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Empowering Call Centers in the Digital Age

This piece originally appeared in the December 2021 edition of DS News magazine, online now.

Steve Jobs once said, “Customers don’t measure you based on how hard you tried—they measure you on what you deliver.” It’s not a bad mantra for any business. However, it’s particularly true for mortgage servicers, who help families preserve what is likely the most expensive asset they own—their homes.

Every servicer wants to deliver a great experience for its borrowers. But right now, there is plenty getting in the way of this goal. Millions of borrowers still need help making mortgage payments in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis, while millions more are still looking to refinance their loans or take cash out of their homes. At the same time, servicers face an ever-increasing number of rules and regulations—and a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that is currently on the lookout for servicers that run afoul of them.

In such an environment, delivering a great customer experience has become more challenging than ever. But there are ways that servicers can do it—beginning with empowering their call centers and associates with technology that ensures every borrower interaction is a positive one.

 

Communication Is Mission #1
Keeping borrowers happy lies at the heart of every servicing operation, but historically, this goal has never been easy or cheap. No two borrowers are ever alike, and running contact centers and recruiting, training, and retaining associates comprises the bulk of every servicer’s costs. However, servicers have rarely encountered such disparity in the types of needs today’s borrowers have, which makes delivering a wonderful experience to every customer an almost impossible task.

The vast majority of homeowners are doing great in the current economy. As home values and incomes rise, many borrowers are looking to refinance or take money out of their home to make home improvements, pay down debt, or put their kids through college. On the other hand, millions of other homeowners continue to be impacted by job loss and struggle financially. More than 1 million borrowers remain in forbearance plans, some of whom will ultimately be able to resume making payments and some who will need other options. Still, others have seen their homes damaged or devastated by one of the growing number of natural disasters.

To help such a wide range of borrowers with diverse needs, having associates with great communication skills is essential. In fact, when it comes to ensuring customer satisfaction, nobody plays a larger role than a servicer’s associates. In today’s digital age, however, borrower interactions are taking place though many different channels, each rich with nuance. In any one instance, it can be easy for a servicer’s associate to misinterpret what a borrower is saying or vice versa, which inevitably creates stress and frustration.

As the adage goes, “bad news travels faster than good news.” It’s true that a good service call can strengthen a servicer’s brand, create loyalty and trust in the borrower-servicer relationship, and possibly result in a positive social media post or review. One negative experience, however, can impact a servicer’s reputation or lead to an inquiry by a regulatory agency, be it the Federal Trade Commission, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, or a state regulator.

It is also important to know that a servicer’s associates represent the last chance a servicer has to preserve a borrower relationship. And every associate’s performance boils down to their knowledge and skill level, how well they know their company’s products and services, and how well they communicate this information. Associates are also trusted to stick with company protocols for handling exceptions and ensuring borrower interactions do not draw the interest of regulators.

Even for the most experienced associates, this can be tricky. If you have professionally trained people who are empathetic and great listeners, you should be able to count on them to take care of your customers and create great experiences. Yet invariably, some associates are better than others. And any single borrower interaction can go sideways depending on the tone of the engagement and the borrower’s mood.

Making sure every interaction goes as smoothly as possible requires constant vigilance, transparency, and oversight—which is almost impossible. At least not without a little help.

Giving Associates Superpowers
In recent years, artificial intelligence (AI) and robotic process automation have gained plenty of steam in the mortgage industry. For the most part, these tools have largely been applied only on the front end of mortgage transactions during the origination process. However, they are starting to make an impact in servicing, particularly when it comes to crafting a more efficient and pleasant experience for the customer.

AI-driven technologies have the ability to completely transform the customer experience by automatically evaluating interactions with borrowers and identifying ways to create successful engagements. The magic lies in their ability to learn and analyze previous conversations with borrowers and singling out factors could be used to develop engagements that are both positive and compliant. They can also be used to coach associates in ways to improve the borrower experience as well as measure the performance of associates and reward them for a great outcome.

A useful way to think about AI-driven technology when applied to customer contacts is that it acts similarly to a smartphone navigation app, only instead of helping people navigate while driving, it helps navigate conversations. However, it’s even more powerful.

This technology has the ability to truly “listen” to what the borrower is saying or writing and learn the borrower’s speech patterns and the emotions behind them. Humans can do these things as well, of course. But unlike humans, these tools don’t get tired, and they have an impeccable memory. They can even interpret what a borrower needs and identify the optimal solution and next steps while the associate is on the phone with the borrower—and they can offer the associate guidance on how to communicate the borrower’s options in a positive way. It’s almost like they give associates superpowers.

For example, most servicing call centers provide associates with scripts to use when speaking with customers. But because every borrower’s situation is unique, a one-size-fits-all approach rarely fits at all. With AI-driven technologies, associates always know what to say—and what not to say—which takes an enormous weight off their shoulders as associates.

With these tools, associates can also be guided and coached through interactions involving sensitive subjects in ways that are friendly and compliant with all regulations and the servicer’s own protocols. Essentially, they create a safety net for the associate and the servicer that reduces the chances of the type of miscommunication or misinterpretation that leads to a negative review or invites the attention of regulators.

 

The Benefits of Constant Learning

The beauty of AI-enhanced customer engagements is that they are trained using historical conversations and communications from a servicer’s best performing associates. They are able to listen to specific words and phrases and find references for them in a servicer’s knowledge base. They are even capable of detecting nuances in a borrower’s language that even the most trained associate might overlook.

As just one example, suppose an associate is on a call with a borrower and the borrower requests or mentions the word “forbearance.” In an instant, the appropriate information—and more importantly, the precise wording the associate should use—flashes upon the associate’s computer screen, which the associate can deliver in context with the borrower’s unique situation.

Another benefit of AI-enhanced customer engagement is it enables servicers to constantly learn and add knowledge about borrower communications, so their understanding of the elements that go into a great outcome is continually growing. They can also be channel agnostic, not relying solely on telephone conversations but also email, chat, and text messages—plus they can integrate into most servicing platforms and CRM platforms, where a borrower’s file is continually updated with every interaction and outcome.

Besides creating happier customers, the AI-driven technologies can improve call center efficiency and how associates are managed. Rather than having managers reviewing all call transcripts, such technology is capable of pinpointing the most challenging or potentially problematic conversations for follow up. Every customer engagement is measured objectively—and if they can be measured, they can also be improved.

In the AI-empowered call center, managers have the ability to take customer engagement data to create or modify strategic initiatives and call campaigns, improve training, and maintain more efficient levels of staff. Associates have a greater potential to learn and grow while working with less stress. And servicers can feel confident that associates are delivering the best options to the borrower and that every borrower receives the highest quality of service.

About Author: Stephen Staid

Stephen Staid is EVP of Mortgage Practice Strategy for Sourcepoint, responsible for expanding the company’s market-leading mortgage solutions, along with leading its “Digital First, Digital Now” growth strategy. Before joining Sourcepoint, Staid was with Gateway First Bank, where he was Chief Servicing Officer. During his tenure, Staid shaped the strategic direction of mortgage servicing operations, integrated digital telecommunication platforms, and improved operating performance by over 50% in key areas while achieving high customer satisfaction ratings. In addition, Staid has held executive leadership roles at PHH, Bank of America, Lehman Brothers, and other multinational mortgage lending corporations. Staid received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee.
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