CIO Lorna Allan on StepChange's moves to maximise choice, scalability and efficiency of its debt advice platform
StepChange CIO Lorna Allen tells Computing about how the debt charity's customer facing systems are designed to maximise choice to keep channels of communication open.
People who are heavily in debt do not always act rationally. They may well ignore the brown envelopes piling up on the mat, not responding until the bailiffs are hammering on the door. During the Covid crisis even this trigger for action has been missing, allowing debt to grow to ever greater levels.
With job losses and pent-up rent demands, a debt time bomb is primed to go off when the pandemic abates. Prior to Covid-19 there were about three million people with problem debt in the UK. That figure is now estimated at between six and nine million.
UK charity StepChange offers free advice to those with problem debt, working with them and their creditors to find ways that debts can be restructured and repaid. It has helped more than five million people repay a total of £4 billion to creditors over the past 25 years. Currently, about £32 million is repaid every month.
It receives funding from the Money and Pensions Service, an arms-length body which is part of the Department for Work and Pensions, and also via donations from creditors. It also works closely with other charities such as Citizens Advice. There are thus many organisations it needs to coordinate with, but it's people with problem debt who may be hard to reach that the charity needs to communicate with most clearly and effectively.
You can choose to call us, you can choose to chat online, or you can go through a full digital journey
Unusually for a charity, the majority of the communications between StepChange's clients and its advisors take place online rather than face to face. However, the most important thing is to ensure there is always a range of options, said Lorna Allan, CIO of StepChange.
"We have a true omnichannel solution, so you can choose to call us, you can choose to chat online, or you can go through a full digital journey. We try and flex given the scale that we're at."
The main point of interaction between clients and advisors is an online debt advice platform called Pulse. Launched in 2019 to replace a home-grown mix of services which were no longer up to the job, Pulse incorporates phone, email and web chat services, with a workflow that adapts automatically depending on the person's answers to cut down on call times and avoid duplication. It can also pull in information from other sources, such as the charity's knowledge base, and information can optionally be shared with creditors without leaving the system.
Creating Pulse was a complex task in view of the number of permutations and combinations it has to handle. It needed to be flexible enough to accommodate multiple modes of communication, and adaptable enough to cope with one-off challenges such as the financial crash and the pandemic. Also, because 70 per cent of clients choose to transact with the charity on a mobile device - a figure that's growing every year - the UI/UX design was critical.
"There's a lot of information that you need to provide to get good robust debt advice, it's quite significant, quite complex. We'll ask you to tell us about your budget about your debts," Allan explained. "Clients are on smaller devices, but they want instant access, rapid solutions and clean screens to be able to operate."
After a procurement process that considered "all the usual suspects, Appian, SAP, all the high-end platforms," StepChange selected the Pega Customer Service Digital Engagement Edition plus the Pega Cloud service as the backbone of Pulse.
Asked why StepChange opted for solutions commonly associated with enterprises rather than the third sector, Allan explained: "We operate at a scale, unusually so for a charity, and we recognised we needed a good, robust platform that would allow us to continue to operate at scale and quickly add new services."
Within StepChange there are five dedicated delivery teams that are focused on the core delivery function including public-facing and backend systems and services, with two specifically focused on Pega development and delivery. The partnership with Aaseya is key for operational flexibility, but the system is designed so that workflows can be changed easily by in-house staff, Allan said. "Our internal colleague experience is lo-code, so we can tailor and evolve the journey ourselves."
For example, in May 2021 when the government launched the Breathing Space initiative to help people recover from financial difficulties and get their debt problems under control, StepChange was able to quickly incorporate it into the system.
"We've implemented and launched Breathing Space on our platform. With that lo-code principle we don't have a need for high-end developers. We can integrate and change the journey as we want to," said Allan.
StepChange's Covid Payment Plan (CVPP), implemented in partnership with reseller Aaseya and tested with up to 10,000 concurrent users, also runs on the Pega platform, but on a separate instance so as not to affect Pulse.
One of the biggest challenges to giving really good advice is making sure we've got accurate data
The flexibility, scalability and resilience of the system will certainly be tested when Covid support programmes come to an end, which will make a bad debt problem even worse.
"We do know those volumes will climb, and we are here and ready for when those clients need that help," said Allan.
The more information they have, the higher the quality of advice and help StepChange can offer its clients. Debt is a complex issue, and two in five people affected have additional vulnerabilities, Allan said. "We have to try and be sensitive to what the full packages of what's happening to an individual."
In the future, therefore, StepChange hopes to make the most of the API economy including open banking, plugging into a client's accounts - with their permission of course - to allow agents to gain a fuller picture of their assets and deficits without requiring them to provide the information themselves.
"One of the biggest challenges to giving really good advice is making sure we've got accurate data, and not everybody pays attention to what debts they might have built up, so we want to make the journey as frictionless as possible. Our aspiration is to be able to say: ‘here's what I've found; here are the debts I can see; here's the budget I can see in your spend'. It's leveraging open banking, credit referencing data to change that dialogue, so the client can look at what we've found and say, 'yes I recognise that'."
The move to open banking is making this sort of intervention possible, although it is largely untested in the charity sector so far, and Allan concedes it won't be for everyone. People differ in how much access they are comfortable.
"Where it can add value and help, we want to be able to offer that, but we will always offer an alternative."