Talk about the difference between your company’s approach to innovation vs. its approach to incremental improvement.
Unifund has several loose teams focused on different types of innovation and on improvement. I say loose because, although each team has a core of subject matter experts and key resources, folks from other areas are often involved as the output from these teams makes its way through testing, evaluation and daily operations. Perhaps “flexible” would be a better word than “loose”.
Innovation related to what I will call existing inventory and operations resides with a crack team of data scientists and analysts. They work in a sandbox, much like the Innovation Council, in that ideas are floated, researched and considered without too much concern for what operational roadblocks may exist. It is very “what if…”. The result of this has been some very creative, economical, low cost, high ROI (and proprietary, sorry…) solutions that we believe are unique to our space. Innovation related to what I will call new consumer approaches and account treatments resides with our VP of Marketing and Innovation who in turn is assisted by Unifund’s PMO. These efforts are less quantitative and more qualitative in that they involve creative approaches to consumers through education, reward-type programs, and alternative ways to pay down debt.
Incremental improvement is encouraged across the organization and all team members are encouraged to present ideas, point out issues and inefficiencies, and suggest possible solutions. These, in turn, are brought to managers of Inventory Excellence and Process Excellence, the former focusing on movement of accounts from acquisition to selected treatment path to final disposition, the latter focusing on the nuts and bolts underneath that account movement. Since Unifund operates on a proprietary account management system with its developers in-house, these managers and their teams are in a position to quickly resolve issues and make system improvements. Improvement efforts are more practical in nature than innovation efforts, and understandably so. Given that these efforts take place in live production, the atmosphere is much less of a sandbox and much more of a “building and improving the road while the cars are already driving on it” proposition.
Does a whiteboard help you to solve problems? How? What’s an example?
A whiteboard most definitely helps me solve problems. I am a picture guy. One of my most frequent recollections of my experience when I went back to school for a business degree was the voice in my head saying (ok, actually crying out) to the instructor, “Can you PLEASE draw me a picture of that?”
I want to see problems and solutions visually, and a picture in my head is not enough. A nice big space, markers of different colors, process steps outlined, SQL tables and relationships drawn out. Leave plenty of space in between for notes, ideas and comments.
I am currently working on a project to calculate statute of limitations across account types, states, laws, issuers and other factors. Yes, of course we have a current calculation process, but as with any number of business processes it is one we can improve and streamline. After sitting at my desk for some time studying a grid of information provided by another team member I finally set it aside and went to my whiteboard. The grid was clear enough, but how to build what it provided into our system? What tables and data columns we already have to store the information became one color. Tables and data columns we need to improve our calculation became another. Another color became lines joining this information together and yet another became conditional statements to determine where a path should split and take an account calculation one way or another. After this work, which took less than an hour, I was able to go back to my desk, sit down at my computer and mock up a query structure which now does exactly what I want it to do. It is something I can pitch to our developers to clean up and implement.
What’s the most innovative decision your company has made? Tell the story behind it.
My answer to this question is not a specific innovation, but rather how we get to innovation. In the last several years Unifund has essentially made the decision to create teams specifically charged with innovation (see my comments above about those teams). Years ago the innovators at Unifund were also operators and managers of many production processes. It was appropriate at the time because many of those production processes were innovations in and of themselves, were very complex to build and required the brainpower those folks possessed to construct. As those processes evolved and became more day-to-day it became apparent that in order for innovation to continue, the day-to-day would need to be handed off and the innovation tasks housed independently. Was this a conscious decision? Well, maybe not. Was it even an innovation? Looking back on this paragraph, probably a stretch to call it that. Perhaps it was more of an evolution, but the end result has been to better align tasks and resources appropriately and to create environments within Unifund where innovation may truly take place.
What current industry problems do you think will require the most innovative solutions?
Here’s one that keeps me up at night. Well, not really… I generally sleep just fine. With Virginia just having passed its own consumer privacy act and other states likely following, how operators deal with up to (worst case) fifty-one sets of privacy laws is something to consider. How do we build something modular that can leverage where states have the same regulations and where we can easily build in new modules where a new state act produces different regulations? Side note… as much as I am for keeping power with states and localities this is one area where a Federal act would be better for us.
Complete this question in the context of the ARM industry: What if….?
What if a consumer could click on an account from anywhere, be directed to where it currently resides (still with issuer, at agency, with debt buyer, with a law firm, etc.), be shown a flow path history of the account from issuance to current stage, and show that account in a format in which the consumer would easily recognize it as theirs?
The notes above are my own. Recollections, perspectives and opinions of other Unifund folks may differ. My path through the organization has taken me through many departments and roles (are they still trying to find a fit for me?) and given me a wide view. It’s been a great ride.
Michael Kane has been with Unifund, a debt buyer, since 2004 where he is currently in the role of IT Manager, Inventory Excellence and Vendor Operations.
The iA Innovation Council is a collaborative working group of product, tech, strategy, and operations thought leaders at the forefront of analytics, communications, payments, and compliance technology. Group members meet in person (and lately, virtually) several times each year to engage in substantive dialogue and whiteboard sessions with the creative thinkers behind the latest innovations for the industry, the regulators who audit and establish guardrails for new technology, and educators, entrepreneurs and innovators from outside the industry who inspire different thinking.
2021 members include:
AllianceOne Receivables Management
Capital Collection Management
Collection Bureau of America
Crown Asset Management
Healthcare Revenue Recovery Group
NCB Management Services
Phillips & Cohen
Professional Finance Company
Radius Global Solutions
Spring Oaks Capital
State Collection Service
The CMI Group