take the risks.

Trying something different is often a little scary, and venturing into areas like texting and artificial intelligence can seem downright frightening with so much uncertainty. However, we all have collectively survived and thrived in the collection industry because we were willing to adapt and change with the times. The times have changed again and our industry has entered the digital age. Are you ready for it?


Jeff Freedman co-founded MRS in 1991. Jeff manages all aspects of the organization by providing direction to the Executive Team, Finance Department, and Legal Department; in addition to providing indirect oversight of Operations, Sales/Marketing, Human Resources, Training, Quality Assurance, and IT/Security.