Dial M for mortgage arrears - teams of collectors await
A bank worker sits at his desk talking through a headset to a customer worried their credit record will be affected by a missed mortgage payment.
Around him are 34 others on headsets. Posters with graphs and figures surround them, showing how they are performing in dealing with mortgage holders who have missed payments.
“Effective listening, questioning, challenging = results,” reads one poster.
This is an “arrears support unit”. In banking, they’re better known as “collection shops”. Staff question customers seeking information about their finances in a slog to try ultimately to get as much of the bank’s money back as possible.
The busiest and noisiest part of the unit is the collections centre. KBC’s 35 call-handlers are based on the first floor of the bank’s head office in Dublin city centre.
A poster lists staff objectives: “Mutual agreement, meeting payments, helping our customers, protect their homes.”
Two television screens list “December tips” including suggestions to ascertain the date when the customer will be paid. December 21st is the most expected date.
“The weather may be bad” and “the post may be slow this month” are two more rather obvious tips.
Another television screen flashes red if a call is not picked up.
An abandoned call by a customer is unforgivable here. The call could be an attempt to repay or the first move to engage with their lender.
The team makes about 40,000 calls and takes about 15,000 a month. They work from 9am to 9pm.
Most inbound calls by customers are made between 9am and 11am, while staff find 11.30am to 1.30pm and 5pm to 7pm the best times to reach customers as they are freer to talk. Scripts help staff ask the right questions but they are just a guide; it is more effective if conversations are not so formally structured. Staff are polite but assertive. The average call lasts about three minutes.
The team works mostly on stopping early arrears cases from slipping deeper into financial trouble, when it is far more difficult for the bank to get them back.
In another section, KBC deals with the most entrenched cases by classifying them by the degree of trouble they are in – green, amber and red.
It plans to apply long-term resolutions to the worst cases as it rolls out its mortgage-arrears resolution (Mars) plan process that the Central Bank is forcing every lender to introduce. KBC’s plan will be rolled out from January 7th.
A team of seven in another section handles the most severe cases of financial hardship or distress. Each has received “resilience training” and deals with cases where there may be illnesses or death. There are fewer calls on these cases; letters and emails are preferred.
Across the city, at Permanent TSB’s collections centre on the top floor of the Aviva building on Hatch Street, television screens show that staff have collected €59,203 of a €100,000 daily target.
The shift started at 9am and it’s 3.37pm; there are just over five hours to go. Staff take and make an average of 4,000 calls a day. The calls work; one official has just convinced a customer to make a €1,500 payment. It makes you wonder where this money would have gone if the call wasn’t made.
The bank has recently noticed a slow-down in the number of early-arrears cases – weeks of missed payments in the “front book” – moving into longer-term arrears in the more distressed “back book”.
The teams are named after streets. Team “Harcourt” is today’s best performer. Remarkably, Permanent TSB’s new management team has had to build this busy shop from scratch. It didn’t exist five years ago. It wasn’t required.
Back then, mortgages didn’t go bad and didn’t require staff to call to recover the bank’s money.
In fact, during the bubble years, most banks battled to hang on to their mortgages, given the better terms offered by other lenders in the scramble for new business. Giving money was easy then. Getting it back now is much harder, and the scale of the task will be seen again when the Central Bank publishes the latest mortgage arrears figures tomorrow.
In Permanent TSB’s centre, a staff member speaks to someone who has just picked up a call from the bank’s automatic “dialler”.
The customer isn’t there and the staffer is told to call back. The calls lasts no more than 20 seconds. He notes the call. Another pops up on his screen. It’s slow, painstaking work, and shows how long it will take to resolve this crisis.