The job of a field collections officer (FCO) in the utility sector is sometimes perceived in a negative light. When thinking of debt collection, it’s not uncommon to imagine aggressive or intimidating collectors harassing customers.
Our own research has found that 50% of customers feel they have been harassed during collections processes, while 48% say they have experienced overly aggressive collection techniques.
However, despite these perceptions, the role of an FCO is actually drastically different to the one you might imagine and is now much closer to that of a customer engagement and support function. In fact, many of the people who choose to move into this job are actually from a background of customer service and enjoy dealing with customers.
Today’s field collections officer is now required to offer guidance to those in debt and help them get back on their feet, rather than to simply chase customer arrears.
Here, Lloyd Birkhead, group managing director at Grosvenor Services, a part of Echo Managed Services speaks candidly about the role of an FCO, dispelling the myths of over aggressive door collection and instead focusing on why customer relations is such an important part of the job, detailing how FCO’s, in particular, support those with affordability concerns, or who may be in circumstances of vulnerability.
The role of an FCO
Our field officers engage with about 600,000 customers every year and dealing with that many people, with so many varying issues, means that no two days are ever the same.
Every face-to-face visit our FCO’s make is unique, as people’s circumstances will differ greatly. From carrying out pre-disconnection visits, identifying vulnerable customers, investigating theft or meter tampering to executing pre-payment meter warrants, the range of skills needed by a field officer today is vast.
While debt collection remains a key aspect of the role, this is now just one part of the job and officers must also have excellent customer service skills, be sympathetic to customer expectations and vulnerabilities, and be able to act in a debt advisory capacity for those customers who need advice.
There used to be a school of thought in the debt recovery industry that every house visit could be split into one of two categories – those who can’t pay and those who won’t pay. In our opinion, that’s not a theory which produces good results. You can engage with your customer base far more effectively by listening to the unique story they have to tell. In fact I’d go as far as to say that listening to your customers is arguably among the most important parts of the role.
The fact is that anyone and everyone can end up in debt – and it’s much more common than you’d think. Research has found that over two-thirds of adults will, at one point in their lives, end up in arrears. Many of them, however, are going through short-term struggles. For example, due to a change in personal circumstance, and in these cases offering accessible support is vital.
This is when the importance of great customer service skills comes into play and field officers must be capable of dealing with often challenging and difficult circumstances effectively, while remaining sensitive to the individual needs of the customer.
We never forget that customers are the lifeblood of any business. When we do need to undertake a doorstep visit, we don’t see it as a negative action, but rather as a way we can help our clients identify and engage with customers with vulnerability and affordability issues. These visits also help us to reconnect with customers who might not have been in touch for a while, and they have been found to increase the likelihood of timely repayment in full or via an affordable and sustainable payment plan with around one in two customers.
Helping vulnerable customers
As we’ve already seen everyone has the potential to fall into arrears at some points in their lives and 63% of UK adults have experienced the debt recovery process at some point in their lives.
When we knock on a door we never know what we’re going to come across, and the first piece of advice we give our collection teams is to ‘always expect the unexpected’. Many of the people we visit are dealing with difficult circumstances which are no fault of their own, and our first priority is to identify these more vulnerable cases and provide tailored support however we can.
This means reviewing their personal circumstances, including income and expenditure assessments, and working out the best course of action for the individual customer.
Understanding a customer’s personal circumstances is something we do before taking any action because it is the only way we know if the action will work.
Failing to do this and pushing the customer down a certain path can just make the situation worse and our research shows that 42% of customers have actually been forced into an unrealistic payment plan in the past.
A great recent example of the work our field collection officers carry out was during a pre-payment meter warrant execution where once on site, our officer identified the customer was living with bi-polar disorder. Initially she was distressed seeing an FCO at the door but by identifying this early, the officer was able to calm the situation and talk with the customer about the best solution for her.
By understanding her personal circumstances, we were able to fit the pre-payment meter, allowing the customer to pay off her debt bit by bit at the same time as she paid for the gas and electricity she used. By the time the officer left, the lady expressed her gratitude and thanked how the situation was handled.
Customer service is key
Ultimately the aim of every FCO is to engage with customers and provide the appropriate level of support for the individual circumstance.
Being able to listen to customers and having the communication and people skills to deal with each case with empathy and patience are therefore the essential skills for the role.
Debt is just another part of the customer journey and customer service skills are arguably as important as debt collection skills.
The best debt recovery strategies will always be formed with the customer in mind, making sure that any dealings are done in a fair and ethical manner. This is particularly true in cases of pre-payment warrant executions and dealing with sensitive customer circumstances. At this stage it is likely the customer will be in a state of some distress and being able to bring expert customer service skills into the scenario can be the difference between a smooth case and an escalating situation.
If businesses and FCOs keep the customer’s needs front of mind, not only will they enjoy stronger relationships with a more engaged customer base, but they will find that their customers are both more willing and able to pay off their debts in a fair and appropriate manner.
About the Author
Lloyd Birkhead is Group Managing Director at Grosvenor Services, a part of Echo Managed Services. Echo Managed Services is a specialist outsourced provider of complex multi-channel customer contact services, comprehensive debt recovery solutions and the developer of the market leading water customer care and billing system, RapidXtra. Echo combines best practice technology and processes with highly skilled and knowledgeable people to provide public and private sector organisations with end-to-end customer contact capabilities. You can follow Echo Managed Services on Twitter at @Echo_MS. For more information, visit www.echo-ms.com or follow Echo Managed Services on Twitter at @Echo_MS.