This article is part of the iA Think Differently series. Written by or recorded with members of the iA Innovation Council, the series showcases thought leadership in analytics, communications, payments, and compliance technology for the accounts receivable management industry.
Ever since Karel Capek coined the term “robot” in his 1920 play R.U.R., the world has been fascinated by the concept of machines that can perform human tasks. For generations now, Hollywood films, comic books, TV sitcoms and cartoons (who doesn’t remember George Jetson’s maid Rosey?) have featured robots as helpers, heroes, and villains alike.
Real advancement in robotics began after WWII, and by the 1980s, many manual tasks in manufacturing and agriculture had been replaced by robots who could do the job better, faster, and cheaper. For the past thirty-plus years, a multitude of industries has added robotic automation to improve production, efficiency, precision, and to control costs.
Meanwhile, the call center industry has relentlessly remained a business model reliant on human interaction. Sure, IVRs (Interactive Voice Response) and other interactive tools have been added that allow for greater efficiencies, but they are primarily used for simple tasks and have a limited scope of function. Attempts to teach computers to speak and process human language date back to the 1950s but until recently, computing power was just not significant enough to cross the divide (hat tip to Gordon Moore) to AI-driven natural language conversations.
In the 1990s, great progress was made in natural language processing (NLP), which allowed computers to analyze and learn massive amounts of natural language data, leading to the introduction of famous ‘bots like Siri, Alexa, Cortana and the aptly named Google Assistant. Today, we can ask Siri for directions, have Alexa tell us the weather, and request a haircut appointment from Assistant.
Chatbots, driven by NLP software, have been used extensively for internet chatting for years and technology has gotten progressively better across all communication mediums, yet advancements in standard IVR technology have been uneven. One of the greatest barriers to conversational IVR adoption is credibility with customers.
It’s virtually impossible to find someone who hasn’t had a bad experience with an IVR when making airline reservations or trying to get information from a bank. We’ve all been infuriated when the limited options provided by the IVR don’t come anywhere near addressing our concerns or reason for the call. And how many times have you hit the zero button or screamed “Operator” or “Agent,” only to be returned to the main menu and have the whole loop start again! Years of these frustrating types of interactions have trained many consumers to just ask for a live person the second they hear a recorded voice. Bad IVR interactions have gone a long way in convincing consumers that their problem is unique and complicated and can only be solved by a fellow human being.
A ‘bot for a collection call center environment makes perfect sense. We all know these truths to be self-evident: human collection agents are, by nature, inconsistent, they spend a preponderance of their day on non-revenue generating tasks, wage increases are being mandated by state legislatures across the US, which further reduces thin margins, and customers do not like to wait on hold and frequently abandon calls.
Now, if someone would just invent a call center ‘bot that can answer all calls, handle non-revenue generating tasks, reduce costs, allow us to provide greater flexibility and service to customers... and won’t frustrate consumers and leave them screaming “Agent” while furiously pounding the zero button! Surely we can do that by now, right?
Turns out, we can.
A number of companies decided that NLP was far enough along that a functional interactive call center agent could be created, trained, and utilized for conversations with customers. Continuous advances in NLP and AI have made this futuristic technology a reality in operation today.
Several organizations market this technology to the call center industry and MRS has created our own Interactive Voice Agent - who we call Adam. We've been using "him" since 2018. Post beta testing, Adam has gained traction for us as we rolled him out to a cross-section of our client base.
We saw a fairly progressive adoption of Adam, but 2020 has put him on skates! COVID-19 has introduced a variety of behavioral changes to our country, one of which is time-shifting. Since many of us are confined to our homes, we’ve lost our perspective of work time versus home time. We’ve seen an increase in calls handled by Adam throughout the day, including after-hours, when agents would not likely be available. Having a virtual collection agent that is immune to COVID-19 and works 24/7 has more than a few advantages.
Adam has made a revolutionary impact on our environment. Today, many types of calls such as disputes, fraud, bankruptcy, and deceased notifications no longer are handled by a live agent; they are directed to Adam, who can handle them efficiently. Agents are freed up to conduct more complicated negotiations and generate revenue. Customers in collections seldom have many options but with our digital-focus, we are giving them the opportunity to choose the manner in which they interact with us.
Adam has handled call spikes without abandoned calls and taken payments after hours at a rate that has surprised and delighted us. Since launching in April 2018, in addition to engaging customers regarding Special Handling accounts, Adam has also collected over $5 million. $3 million of that happened in the first four and a half months of 2020, as he handled over 375,000 calls!
Adam is just one example in our industry where a ‘bot is paying dividends and having a real impact on an organization. We are in an age where technology has provided us with immediate satisfaction in many parts of our life. I’m old enough to remember my 14.4 modem and watching my internet feed appear one line at a time. Today, my internet moves faster than I can blink my eyes. The collection industry is no different. We need to satisfy our customers with speed and accuracy or they will go elsewhere. Taking a giant leap like this requires risk, but it’s one worth taking. No giant, transformative change to any industry happens without risk-taking, but done right, the rewards will be substantial and game-changing.
The industry needs to think differently about this technology and understand how critical it is to evolve at the same speed as our society. As we deal with margins being compressed by rising wages and compliance, a Collectorbot is a logical solution for the future of the industry. Our customers are tech-savvy; they want to be serviced on their terms, in their timeframe, and they want it to be efficient, friendly, and quick. Essentially, they want it all and we have to give it to them to survive.
“Hi, I’m Adam with MRS Associates. This call may be monitored and recorded. How can I help you today?”
[Editor's note: If you are interested in topics like strategy, testing and scenario planning, you should not miss insideARM's next conference, iA Strategy & Tech - a completely virtual event - July 21-23. It's a masterclass in collections strategy.]
The iA Innovation Council is a collaborative working group of product, tech, strategy, and operations thought leaders at the forefront of analytics, communications, payments, and compliance technology. Group members meet in person (and lately, virtually) several times each year to engage in substantive dialogue and whiteboard sessions with the creative thinkers behind the latest innovations for the industry, the regulators who audit and establish guardrails for new technology, and educators, entrepreneurs and innovators from outside the industry who inspire different thinking.
2020 members include:
Absolute Resolutions Corp.
AllianceOne Receivables Management
Capital Collection Management
Crown Asset Management
Enhanced Recovery Company
Healthcare Revenue Recovery Group
NCB Management Services
Phillips & Cohen
Professional Finance Company
Radius Global Solutions
Spring Oaks Capital
State Collection Service
The CMI Group