Some readers might be surprised to learn that I used to work as an outbound call center agent, back when I was attending college and for a few years thereafter. No, I didn’t work in collections; mostly, I was doing market research – political surveys, opinion surveys, consumer surveys and that type of thing.
It all started when I was attending Berklee College of Music in Boston in the early 1980s. I was a “starving” college student and, thus, was always looking for ways to earn a fast buck – usually so I could spend it on slices at Cappy’s Pizza, which was right around the corner from my dorm building. I had a friend who was a guitar player in the dorm room next door, and one evening, I saw him heading out with his jacket on, so I asked him where he was going.
“To work,” he said.
“Work?” I asked, almost salivating. “Where?”
He told me there was a market research company that hired college students to do outbound phone surveys part-time in the evenings right nearby. The next day, I went in there, filled out an application and did a brief interview. The next day, I found out I had the job. My first shift was that same evening.
This was back in the days when a call center was nothing more than rows of cubicles, each with a standard AT&T phone and not much else. There were no computers or auto-dialers – to make a call, you simply picked up the receiver and dialed the numbers, which were provided on dot-matrix printouts. These numbers were generally purchased from list brokers. They were also highly unreliable, sometimes resulting in the following scenario:
Call recipient: “Joe’s Pizza.”
Agent: “You mean, this isn’t the DeCola residence?”
Call recipient: “Look, do you want to order a pizza or not?”
Agent: “I was hoping you’d like to tell me how much you love your new deluxe floor mats for your car.”
Political surveys were my favorites. It was fascinating to hear people express their views so freely – which was more common back in those days, as telemarketing was still relatively new. People were sometimes actually happy to take a call from a stranger and have the opportunity to express their opinions. And computerized scripting? Not a chance. We used response sheets that included a series of multiple choice responses with check boxes. Sometimes we had to write the responses freehand. If we couldn’t write fast enough, we had to summarize as best we could after the caller hung up. (“Responder said, ‘Walter Mondale is awesome!’”) The scripts we did have were typically posted on the walls of each cubicle in brightly colored paper – each color representing a different “canned” response we delivered in a perky voice on the first and second calls and in deadly monotone by the 40th call.
After college, I took a full-time call center job doing direct selling. That was followed by another part-time job doing market research again. With each call center job I landed (I had five total), I learned more about what made these call center operations “tick.”
Now that I’m covering the mortgage servicing industry, I’ve come to realize how different it is to work in collections. The customer interactions are nothing like those in telemarketing or market research – especially in default servicing.
I can’t imagine what it would have been like to work in default servicing during the downturn. I probably would have made a really poor agent because I would have had very little sympathy for borrowers who obviously took on more house than they could afford. In fact, I would argue that agents with prior experience in market research and telemarketing probably aren’t the greatest candidates for collections because their past experiences have made them too callous. As per the new regulations, delinquent borrowers need to be treated with empathy now.
As this is our technology issue, I want to point out that the agents working in servicing – especially default servicing – must be not only familiar with the “do’s” and “don’ts” of how to properly interact with borrowers under the new regulations, but also extremely tech-savvy because they are using multiple applications to carry out some very complex processes. Social media skills and bilingual capabilities are also becoming increasingly important attributes. For this reason, servicing companies must focus on recruiting and hiring the best talent available and then finding ways to retain that talent.
Yes, technology and automation are very important in servicing – but it is the mix of technology and skilled human interaction that makes a servicing shop truly top-notch.