The vulnerability agenda

While the collections industry has made huge progress towards better treatment of vulnerable customers, staff aren’t getting enough support.

The vulnerability agenda

Speaking at the Credit Risk, Collections and Compliance Stream during the Credit Summit, commentators including Chris Fitch from the University of Bristol’s Personal Finance Research Centre, and the Money Advice Trust Vulnerability Programme, debated how collections organisations could learn and use the tools in the Vulnerability; A guide for debt collection report.

Fitch told delegates: “We found there were positive improvements in attitude towards customers with mental health problems. For example the number of front line staff saying they found it difficult to talk to customers with mental health problems dropped from 41 percent to 26 percent.

“We also found there were positive improvements in practise. If I was to disclose to you that I had a mental health problem in 2010 we would find about 39 percent would actually go on to have a conversation about how that affects ability to repay – in 2016 it went up to 88 percent.”

But Fitch questioned whether staff were supported enough, particularly when dealing with customers experiencing addictions or battling suicidal thoughts.

He added: “We found one in four frontline staff had encountered at least one customer in the last year who they seriously believed would take their own life. Now that doesn’t sound a lot but if you start multiplying it up by the size of your collections team it really begins to build up. Across our sample that was 657 conversations with customers at risk. That’s 657 conversations where you could potentially save someone’s life.”

Fellow panellist Joanna Elson OBE, chief executive of the Money Advice Trust, highlighted the difficulty of handling such calls for staff, highlighting one quote from the report from a call handler who stated: “’On that call I felt really upset for the customer, she was at one point pleading with me not to leave her. I did stay strong and confident on the call, once I released the line I was shaking and almost in tears.’”

The findings came as a wake-up call for the firms involved. Chris Ball, head of collections and recoveries at Nationwide Building Society, said the report has made the society rethink its approach to help staff handling such calls. The building society had 136 staff take part in the survey and Ball said he was surprised by some of the findings.

“The bit we didn’t do that well on is that we are not as good at supporting our people who deal with these calls as I thought we were,” he said.

“It told us some stuff we knew but actually it meant we’re going to have to go back and revisit some of the things we’ve taken for granted. I was surprised how few of our collectors regarded themselves as specialists so that goes back to ‘have we equipped them as well as we thought we had with training?’.”