If you are one of the roughly 31,000 members of the $1.7 billion Grow Financial Federal Credit Union who is a few days late paying your credit card payment, expect a call from Donna Svehla’s department.
Svehla is the senior vice president for loss prevention at the Tampa, Fla.-based Grow Financial FCU and oversees a collections program.
The credit union views collections as an instrumental part of building and maintaining member relationships and also believes in calling early and often when payments start coming in late, Svehla said.
“Our members hear from us in an automated call if their payment is late by two or three days,” she explained. The automated calls are gentle in tone, more reminders than anything else, and offer members ways to go through a member service representative or an automated system that can take their payment.”
While some consumers do not like getting recorded or automated calls, Svehla said the credit union discovered that only 6% of members who are contacted through these methods actually hang up on before the automated message finishes. Through the platform calls, 50% of members move through to a member service agent or to an automated program to make a payment.
“I think our members don't mind the automated calls because they come from us,” Svehla said, adding “and they want to hear what we will say. But I think a lot of them also like the platform calls. I mean, if you are late with a payment and we are calling, they are likely embarrassed. Taking care of the payment through a machine might be less embarrassing than talking to a person.”
The apparent consumer willingness to accept the automated calls is somewhat surprising given the high degree of contact most members seem to want in the card program. Svehla reported that half of Grow Financial FCU cardholders with active accounts make their monthly credit card payment at branches, which reflects their numbers and convenience.
“We have 18 branches in the area and for a lot of people, that branch is right on their way to the grocery store or drug store,” Svehla said.
But if a member has not made a payment over the phone or at a branch by the end of Grow Financial FCU’s 10-day grace period, Svehla said her staff starts making live calls. This is where the relationship collections program starts up.
Svehla said even though it is less efficient, Grow Financial FCU collectors dial the phone numbers themselves rather than using an auto dialer. This helps keep a natural, human touch to the calling process and feels less tense than when a staffer moves through calls.
During the conversation, Svehla said the collector has been taught to listen more than talk. This allows the collector to make an assessment of whether this member wanted to pay the debt and was unable to at the time or simply did not want to pay.
“If it’s a situation, like most of them are, where the member wants to pay us and just can't, the collector can work with them to set up a plan or make some other arrangement where they are able to make at least some sort of payment and get the problem fixed,” Svehla said. “But if it’s a situation where someone has the money and just doesn't want to pay, that can be harder.”
Svehla said the latter situation happens less often but when it does, the collectors can sometimes work to resolve whatever issue is blocking a late payment.
“Usually they are mad at us about something and if we can find out what that is, we can sometimes resolve it,” she said.
Svehla acknowledged that relationship collections can be a delicate compromise. The credit union wants collectors who can empathize, but not be doormats.
“We want to put the relationship on a friendship basis,” Svehla said. “Our collectors will work hard to help our members and set up a plan for them because that's what friends do but they will also make [it] clear they expect the member to make the payments they promised, because that's what friends do.”
To help that friendship develop, Grow Financial FCU takes steps to make sure that collectors call the same people they have talked to before. This keeps the credit union in the loop about what is going on with members.
“It's all about having the member want to pay us,” Svehla said. “Out of all the different organizations trying to get some part of their money, we want them to want to make sure we get what they said they would send us.”
For much of her career, Svehla said she has seen the strengths that come from relationship collections.Two years ago, during the height of the nation’s financial and housing crisis, the Grow Financial FCU had a card delinquency rate that hovered just over 2%, which is considered very low by overall industry comparison, but much higher than what the credit union wanted to see.
Now, the rate is at a more manageable 0.85%, according to financial data. Svehla remains confident that relationship collections will continue to serve Grow Financial FCU well and fears it may have to due to the continued sluggish economy. She noted that neither Tampa's housing market nor business activity has really recovered from the downturn yet, so it’s likely that at least a low level of delinquency may stick around for some time.