Collecting Calls

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Buddy’s Home Furnishings, a chain of 65 rent-to-own outlets in Florida, Georgia, Kansas, and Arkansas, structures most of the rental contracts for its furniture, appliances, and electronics around weekly payments. But the recent economic crunch has been hard on its customers, many of whom weren’t paying on time. As a result, account managers at each Buddy’s franchise began their workday every Monday morning with a stack of 600 to 700 people to contact—customers whose payments were past due.

"We noticed we were taking a lot of time making phone calls in the morning to people who were only one or two days late," says Salvatore Moccia, director of training and new development at Buddy’s. The volume of calls would be divided between two employees, who, on average, spent two hours apiece placing them. (Don’t forget to multiply that by 65 franchises). Then they would do it all over again later in the week to confirm with customers that they’d be coming to the store on Friday to make their payments. The result was a glut of time lost for employees with an already long list of customer support responsibilities.

Things were worse if an account rep’s day started out badly, something which invariably reflected in his telephone demeanor. "Especially in times of need when people are struggling for every penny, the last thing we want to do is discourage or upset a customer because of a communication gap," Moccia says.

So late last year Moccia researched voice-based outbound-messaging solutions to automate these collection calls. He picked Vontoo, based in Indianapolis, by early December. Installation was simple because, in the words of Vontoo president and founder Dustin Sapp, "there is no install." Vontoo is software as a service (SaaS) that handles outbound calls for everything from collections to marketing campaigns to notices thanking loyal customers for their support. Moccia signed up for an account and sent Vontoo an Excel spreadsheet listing the addresses and phone numbers of all of the Buddy’s outlets, which Vontoo then loaded into its own system.

He also wrote the prompt and, in the interest of conveying a friendlier and more personable tone, commissioned a local voice artist to recite it. Now when customers get a collections phone call from Buddy’s, they hear the following:
This is Buddy’s Home Furnishings calling. Since we have not seen you in the store, we wanted to remind you to stop by or call between the hours of 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. You can also use our store night drop. We thank you for your business, and have a nice day.

Moccia regulates outbound calls from the Buddy’s corporate office in Tampa, Fla. Every week, he downloads accounts and call logs from individual stores, loads them into Vontoo, and sends out voice campaigns throughout the week to a specified recipient list. "I can send out  [for] one store or all 65 stores at any given time," he says. That scalability and versatility was one of the biggest factors for Buddy’s implementing Vontoo.

"Their communication with me has been great," Moccia says of Vontoo’s customer service. "They made some changes in the system for us, taking into account our style of business, and it has been phenomenal." Currently, Moccia uses Vontoo as need dictates. Because not every store has collections issues, he deploys Vontoo on a rotating basis as opposed to every store every week.

"Let’s say for 20 stores we may have had 3,800 calls," he says. Deploying Vontoo to handle collections depletes that load by nearly one-third. "And now we’re down to basically 2,300 calls. So then we figure that it saved our company and account managers from making those calls. We have 1,500 people paying on a timely basis, which also helps the customers because now they don’t have to be charged any late fees. It’s a win-win for our customers and ourselves."

Because the call logs reveal the time and result of each call, Moccia knows when a customer has been consistently unreceptive to an automated collections request. At that point, he’ll have a representative make a live call to see if there’s some way they can mutually work out the problem. "We don’t want to take the human element completely out of the picture," he says. "All that automated call is doing is getting that customer to contact the store."

In opening an additional line of communication between Buddy’s and its clientele, Vontoo has improved customer relations. Now representatives can concentrate on real service issues instead of performing the dull mechanics of collections calls.

Not Alone 
Buddy’s isn’t the only enterprise experiencing the benefits of Vontoo’s service. Since 2007, Vontoo’s customer base has expanded 1,000 percent, from 60 customers at the beginning of 2007 to 600 now. Within the past couple of months Vontoo even landed a few high-profile clients, including the Portland Trailblazers, the Cleveland Browns, and country singer Keith Urban.

According to Sapp, enterprises wanting to incorporate Vontoo should consider who their constituents are and how they want to interact with them. "From a communication, are there opportunities to increase revenue, reduce costs, and increase customer satisfaction?" he asks.

Vontoo offers a full suite of application programming interfaces (APIs) that tailor messages to accommodate an enterprise’s needs and constraints depending on the processes it wants to automate. "Companies that would utilize Vontoo’s APIs are those sending out calls on a daily or weekly basis, like a financial institution that wants to send out a voice message alert to let someone know their balance has fallen below $200," Sapp says. "We have a customer using Vontoo as a Webinar reminder tool. What they found is that by sending a voice message from somebody within that company, they’ve increased their Web attendance dramatically." He estimates the figure at roughly 80 percent to 85 percent.

Sapp thinks that the success of the application can be attributed to the fact that many people today are more willing to respond to an automated call than a live person. He hypothesizes that it may be a pride issue, that a person in debt might be embarrassed to speak to a live agent but be more willing to take care of the issue when confronted with a polite voice prompt.

"It’s less intimidating," he says. "It’s much easier to respond to a very pleasant-sounding automated system as opposed to having to deal with someone demanding, ‘Why aren’t you paying your bill?’"

In automating that specific function, operational efficiency improves, he adds.

Moccia gauges the deployment’s success not on hard dollar amounts or return on investment numbers, but on the extra time it provides employees. "Where I see the savings is the productivity and performance of our staff," he says. "We’re not sitting around making those phone calls. We’re helping customers who need to be helped."

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