The Science of Consumer Communications

© 2022 ACA International. All rights reserved. Reprinted from ACA Daily with permission from ACA. Additional information: www.acainternational.org.

Originally published in May 2022

Every debt collection communication should be not only compliant, but aligned with the mindset of the person who is receiving it. Watching how consumers behave and responding appropriately can help you optimize your communications to produce better results. Behavior science melds decision theory, economics and psychology to help make this happen.

“When we’re engaging consumers in debt collection , behavioral science helps us understand and respond to the person’s individual situation as well as their motivations and contact preferences,” said Shannon Brown, user experience director for TrueAccord.

Here are some ways debt collection agencies can use behavioral science to maximize consumer engagement and drive action.

PAY ATTENTION TO THEIR ACTIONS

At TrueAccord, it all starts with data, of which the company has amassed quite a bit over the years.

“Engagement data can help determine optimal ways to communicate with consumers and generate the best collections experience that’s personalized to them,” Brown said.

Every time a consumer opens an email, clicks an SMS link, visits a webpage or opens payment plan options, that action – or inaction – is tracked. TrueAccord’s system uses that engagement data, along with the consumer’s debt profile, to learn what motivates that person and then can respond with the communication content and payment options that they know will resonate.

For example, if a consumer opens an email that uses informally friendly language, mentioning short-term cash flow, TrueAccord’s system can determine that it should send a friendly follow-up email letting them know they can set up a payment plan that starts on a later date, when they are more likely to have the ability to make a payment.

“A lot of the phone calls between collection companies and consumers are often really tactical, but we also take a step back and ask consumers questions about their whole financial picture and how we fit in, and that really helps us find our strategy,” Brown said. “But collecting that data to see how different customer segments respond to different messaging and collection strategies is the first step, and the earlier you can get started on that the better.”

Start by monitoring how small tweaks to letters and emails – while still including essential compliance information – changes consumers’ behavior.

“Get the results of who’s responding to texts and who’s not, and who’s responding to email and who’s not, and slowly expand from there,” said Barbara Woodworth, director of consulting, financial and insurance solutions group, CGI.

Take what you learn about each person’s behavior and pair it with historical data around the debt’s age, type and size to try and predict what a consumer wants. If the consumer doesn’t engage with one attempt, try a different approach until you find one that is effective.

A McKinsey & Company report noted that even companies that don’t have a robust digital infrastructure in place can implement behavioral analytics models.

“Actually, models can be implemented using legacy infrastructure, and the value they generate can be used to invest in the needed infrastructure improvements,” Ignacio Crespo and Arvind Govindarajan wrote in the report.

MAKE STRONGER CONNECTIONS

Of course, technology can make it easier to predict behavior and optimize actions. Speech analytics solutions can extract information from phone calls and analyze the words, tones and silences, and behavioral voice analytics can evaluate emotional behavior, all of which can help your collectors have more productive conversations.

“Collections can be scary for consumers – no one wants to be delinquent,” Woodworth said. “So you have to help them get through all the emotional barriers and still be able to work the account.”

Behavioral Signals uses AI-mediated conversation to match a consumer to the best-suited agent to handle a specific call. It curates personalized matches based on conversational styles, tonality, and buy-or-pay intent signals. The platform integrates directly into a dialer system and constructs profiles of the caller and collector.

“We don’t necessarily want to change the agent’s style of speaking because that’s inherently who they are as a person and that’s probably one of the reasons you hired them in the first place,” said Jay Leano, vice president of sales, Behavioral Signals.

More important is just understanding each collector’s style of speaking and matching it with a complementary consumer’s profile.

“You would not want an agent to possess the exact same conversational traits as the consumer because the net will be zero – there is no room for for the agent to use soft skills,” Leano said. “We see better outcomes if you pair different types of profiles.” For example, if a caller exhibits aggressive and talkative behavior, an agent who is polite, calm, patient and positive will complement the caller’s profile.

“When you get that perfect pairing, both parties are happier. The collector becomes more empathetic and the consumer opens up more,” Leano said. “Good matches plus great conversations equals positive outcomes.”

Behavioral science and machine learning can also help monitor consumers’ sentiment around propensity and willingness to pay outside of the standard, more static, credit-based information we’re used to, noted Rob Nadler, senior vice president of sales for Attunely, which offers custom machine learning optimization models. This builds additional context around each account to better inform collection strategies while leveraging deidentified data (i.e., without the need for consumer PII or PHI).

“Modern technological advances in machine learning allow us to monitor behavioral account patterns to identify preferred communication channels, frequency, and even time of day for each individual account, delivering a personalized engagement strategy at scale,” he said. “While our tools cannot identify specifically what motivates an individual account to pay or communicate with a collector, they are able to identify which accounts have the highest likelihood to do so.”

PERSONALIZE YOUR COMMUNICATIONS

Nobody wants to feel like they are just an account number in a database of thousands. Every person is on a unique financial journey and when you recognize that, you have a better chance of serving them the right message at the right time.

TrueAccord writes content based on several different behavioral frameworks, such as Robert Cialdini’s six principles of persuasion and Gretchen Rubin’s four tendencies.

“Everyone responds differently, so if we have five emails that have different tones, then our system can learn which tone a specific consumer may respond to better,” Brown said. “For instance, a consumer who has a small, fresh debt from a buy-now pay-later client may respond to something that’a a little bit [lighter], whereas a consumer with a very large balance with a traditional bank may respond to something that’s a bit more serious in tone.”

A/B testing is a user experience methodology that compares two versions of content to see which performs better. Here’s an example: Bloomberg Cities Network detailed a project the city of Scottsdale, Arizona, undertook in 2017 to solicit donations for a program that coordinates holiday care packages for seniors.

The team tested several different email messages with a variety of pitches, including a personal appeal from a senior who had previously benefited from the program.

Through this A/B testing, the city found that the email that motivated the most people to act was actually a message that looked and felt most like a traditional government notification. Using that insight, the city was able to boost donations by almost 50% over the previous year.

While organizational like nonprofits and retail shops have the freedom to be loose and adventurous with their customer communications, debt collection companies are a little more hemmed in due to state and federal compliance requirements.

“I think one of the only difficulties we’ve encountered is trying to make our content variable enough that our system has a variety of things to send while still making sure that everything is compliant,” Brown said. “Obviously, everything goes through our legal team and our attorneys before it’s sent out to any consumers, but we definitely have some push and pull with them where we want to be really fun, for instance, and they say, ‘You have to pull that back a little.'”

MAKE IT EASY

Zoe Chance, a behavioral scientist and professor, notes in a Fast Company article that the best predictor of behavior is ease, which she said is more powerful than motivation, satisfaction or intentions.

“Ease makes people happy, and effort can really annoy people,” she said. “In a study of 75,000 customer service calls, researchers found that 81% of customers who reported a difficult experience said they intended to complain to friends or post negative reviews, while only 1% of customers who reported having an easy experience said they would do the same. So whenever you want to influence behavior, make that behavior as easy as possible.”

Part of making things easy for the consumer, in addition to streamlining your website and payment portal experience, is giving them as much information as you can to help them understand the debt or if you are not the first agency to attempt collections, make sure your communications contain information about that origination so they understand where the debt is coming from.

“We try to give as much helpful information as possible and answer those questions preemptively so consumers have all of the knowledge they need and feel empowered to make decisions,” Brown said.

“Understanding consumers’ communication preferences, talking to them with language that resonates, preemptively answering their questions and making their experiences with your company as easy and pleasant as possible are the keys to successful debt collection today.

“I’ve been with TrueAccord for almost six years, and in that time I’ve learned that no one communication works for everyone,” Brown said. “Personalizing and tailoring not only the communication but also the collection strategy to align with consumer preferences is both better for the consumer and for us as a business.

Anne Rosso May is ACA International’s communications director and editor-in-chief. 

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