How are Field Visit Businesses Coping During COVID-19?

The Claven Group Ltd is one of the UK’s largest suppliers of field agent services to the financial services industry. Owning brands such as PSP, Fieldcall and DMS, they are well known in the arrears and collections arena, as well as, increasingly in recent years, other complementary markets such as insurance claim verification. With COVID-19 creating challenges for us all, we caught up with Andy Fowler to see how a specialist in the face-to-face home visits business is faring in these tough times.

What does a field visit business do when the country is locked down?

Firstly, we did the right thing and suspended all field activity. We then started planning and did our best to assess what the future may look like. We needed to think of new ways to gather or provide information if we could not visit people’s homes in the short to medium term and thought any other initiatives we could do. We needed to be agile and responsive – a cliché but ‘adapt and survive’ has been our approach. Our field service is bespoke to our clients’ specific needs and we estimate we complete over 400 different types of field visits for our clients. The field visit type and process adopted varies from client to client depending on a variety of factors, across the UK.

Our field service is bespoke to our clients’ specific needs – we estimate we complete over 400 different types of field visits for our clients, the field visit type and process adopted varies from client to client depending on a variety of factors, across the UK.

Typically, the service we provide is one of customer engagement. This is carried out with the customer at their home, where we gather information about their personal or financial situation. For mortgage lenders, this could include information on their security/asset, occupancy information and general condition. We began to look at what other sectors we could support and in what ways we may be able to support them.

What new ideas have you introduced or are planning to introduce?

Initially, we looked at how we could capture the relevant information when we are unable to visit a customer at home. There were obviously many other options, however, we needed to ensure any alternative methods fitted within our Regulatory, Contractual and Operational parameters.

We have used our sophisticated, bespoke secure online system called AEGIS, for some years now. This is where all client and field agent reporting are completed. It is extremely flexible, and we tailor all reporting formats to that of our clients’ needs.

This was followed by our Aegis Mobile App which provides Field Agents with the tools to access up to date and complete instructions securely in the field on a real-time basis.

The Mobile App has been designed with security at its forefront so we can ensure that we capture sensitive information in a secure method and make sure it stays secure throughout its life cycle with us.

As we were already developing a new version of this app, we quickly established that we could use this (or a hybrid version of it) to offer the customer a secure link in our initial contact attempts, providing them with the ability to contact and update us on their situation remotely.

This service had actually been on my agenda for a while and gives the customer the ability to contact us (digitally) ahead of a field agent visit, in order to improve the interaction between the customer and the agent when a face-to-face visit takes place.

The mechanics are straight forward via our secure operating platform, however, COVID 19 has led to a review of our priorities in terms of our system development.

We are aware that customers we may visit in the future could be experiencing financial difficulty for the first time. We are also aware that they may be used to dealing with digital contact options on their mobile phone or tablet.

As a result, we felt we could further improve our success rate by providing a similar platform for the customer to engage with us. So, in the background, we have been developing a ‘self-serve option’ and ‘assisted self-serve’ to complement our field offering or act as a substitute if circumstances demanded.

As lockdown has eased, we have also changed our ‘reconnect’ and ‘occupancy check’ field processes to ensure we allow the customer to communicate with us or their lender (particularly if self-isolating or shielding).

We do not want to enter their home and as such, a reconnect process that can be paused and restarted (customer promises to contact their lender – we stop contact attempts, but the customer doesn’t make contact as promised – we restart) we are finding, now that we are back in the field, is proving both successful and popular with clients.

As a business, we have had a reputation for being innovative and COVID-19 has put this to the test. Whilst having various contact options in place, as previously mentioned, these are of little interest to certain of the sectors we support. Some of our regulated lender clients are understandably holding back on the field as contact attempts whilst ‘repayment holidays’ are in place, which could be damaging for reputational reasons. You then need to be flexible and lucky enough to explore other sectors for opportunities.

We have had success in working with an adapted process for our insurance clients where claim verification is carried out remotely, using the customer as the field agent.

More excitingly new sectors of Government and Healthcare have been introduced to us, where having UK-wide ‘feet on the street’ is proving to be very exciting whilst we wait for our traditional world to return to some form of normality.

I think this whole COVID-19 situation has been hugely stressful for people and its impact will be felt for years.

From where you sit, what has your planning led you to conclude about the road ahead for the financial services industry – in particular UK lenders?

The impact of COVID-19 as we all know has changed all our lives and its impact on the economy is unprecedented. The UK lenders will have significant challenges ahead with the furloughing scheme coming to an end, unemployment rising and repayment holidays coming to an end. Localised and or regional lockdowns lead us to the conclusion that as a field business specialising in arrears home visits, regrettably we are going to be busy in 2021.

When do you think you will return to BAU if there is such a thing in the future?

No one has a crystal ball as we discovered with the COVID-19 situation. Our future planning has considered many possibilities including, for example, the possibility of a second lockdown. We are planning for our traditional markets to be back to some form of normality in March/April 2021.

It sounds as you are going to be busy. How will you cope?

As mentioned previously, technology will play its part and the introduction of APIs (Application Programme Interfaces) between key clients will speed the flow of information and its accuracy.

For our traditional field activity, we have capacity models and we always maintain safe headroom (50-100% capacity). We have, however, been recruiting heavily during lockdown and tapping into other pools of agents for our non-regulated activity and we will, I am pleased to say, put a further 200 agents into the field in September to support our scheduled work for the rest of 2020.

We have not been complacent. We have used this period to wisely invest in our IT and Operating Platforms with additional financial support from our owners (who I must say have been excellent and recognise the importance of putting Claven into a good place in 2021 will be hugely beneficial for their business).

With furloughed workers, working from home, schools and leisure facilities closed, the COVID-19 pandemic has socially and culturally had a profound impact on everything. Will there be more ‘vulnerable’ customers and policyholders going forward?

Vulnerable customer awareness, training, reporting and signposting options have been built into our business for many years. I think this whole COVID-19 situation has been hugely stressful for people and its impact will be felt for years. So yes, unfortunately, we will see more potentially ‘vulnerable customers’.

Historically, of the people we interview, 18-20% on average per month are considered to be potentially vulnerable. As such, we are working hard to refresh our processes and training. We are introducing Safeguarding training into our business and this is being developed as we speak. It is not just the mental and physical impact of COVID-19 on our customers. The economic casualties of this could include many people who possibly could be exploited too.

Andy, many thanks for your answers and insights. To finish, are there any ‘war stories’ you would like to share?

Too many and I am seriously thinking about writing a memoir, but my wife likes to say that I’m boring, so it’s best if I keep these to myself!!

Not at all and you should do it – we’d love to read it!

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