Rewarding Telecom Consumers to Entice Payments

Great opportunities for agencies to get into the telecom market remain. The continued growth of telecommunications providers combined with loosely defined regulation in the industry has introduced a noteworthy amount of debt. Fierce competition among providers to retain customers can be costly and will likely lead to a write-off when the customer becomes uncooperative with the provider. Industry competition also makes it easier, and often more economical, for customers to switch providers. For the provider, excellent customer service and availability to the newest offerings in the industry will often result in customer loyalty, even when competing providers are offering lower priced entry packages. In cases like this, customers will pay to keep the service. However, this concept of loyalty doesn’t serve the agency well. Can agencies create something that entices telecom consumers to pay?

The answer is yes – at least in my opinion. An agency-sponsored rewards program can make a big difference. Programs like this are becoming very popular, especially in the telecom space and even before accounts are placed into the collection process. For example, Verizon Wireless has a rewards program labeled “Smart Rewards.” This program rewards customers with points for simply remaining a customer and maintaining an excellent payment history. The points do not expire and can be redeemed for discount shopping on items like apparel, tech gadgets, gift cards, travel and auctions. An agency-sponsored rewards program could share similarities with the Verizon Wireless program, but there must be a different structure because the customer is in collections and based on how agencies operate. Let’s look at how an agency might implement a rewards program and how it can be configured as a technology driven process.

Your Rewards Program

Agencies are well aware consumers come up with all sorts of excuses to stall the collection process. What I am suggesting is a rewards program could make the consumer want to pay. Whether the program accumulates points or offers a one-time prize, it can be configured and managed directly within the collection software. A custom field can be added at the consumer level and displayed directly on the representative screen. The field should be read-only and essentially function as a “ticker.” This way it cannot be manually adjusted by the representative working with the consumer and it is easy to see when an update/new reward/point accumulation event takes place. As the consumer is worked, obvious events like making a payment, scheduling a payment plan, or a settlement can offer maximum rewards. (Events like these should be configured in workflow to automatically apply or update the rewards). There are other events to engage the consumer throughout the collection process as well. I will call these “touching” events. The idea is not only to contact the consumer but keep them engaged until the debt is satisfied. Customer touching events can include each occasion a payment is made on time for the promised amount, providing consent to receive email or text communication, confirming or updating contact information, or responding to a survey from the agency. Ensure the consumer is being rewarded for events like these as well.

Promote the Program

A rewards program is not beneficial if the consumer is not aware of it. On any phone conversation, the representative should be explaining the rewards program to the consumer and informing them of their current “level” or “status” in the program. Other methods of informing the consumer should include a clear indicator on manual or automated letters and updates via email or text. These types of reminders can be programmed in the collection software directly at the workflow level or as a sub-event when specific actions or updates are made on the consumer record.

There can be any number of rewards programs like what I have detailed. What was described are only a few examples of how such a program might be configured. Agency owners know their business and know their consumers. Be creative with your programs and don’t be afraid to experiment. It is also imperative to know when to quit. Some consumers cannot be persuaded so do not attempt to offer anything and everything. Lastly, a rewards program can be named in a variety of ways. The term “rewards” is not necessary. Some agencies may find it beneficial to utilize terms like “loyalty,” “allegiance,” “good standing” and so on. Competition is accelerating at the telco provider level and we can only expect it increase among agencies as well. A rewards program could offer your agency a slight edge on the competition.

This article is also published by Collection Advisor

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3 Ways to Improve Conversion of PDF and Image Files

It can be argued that a large percentage of hospitals and medical facilities are using technology decades behind present-day patient and billing management systems. Agency owners are reminded of that debate every month when their new business file is once again delivered in a PDF file or even worse, a scanned image format. The painstaking process of manually entering every account and patient record resumes. Inefficiencies aside, the element of human error is ever-present and the probability of it is very high. It will not take much for someone to mistype a patient account number, procedure code, patient balance or some other critical data element. When asking your client for an electronically formatted final, you are left with a response something like, “we are working on it” or simply “no.” What else can be done?

A simple Internet search will result in a seemingly endless list of options. It’s not likely you will find a solution that works or more importantly, works for your use case. Essentially, the options fall into three different categories, which are listed and detailed below. If you are not lucky enough to stumble upon the perfect solution, consult with your end users and IT staff or vendor to understand the process of getting the data from the unstructured format into the collection software. This type of conversation will help direct you to the most logical path.

First

The most ideal option is working directly with the PDF or image file to electronically extract the data. This method does not mean the task can be completed without additional software. Rather, it means working with the raw file (source of the data). One positive attribute of the PDF or image file is that is has structure. This is obvious because it most cases, you can see it. The picture is clearly organized into columns and rows, usually with headings and summaries as well. Copy and paste is a common mistake. Any structure that was there is immediately corrupted. This lack of structure makes it tough to make sense of the data and you may have unknowingly lost some data during the transition.

Second

The first option assumes you discovered some out of the box software that accurately reads the image file you are working with. There is a second option very much like the first, but involves a completely custom software application to understand and parse the image file. This is going to require a skilled IT staff or services from an outside vendor. With careful analysis of the image file to identify regular patterns, splits, and trends, technologies such as Java or Python can be used to identify and accurately extract the data fields into a more structured and workable format. Many custom developed applications will output to HTML or XML. This is often easier than trying to move data directly from the image file to Excel or CSV. This output of the data becomes the new source for further processing or for electronically loading into your collection software.

Third

A more extreme option involves utilizing features of next generation tools which may otherwise be of no use to you. (If these tools are of use to you, it is likely in another division of the business so if you are part of a large organization, check with other departments because they may have something you can utilize.) Big Data technology, like Hadoop, is designed for extremely large datasets and robust environments, uncommon in most agencies, but may have features for reducing image files to understand and extract the data fields. Similarly, some Business Intelligence (BI) tools have features for reading PDF or image file sources, identifying the structure, and accurately extracting the data. For example, one of the latest releases of Tableau contains such features. If you opt for this route, there is a good chance you will find some other cool features and potential use cases for the Big Data or BI technology.

Finding a way to electronically manage PDF and image files is critical. It greatly improves operational efficiency and reduces the risk of human error. An element I haven’t even touched on involves culture and the work environment. In probably all cases, those performing the manual work to key new account and patient information into the system are likely not doing the work they were hired to do and are not doing work that is more rewarding, both personally and for the company. I hope you make it a priority to create an exciting and more productive environment through the elimination of manual processes.

* This article is also published by Collection Advisor

Does Business Intelligence Matter?

Most agencies have data scattered amid many different systems. The standard setup likely includes some combination of the collection software, a sales or CRM system, an accounting system, a payment portal, a client access website and a reporting factory. The technology for accessing data across many systems has grown tremendously in recent years. Business intelligence (BI) is everywhere right now, yet many agencies are not interested or they are somewhat interested but not enough to jump in. I have witnessed agencies lose clients solely due to lacking BI. I have also witnessed agencies win clients, they had no business signing, only because they displayed top-tier BI with excellent reporting and dashboarding.

It is not difficult to get started with BI and if your company is not doing anything, you are missing out on some quick productivity gains. Top performing companies are 5% more productive and 6% more profitable with data-driven business intelligence.

It is imperative to note that I am specifically referencing datadriven BI. This is where you want to be as a company because self-reliance is achieved and insight into the real business performance and trends is quickly accessible. The truth is only 8% of companies are benefiting from data-driven BI. The rest are making critical business decisions using opinion-based BI. This is the traditional method of BI where the same critical business decisions are made using outdated data, uncompromising reports, or nothing other than how you believe the business is performing.

Great, so how can the regular credit card collection agency move from opinion-based BI to data-driven BI?

The excellent news is that you already have the data! The rest is primarily intangible. The one tangible piece includes the introduction of BI technology and data standardization. There are hundreds of BI tools available. For many of them, it is merely a matter of due diligence in selecting a tool to move forward with because a hosted or cloud instance is almost always an option. Some BI tools I like and have seen a lot of are Tableau, Microsoft Power BI and IBM Cognos.

Obtaining a new BI tool does not have to, and probably should not, include standing up a new environment with servers, firewalls, switches, and so on. During the BI technology due diligence process, you should be thinking about data standardization as well. Data standardization is the art of getting all your data, regardless of systems or where the data originates, into an accessible and workable format. In the case of BI, it usually means achieving integration with all data sources and capturing all or most of the business critical data in a central repository, such as a data warehouse.

The intangibles for adopting BI are arguably more important than the tangibles. Even with the best BI technology and data standards in place, a successful adoption of BI must include a change in people and the way people think about data. The conventional experience involves a request for a report, usually a ticket is created, the ticket is assigned to IT, and IT builds the report. This takes both time and resources. Even when the report gets in the hands of the requestor, there is often a question about the data or a change to the way the data is presented. The request, ticketing and IT process repeats.

This experience is unpleasant for all involved because the business is not getting what they need, IT does not understand what the business wants and the speed for delivery on each iteration is too slow. The experience improves with a greater collaboration between business and IT. This naturally occurs when the two groups spend more time together going over requirements and presentation options. But what if the two groups were both working in the BI toolset? Let’s advance to BI and analytics that may be significant for agencies. Ask yourself the following sample questions to direct your thought process.

  • In which state or geographic region is my agency the most successful?
  • How much better am I compared to the next most successful state or region?
  • Based on my historical numbers, can I forecast the next three months? Six months? Year?
  • What is my level of certainty with those forecast numbers?

Now consider your staff, clients, and partners.
• Does my staff have the tools they need to answer the same four questions above?

  • If my clients or partners saw my current BI and reporting process, they would think ________.

There are endless thought processes that can help you introduce a better BI practice at your agency. You must break through traditional thinking to be successful. Agencies that promote self-reliance and empower users at all levels by giving them access to work with the data will be successful moving from an opinion-based organization to a data-driven organization.

* This article is also published by Collection Advisor

3 Ways to Wow Governments (And Everyone) With Your Tech

In 2010, the framework for massive technology updates in healthcare was set in motion. It started with the introduction of the health insurance marketplace for the public sector. This resulted in hospitals, medical facilities, insurance companies, claims processors and third-party agencies racing to upgrade systems and technology for patient-account management, privacy and data security, compatibility, and simply to keep up with the changing trends. For the agencies servicing healthcare accounts, technology updates and upgrades were necessary to stand out and to survive as a provider of receivables management services.

Now, in 2017 and stepping out of the healthcare vertical, are we about to see another massive technology update impacting third-party agencies? For those in the government space, the answer is probably yes. Without launching a political debate, there is uncertainty surrounding what is taking place and will take place with the federal government as well as with state and local governments. Nonetheless, technology advancement and increasing IT budgets appear to be a priority. A report from Forrester Research published on govtech.com forecasts that IT spending at the state and local levels will overtake IT spending at the federal level as soon as this year and then continuing into 2018.1 More specifically, the report details that the largest investment will be in cloud-based software and solutions.

Technological advances are nothing new but there does appear to be an evolving understanding that a fundamental change is underway. Innovation is essential. Younger generations rely heavily on mobile devices and therefore are always “connected.” The device market is growing and changing rapidly. There is an expectation that technology in other markets is keeping up. Increased IT spending at the state and local levels could help to close this gap.

We can tie this all together by looking back at the question raised – Will any of this impact third-party agencies? Sooner or later it will so the new question is how can agencies prepare? In my opinion, agencies should upgrade their technology so it stands out as if they were attempting to sell their services to government entities. Essentially, make your operation appear cutting edge. “Appear” is the most important word in that statement because nothing needs to change with your collection process. Instead, pretend you are working a state government contract and are in a position to give them the data they need, the reports they are looking for and the analytics they want. Here are three things your agency can do to stand out:

1) Data Centralization

Use a data warehouse, data lake, master data management (MDM) system or whatever you want to name it to gather all the data from all your systems. Most agencies have many database systems in place to run the business. Common cases include collection software, client or debtor access portals, accounting software, outside vendor services and a CRM. These are all standalone systems with their own data sets. By getting as much of the overall data as you can into a central location, you are in a position to report on the entire enterprise and to use the data to really understand how the business is performing. To stand out even further, put your data centralization solution in the cloud.

2) Performance Reporting Package

Develop a package of canned reports about your agency’s performance at the portfolio level that rolls all the way up to the entire organization. There is a good chance you already have a pile of client reports to start with. Having a performance reporting package available shows you are ready to take on more business and you have an understanding of what creditors and first parties want to see from their agencies. If your client does not have hard report layout and formatting requirements, use your package to eliminate a large chunk of the new client onboarding work. You will onboard quicker and will not miss reporting deadlines with your new client.

3) Business Intelligence

An element of this includes report development but with business intelligence (BI), you are adding the bells and whistles. A BI solution can be tough to implement because similar to developing a reporting package, you must know the information that is critical and the data points that are key performance indicators. Only when those elements are understood, a slick set of dashboards and analytictype reports can be developed. To really achieve a noticeable BI solution, an outside provider is almost always necessary. BI is a popular topic these days and there are many good providers in the industry but Tableau offers the best product I have seen. I highly recommend their product and at the very least, it is worth a demo.

An initial push to upgrade your technology and keep up with trends does not have to break the budget or involve a massive overall in how your business operates. It is forecast that government IT spending will be increasing in the coming years and a few updates now could reduce the amount of work that may be required later this year or next. Additionally, the element of change is naturally a challenge and most are comfortable with the way things are but a little change now could ease the pain from a big change coming soon.

1 http://www.govtech.com/civic/Stateand- Local-IT-Spending-to-Outpace-Federal- in-2017-and-2018.html

* This article is also published by Collection Advisor

Differentiating in the Commoditized Skip Tracing Market

Some time ago, the process of locating and gathering information about a debtor, or skip tracing, became a commodity. It is easy to get the information and the demand remains high. However, there is little differentiation among those companies providing the data. When an end user is presented with new address or phone number data in the collection software, rarely do they know where the information came from. It is true some collection software platforms can track or flag the source of the data, but the source cannot be derived by simply looking at the data. Let’s look at the differentiation available and some ideas for agencies to streamline their skip tracing processes.

Skip tracing service providers offer a variety of solutions. Free services, one-time fee services, real-time services and subscription services are commonly offered. Free skip tracing should be discarded. Although the obvious economic reasons are appealing, free skip tracing requires a staff, a high volume of manual intervention, inconsistency in effort and procedure and integration with the collection software, which is non-existent. You get what you pay for and free usually doesn’t cut it. We have all heard this before.

One-time fee services are commonly referred to as batch skip tracing. Batch mode is generally very consistent and integrated. The data is requested and received one-time, usually overnight, and automatically fed into the collection software. An agency can and should build all sorts of data handling rules to not only electronically load the data into the system but also set a level of reliability on the data and whether or not a verification process is required. What’s important is capturing all the data. After all, you are paying for it.

Batch is a good method when the agency has a need to process many debtors and having the updated information immediately is not important. Real-time services are similar to batch in terms of consistency and integration. The difference is in the timing. Real-time skip tracing is the fastest way to get updated or receive new information. It is usually accomplished in the collection software using a preprogrammed button or workflow where a request is sent to the service provider and a response is received real-time or near real-time. The concept of the data going straight into the software and the data handling rules as used in batch mode can apply.

A subscription model can be implemented for both batch and real-time. The beauty of a subscription model is that any debtors sent to the skip tracing service provider are “monitored” regardless of whether the request is sent in batch mode or real-time mode. This is attractive to agencies because the technology is always on. The provider will deliver a response on the initial request and monitor the debtor record for a predefined term. If at any time during the term the provider receives new information, it will automatically be delivered to the respective agency. Due to the nature of the service, the subscription model is commonly referred to as “monitoring.”

Excluding free services, technology and automation is largely well-defined and reliable in the skip tracing market. However, skip tracing can be counterproductive. Too much manual intervention and the mixing of service providers can be expensive in terms of dollars and man hours. I believe 99% of all skip tracing efforts need to be electronic and automated in the collection software. Agencies should work to streamline skip tracing efforts by simplifying or eliminating waterfall models in an effort to find one sound service provider that can satisfy all the service models previously mentioned. There are providers who offer batch, real-time, subscription, and manual skip tracing services. While the first three are electronic and integrated with collection software, the manual service is simply a portal where the service provider allows end users to manually search the database for new information or to maintain the customers monitored database. Working with a provider like this can greatly streamline an agency’s skip tracing process.

Regardless of your skip tracing practice, don’t overlook the information from the original creditor. It is usually the most reliable. You want that information, so ask for it in the placement file and load any data point you receive somewhere in your technology enterprise. If you don’t need it today, it will be easier to locate when you do need it tomorrow.

* This article is also published by Collection Advisor

Compliance: Technology Alone Will Not Protect You

Every day, I receive around a dozen emails detailing some aspect of compliance and data security. Some I immediately delete, some I briefly scan over and others I really dig into. There is no formula behind this. It simply depends on the timing of the email. Looking back at the history of the ARM industry, compliance is certainly one of the newer topics of conversation. The conversation has been steadily growing and the concerns surrounding compliance have exploded in recent years. On most days, it seems one could attend several compliance webinars covering everything from implementation strategies to costs.

Technology changes very rapidly and in many cases, technology introduced today will be outdated in fewer than six months. That statement is not enlightening for any of us but what we may overlook is how much technology is taking over the everyday aspects of our lives. For example, think about how we communicate, receive our news, and manage finances. With such a dependence on technology and increasing regulation surrounding compliance and data security, what is an agency to do?

Many agencies have taken the approach of staging a fully compliant and secure environment for individual clients, for different lines of business or for employee training purposes. I recently visited a client that prepared this type of environment for their Department of Education accounts and it has allowed them to control the data and access to sensitive data. Furthermore, the environment can be cloned and the data can be masked or scrambled to create a fully compliant and secure environment for training, related to an individual client or business line. This is a sound approach but there are several considerations before making a move like this.

Evaluate Costs

First, costs should be evaluated. The raw costs to start up another environment, purchase additional licenses from your software provider, and add more support and maintenance is easy to calculate but do not neglect the costs of working the business. Costs such as staff training, integrating with outside service vendors, and completing security audits need to be added to the raw environment costs and then compared against anticipated revenue from working the business. You may find it difficult to justify.

Access

Second, if costs can be justified, access to the environment and certain data elements within the environment must be a top priority. Even if employees have all the necessary training and clearance permissions, they probably do not need access to everything in the environment. Utilize user profile features and permission sets in your software to control user access and to ensure users can only access the information necessary for their job.

Up-To-Date

Finally, ensure your software is up-to-date with the latest upgrades and releases from your software provider. Included in this is the operating system and software running on your servers and employee workstations. In most cases, updates and upgrades are simple to retrieve and install. Be careful though and make sure you have a testing plan in place for upgrades and a rollback procedure in the event the update or upgrade fails or takes longer to install than anticipated. Running the latest software versions will help protect your organization from cyber-attacks and data breaches.

Agencies, as they should, want to benefit from technology investments but when it comes to compliance, you must recognize that technology alone will not protect you. Even the best and most detailed compliance practices can fail without collective buy in from the members of the organization.

* This article is also published by Collection Advisor

Automatic Collections

Nearly ten years ago, I read a book titled “The Automatic Millionaire” by David Bach. It is a lesson on accumulating wealth and achieving financial independence. The subject is not important here. What is important is how it is accomplished because we attempt to apply the same concepts in accounts receivable management and I believe it is particularly imperative when working telecom paper. That theory is “make it automatic.” In the book, the easiest way to achieve financial independence is to make the process automatic through the use of automated payroll deductions, account rebalancing and other such processes. Then, we do not have to do anything or really even think about doing anything. It just happens.

When it comes to timing, of course you do not have 20 to 30 years to collect on any one telecom account but what if we could apply the automatic practice to the collection efforts? What would that look like and how could your technology be the workhorse?

Voice and data providers are always competing to reduce costs and come up with efficient ways to manage customer payments. The service has become commoditized and thus makes it simple for customers to switch providers with little care for any current or past due balances. According to multiple sources, including a white paper published by HCL Technologies, the telecom industry loses in excess of $10 billion annually due to bad debt. That number is much too large to ignore the “make it automatic” concept.

Before automating anything in your software, design a flow that makes sense. It may be helpful to refer to this as a schedule of action. Allow me to explain the automatic setup in your software using the following flow as an example:

Investigation

Setup your system to begin investigative efforts immediately. The new business process should be constructed with logic to identify consumers with missing information. You may discover some accounts are missing too much information for collection attempts. For the rest, make sure the workflow in your software identifies consumers for immediate skip tracing and scoring. Labeling these consumers with a tag or status will make it easy for an automated interface to pick them up for transfer to your skip tracing or scoring service provider.

Dialing and Sending Notices

Like the investigative efforts, the workflow in your software should be able to automatically label consumers for required notices and be scheduled to either print the notices or transfer the requests to your letter vendor. Additionally, whether using a dialer or manually dialing, ensure the dialing pools built by the software are based on your secret sauce (balance, geographic location, credit score and so on).

Reminders

As a consumer, telecom bills are one of the easiest payments to overlook. This remains true for telecom accounts in collections as well. Setting up time-based events as reminders for consumers is imperative. Make sure your software is configured to automatically issue urgent letters, send emails or dial the consumer over the course of attempting to collect on the account.

Disconnect

When calls, notices and reminders are ignored, it is helpful to have a time-based event in your software to commence the disconnect process. This could be a simple pop-up when the account is accessed or an automated message to the service provider to cut the service. If the consumer is already in collections and still has full or partial service, nothing should get their attention like disconnecting the service entirely.

Blacklisting

When all other automated attempts fail, blacklisting is the most aggressive action. Here again, a time-based event should be configured in your software to commence this process. This will eventually require some manual intervention but knowing when to start the process and perhaps some initial actions can be automated. Blacklisting can follow a few different paths. It may involve hot-lining by redirecting all calls from consumers to a special department or in more extreme examples, include barring the consumer for service not only from one provider, but from all providers of similar telecom services.

Applying the “make it automatic” concept to telecom collection efforts may not make you a millionaire but it could certainly ease the effort of working your share of the $10 billion of bad debt every year in the telecom industry.

* This article is also published by Collection Advisor