Not long ago my agency was faced with the daunting task of upgrading and replacing a phone system that we had all grown to KNOW and love (notice I emphasized know). At the end of the day, that is the hardest part of getting away from something you are so used to using and so accustomed to operating with, building your infrastructure around and trouble shooting in times of functional travesties.
Our call center lives center around two main “organs” in our operational bodies, our heart and our brain if you will. The brain being how we dial and operate in terms of compliance and our heart, which is the platform or system with which we dial. In the end, the heart is the most important because without our heart (the phone system) there is no need for the brain (which is compliance in how we do it).
When opening up our fourth location in the fall of this year we were in a position that was somewhat unexpected. As we were working with our hardware, software and telephony providers it was brought to our attention that we could not expand our existing telephone system. Rather, we could, but it would not be supported under our existing platform due to the expiration of the service and support system on which our platform was based.
As you can imagine, this scared me to death. I was basically told that not only was I now looking into the gaping jaws of a very large bill for a new system, but in the meantime, if my system were to crash and burn, it could not be fixed. In the four months that it took to find, purchase, receive and implement our new system I woke up every morning with unparalleled paranoia that this could be the day that we go down with no hope of return. However, I also had the peace of mind that I was one day closer to my replacement.
This is the type of up and down mental roller coaster that we want to try and prevent and something every collection professional should know: Don’t be caught unprepared and know what to expect when going through the daunting process of finding your new phone system!
The following 9 steps will provide you a 40,000-foot view of what you need to know and expect when purchasing your new system. Keep in mind, each call center has a unique infrastructure so this article isn’t long enough to discuss every little detail, but it should give you a very good idea of not only what to expect, but also what you can expect to spend.
1. It is absolutely vital you have a local company that can walk you through this process.
There are too many moving parts and it is very easy to get gouged if you are relying on the hardware/ software company to give you the best advice. This local company should be contracted on a permanent basis to not only service the system, but to aid in the negotiation process, installation of the wiring and hardware as well as the programming of the software. Most phone system providers will provide additional training on new products to your local service provider.
2. Find the Product
Your local support company will aid in this process. You want to find an established provider, not so much with the actual hardware, but the software. There are many fly by night retailers and tons of “new” software out there. You will want to check references and ensure that the company has dealt in actual call centers, not just commercial accounts. Pay very close attention to software versions. If you see version 1.1, for instance, beware. This means it is very new software that has not had all the bugs worked out. There are not many call centers out there that can afford downtime so it is absolutely critical that you find out the company’s “mean-time” between failures. Stewart Bray, the main contact at our local service provider says, “When researching the best phone systems it is vital to look for the best software solution, but be careful of the flashy power points and sales pitches. Be very aware of the software version, don’t be someone’s guinea pig.”
3. Go with an I.P. Platform
Many existing call centers that have had their current phone system for three years or longer are most likely on an analog or digital product. Manufacturers are steering clear of these systems because technology is driving them to the internet. I.P. phone systems are the future of call center dialing technology and will pave the way in terms of future platforms as well. Don’t go backward in time, go forward with the future. It will save your company thousands down the road.
4. Set Up your Infrastructure
You will want POE Network switches to start. POE, meaning Power Over Ethernet, will allow you to power the phone through the Ethernet cable and will also provide you with your connection to the phone for dialing capability. HP is a well-known brand for these switches which must be programmed to support VoIP infrastructure and they run about $6,000 per switch. One switch will service 48 work stations so a 500 seat call center will require 12, 11 to run the floor with 1 back up. This will cost approximately $72,000.
When making calls through the internet it is vital for the fastest speeds, ensuring the best call quality. The cabling is the most critical component in making this happen. CAT 5E cabling or better is recommended, but CAT 6 is preferred. This wiring will prove to be necessary because it will determine the call quality, delays and functionality within the phone system. The wiring, adapters, plugs, crimping, labor, etc. will run you about $150-200K for a 500 seat center. This is the most extensive part of the process so it must be logistically planned over a long weekend to avoid down time.
This terminology describes the servers that will power the software system. For best call quality we have found it is best to have one controller for every 100 users. You can do more than this, but will risk latency. For a 500-seat center you will need seven controllers to ensure you have two redundant backups. A controller will cost approximately $8,000 a piece and one user license will be about $175. There will also be other licensing involved, including SIP trunk licensing and other software licensing that is dependent upon the system you purchase.
7. Tracking Software
This is better known as the “Call Center Suite” that allows you to track and monitor all incoming and outgoing calls, both internal and external. All reporting is done by this software to monitor usage and functionality on your floor. This software is $20,000.
Mitel is a great product, they have excellent functionality for a call center environment and as most phone companies provide, they have phones for agent level all the way up to executive level that range in cost from $300 to $500 a piece. If you find phones for less than $250, be cautious as the quality, warranty and serviceability will be undoubtedly second rate. Naturally the phone system needs to be compatible with the software that is installed and configured on the controllers.
9. Call Recording
It is not recommended to house a premise-based platform for recording. For starters, just from sheer volume, a 500-seat center would need at least two recording servers. This includes the backup and they cost about $80,000 a piece and do not guarantee lifetime storage. It is recommended that you utilize an outside VoIP source for your long distance calling, such as LiveVox, that will not only make your calls in a VoIP environment with very low per-minute usage, but will also record and store all of your outgoing and incoming calls. They will store the recordings for as long as you are willing to pay and when that storage expires you can copy all calls on disc and archive them for future usage. For PCI compliance, you can contract with a speech analytics organization that can work with LiveVox to redact credit card numbers from the recordings before they are stored.
As you can see, finding and purchasing a new phone system is not easy to do. As a matter of fact, it’s hard, but we all know that nothing with a great result was easy to accomplish. All in all, for a 500-seat call center, you can expect to spend anywhere from $450,000 to $700,000 and this depends on many factors such as the quality of the cabling to the amount of redundancy you want in your environment. Being successful at finding the right local company with the knowledge to guide you through this purchase is the most important part of the process. We all know that the phones are our tool to drive the money. You never want to be behind your competitors, or worse, operating on a system that is no longer supported. In our world, without our phones, we have nothing.
Gordon Beck is the Chief Operating Officer and Chief Marketing officer for Diversified Consultants, Inc. headquartered in Jacksonville, Florida. DCI is a telecom specific collection agency specializing in the recovery of Wireless, Landline, Cable, Satellite, Internet, VoIP and Home Security Systems.
“It’s snowing still,” said Eeyore gloomily.
“So it is.”
“Yes,” said Eeyore. “However,” he said, brightening up a little, “we haven’t had an earthquake lately.”
- A.A. Milne
I am an optimist. I get out of bed every morning with a smile on my face – after all, I get to see another morning! And we haven’t an earthquake lately!
It is hard to be an optimist among pessimists. Conversations about the future of our industry often have a pessimistic bent. Admittedly, it can be difficult to be an optimist when you are in charge of receiving, investigating, resolving and responding to complaints about your company. Just when you think you are caught up, in come more complaints.
Pessimism, I believe, is built on a fear of the unknown. Right now, there are many unknowns facing the collection industry, including the largest unknown – will our industry exist in 10 years? Our work lives are fraught with unknowns: How many complaints will I get today? Will they be justified or false? Will I get served with a lawsuit today, and will we be able to defend it? Will I get a call from a regulator who decides it is time to audit my company? Will my collectors be able to reach any consumers today, and if they do, will they conduct themselves properly in the process of collecting a debt? Will our clients stick by us when we change practices to meet regulatory expectations? And how are we supposed to know what the regulatory expectations are when the rules aren’t published?
We may not like the indirect method that our federal regulator uses to communicate with our industry – it feels impersonal and almost passive-aggressive. Regulating through enforcement actions and supervisory examinations allows the regulator to attempt to institute changes in industry practices without using the formal processes in place for publication of rules, and that feels like an end-run to us. This approach requires us to infer and make assumptions about the practices of the companies against whom enforcement actions are brought, because we are not privy to the details of the investigation. How can we know whether our practices match the practices of the company who signed a consent agreement? To what degree do they match?
Supervisory bulletins follow the same pattern. The most recent report, published in March, 2016, reported recently that supervisory activities resulted in $14.3 million in restitution to more than a quarter of a million consumers. Restitution was made by debt collectors, mortgage originators, and deposit institutions. No details are provided, leading us only to speculate.
The same bulletin described several issues it observed and directed debt collectors to correct during supervisory examinations. These issues included the failure to honor consumers’ notification to the debt collector that they refuse to pay a debt or to cease communication with them, and the use of false, deceptive or misleading representations regarding garnishment in connection with the collection of student loan debt. While few details are provided, this information should trigger a review of our policies and procedures in our offices related to these key compliance areas, and a review of the performance of duties related to them. Consider whether you have added staff or transferred duties so inexperienced people are handling these duties. Has an increase in workload had an effect on the ability of staff to properly follow procedures? If nothing else, the supervisory reports can serve as a catalyst to look under the covers, even if the result is a stronger sense of confidence that we really are doing things right. It still feels like fishing in the dark, doesn’t it? Don’t forget that the issuer of these reports expects us to infer expectations from the sections of the report that are not directly descriptive of our industry. Fishing in the dark with a bamboo pole in a rubber life raft in the Pacific Ocean without a life preserver.
How can I remain an optimist in the midst of these unknowns? I still like to think that legitimate debt collectors are problem solvers. Most of us want to do the right thing. We accept the challenge, identify and correct wrongs, and demonstrate our best efforts. Rather than begrudgingly going along to get along, we can seek new tools, develop new processes, and find common ground with our regulators that will elevate us to new levels of performance for our clients and satisfaction for consumers. I’m not waiting for my earthquake, and I’m hoping I can prevent it.
Debra Ciskey is the Compliance Officer at Wakefield & Associates. Inc. She is a member of the board of directors and a certified instructor for ACA International.
Ten Questions to Ask Your Collection Software Vendor
Our industry is constantly evolving. Asking the right questions can be a daunting task. If you are evaluating collection software solution vendors to automate your collection and ARM requirements, or have already selected your vendor but want to verify the processes, we want to provide some guidance on the ten critical questions you should ask. CLICK FOR THE WHITE PAPER.
We have addressed numerous topics in this column over the past five years. Our goal has been to share ideas of common concern among operators at all levels of the collections industry. As the industry becomes more and more complicated, frustrations continue to mount for those who own, manage and supervise in collection offices across the country. There is a frequent concern about the fact that “we don’t know what we don’t know.” That is the dynamic that keeps us up at night. It is very difficult to keep tabs on the ever-changing landscape but we are fortunate to have many resources available to assist with keeping our operations up to date on important matters. We just have to make a commitment to expend the time and resources required.
Much to my dismay there are many operators that keep their heads in the sand and blindly plod forward hoping to “get things right.” That culture will no longer keep a firm from eventually sinking. We have to be proactive and search out the education required to assist with the navigation of turbulent waters of change. I was reading an article recently that shared a quote by Mark Twain in which he proclaimed, “Education: the path from cocky ignorance to miserable uncertainty.” That phrase, “miserable uncertainty” seems to be very appropriate in defining the state of our industry. What assistance do we have?
Virtually every industry has a trade association that represents their best interests and carries the torch relative to legislative agendas. We are very fortunate to have ACA International (www.acainternational.org) as a resource for credit and collection professionals. I realize most of our readers are aware of ACA but this is a reminder that there is no better place to secure the information you need in our industry. ACA offers many educational programs via webinar formats and presents the Spring Forum, Fall Forum and the large national convention every summer. Far too few take advantage of these programs. Additionally, there are 40 chapters/units of ACA if you would like involvement on the state or regional level. Many of these units offer annual meetings and joint conferences with other chapters.
If you have interests in the debt purchase market, DBA International (www.dbainternaional.org) offers specific direction and advice to those in that sector. DBA International provides its members with extensive networking, educational, and business development opportunities in asset classes that span numerous industries. The association publishes a bi-annual magazine and newsletter, provides educational and networking opportunities at major forums, events and conferences, represents the membership before federal and state agencies, and supports the industry where appropriate in appellate cases. They offer a popular conference in Las Vegas every February.
One of the most popular regional collection conferences is the Northeast Debt Collection Expo often held in Atlantic City in September/October annually. They offer a great educational platform, networking with industry peers and attendance by well know speakers. You can find more information on the NEDCE at http://nyscollect.org/events.html.
Other Industry Conferences/Resources
Inside ARM: Publishing since 2000, insideARM has amassed an engaged audience of executives within collection agencies and law firms, debt buyers, creditors, suppliers of technology and services, regulators, investors, and other interested parties. (www.insidearm.com)
Debt Connection Symposium and Expo: With collections, compliance, and accountability as their educational focus, the conference is geared for collections, recovery, and debt sales professionals from creditors, healthcare, collection agencies, collection attorney firms, credit unions, debt buyers, and related industry vendors. (www.debtconnectionsymposium.com)
The resources above are just a sampling of the many educational opportunities in our industry. As a reader/subscriber to Collection Advisor we know you rely on the timely content of this publication for vital industry advice and updates. Every firm or collection department should have a firm line item on their P&L statement allotting resources for key management to get the best education possible. Miserable uncertainty may define our current culture as an industry but you have control of the power of education in your organization.
We encourage our readers to submit a “best practice” idea for inclusion in this column. Until next time, I’m in a collection office near you!
Harry A. Strausser III is the President of Interact Training and Development. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
An unpaid medical bill is typically the result of an eventful story involving surprise and tough decisions. This nature of medical debt can leave consumers feeling particularly vulnerable meaning a collection professional must handle accounts with thoughtful precision to protect the clients, patients and bottom line. Fostering an atmosphere of family in a collection office would not only protect client relations but exude a feeling of empathy that can be helpful on a delicate collection call. Calder Willingham, president of Creditors Bureau Associates, describes his family-owned collection agency and how an era of hefty regulation is greatly improved with a familiar sort of trust.
Tell us how Creditors Bureau Associates came to be and how you became involved in collections?
My father, Jay Willingham, opened Creditors Bureau Associates (CBA) in 1990 with one client. We now service over 200 hundred active clients. CBA’s focus is on medical bad debt collections for hospitals, physicians, EMS services. Our company has been truly blessed by my father’s leadership the past 25 years.
I graduated from University of Georgia’s Terry School of Business in 2006. Before I graduated I drove back and forth from Athens to start my sales role for CBA. CBA had seven employees when I started in 2006. We’ve seen a significant amount of growth in the past 10 years.
What do you do to optimize upper management’s performance?
With upper management we believe in incentivizing performance just like with our collector position. The more compliant and efficient the office runs, the more money we pay to upper management. A few metrics we use are call recording audits, queue integrity audits, and total fees collected.
What do you do to keep your collectors motivated and happy?
They represent our brand in the communities our clients serve. It’s crucial they feel motivated to provide great service in a way that is compliant and ethical. Our collector compensation model is based on hourly wage plus commission. In the process of hiring collectors over the past 10 years, researching pay for the position at the local and state levels, and then talking to other agency owners, we know CBA pays a higher than average commission by a large margin.
We are a small family owned business and our environment feels that way. We will meet and fellowship outside work several times a year. In June we had our annual lake party at Lake Sinclair in Eatonton, GA. We cooked out, swam, rode the inner tube and had a great time together. We all look forward to this event every year.
What was a particular challenge you met in medical collections and how did you overcome it?
In healthcare collections you must maintain close relationships with your clients. You need these great relationships to navigate the ever-changing laws regulating both healthcare and healthcare collections. You need great communication when working together on the client’s revenue cycle. If you do this well, then, they will allow you to be involved in their revenue cycle from beginning to end.
What has the CFPB done that affects medical collections the most and what do you think agencies must do to adapt?
Because of CBA’s small size and the fact we really push compliance all throughout our collection process we’ve not had many dealings with the CFPB. We rarely have consumers asking the CFPB to intervene on their behalf and communicate with CBA.
Of course we have had to make several changes to processes from CFPB rulings. The ruling that we worked the hardest to make sure we comply with is disputes to consumers credit reporting information reported by CBA. I believe creating a systematic process to deal with consumer disputes will actually help increase efficiencies. You should systematically identify consumers who do not believe they owe a debt (no matter if they truly do or do not) and notate that in your system and with the credit bureaus. You can stop wasting time and money on those accounts, and focus your energy on consumers who acknowledge and pay their deb.
What are some key implications of the FDCPA, HIPAA and TCPA in a medical collection agency?
Of course we make sure our staff communicates with consumers in a way that treats them with respect and dignity. With healthcare collections a lot of consumers we speak to did not plan to have the debt we’re collecting on. A lot of the debt comes from an unforeseen medical event that happened in their life, or their family’s life. We are sensitive to that. Also, with healthcare collections we put a big emphasis on creating processes that allow us to clearly identify who we are speaking to over the phone. We work really hard to never have third party disclosures.
The TCPA was pretty messy in regard to the use of automated dialers. Having to express consent before dialing a consumer’s cell phone created a lot of pain for a large number of agencies. Dealing with issues like this is another reason to have a strong relationship with your client. It makes overcoming them easier.
What is the key to establishing and maintaining good relationships with clients?
Number one is you have to present yourself and your company in a way that is trustworthy. It would be rare for a client, right off the bat, to trust you enough for them to invite you into a decision-making capacity in their revenue cycle. After having ongoing conversations with them you show them that what you are doing is working. You then earn their trust. While that may take a while eventually you will get to the point that you can work hand-in-hand with them to develop some strategies in the revenue cycle that could really benefit them.
What is a development you would like to see in medical collection technology?
What I want to see is actually something that needs to be addressed within the collection industry as a whole. I believe new laws regarding communicating with consumers with the technology we have available in the 21st century needs to be addressed by the CFPB. There are a lot processes that could be made more efficient on both the consumer and collection agency side if these concerns were addressed in an equitable way.
What processes could be made more efficient?
The main one that is the biggest pain is the lack of ability to communicate with consumers via cell phone with an auto-dialer. They’ve made rules against contacting them on cell phones unless they have given expressed consent to do so. There are more and more people who do not have landlines and the main way to contact these people is on their cell phone.
The other big one is there is a lot of inconsistency in law making for leaving messages for consumers. Collection agencies have been getting sued for leaving a message and not leaving a message. A suggested message was given to us by ACA International but people are getting sued even when leaving that message. It’s something for which the governing body needs to step in and give some clarification and set some solid common sense, 21st century rules making everything clear for everyone. That’s something that should have been fixed years ago.
What is a piece of advice you would offer an agency considering medical collections?
If the agency does not have the technology and processes in place to monitor their healthcare collector’s calls/compliance, that needs to be their first investment. You don’t have the leverage in healthcare collections that you might have collecting commercial debt. You must be sure to be patient-focused in collecting for your providers.
How is Creditors Bureau Associates involved in the community?
Creditors Bureau Associates is constantly looking for different opportunities to give back to our community. We enjoy giving to different entities in the Middle Georgia area and seeing the results of that giving through attending events that showcase how that giving is being used to affect the lives of people in the community. As CBA continues to grow we are looking at hosting our own community events that could train and educate the public about how to read their medical bills, credit reports, and how to create and maintain a budget for your family that’s debt free.