The Covid-19 pandemic, coupled with worries over rising energy prices and the cost of living, has had an unprecedented impact on the mental health and financial wellbeing of millions here in the UK.
Mental health and financial struggles often go hand-in-hand and presently more people than ever before are unable to pay their bills or manage their debts, with one in four adults reporting Covid-related financial pressures. The crisis cuts close to a variety of sectors, especially two vital industries such as energy and water.
As part of our drive to support our own clients, last year we launched our ReachOut initiative to engage with those experiencing problem debt to help them to access the best support and advice. ReachOut has shown a growing number of energy, water, retail and finance providers that there is another way to re-engage with these vulnerable customers, where they can be signposted to supportive mental health charities, pointed to financial advice, and lifted back on track through new, realistic payment plans.
To put it simply, the interest we’ve had in the now award-winning ReachOut service over the past year has been phenomenal and following various successful pilot schemes, more and more companies are coming onboard.
That interest has seen a variety of questions coming to us, so to help any other companies who may be attracted to ReachOut, or those who are just keen to find out more, we sat down with Sarah Henry, Operations Director and one of the key architects of Sigma’s ReachOut programme, to get under the skin of why it has been successful, how it can help, and what difference it’s making.
Q. Hi Sarah, and thanks again for joining us for this online Q&A session. Perhaps we can start by asking you about the driver behind the creation of ReachOut. What made Sigma want to kick off this brilliant initiative?
Sarah responds: It’s important to say first and foremost that ReachOut was an idea conceived prior to the pandemic, as we knew it was something that would help and support people if it was executed properly. However, Covid accelerated our plans and brought the idea back to the table, as it’s certainly no secret that millions across the UK are facing challenges at present with increasing bills, energy prices, rising inflation and the end of furlough.
I talk about this a lot but I truly feel there is a way to do things differently for those not engaging with their supplier. If we can understand their circumstances, we can help them to help themselves.
ReachOut does that. Additionally, it is completely unique as we never ask for or take money, so it’s about building trust, getting under the skin of the problem and finding the best, often tailored, solution for that individual.
It’s been very powerful and the first pilot astonished us with the engagement we got.
Q. So how does the ReachOut team run and operate within Sigma?
Sarah responds: We have a superb group of Pathfinders who are behind ReachOut’s success. A group of committed, empathetic individuals who are specially trained to have testing conversations which may include people who are having a mental health crisis.
So, essentially, our Pathfinder team works with clients on their specific campaigns and some on multiple campaigns, if capacity is there. We call customers as ReachOut. It is an entirely separate department within Sigma where our Pathfinders have the space and distance to have confidential discussions. It has to be set up like that for it to work and for everyone to be comfortable.
We support our Pathfinders, who often have challenging conversations, with our Employee Assistance Programme which gives them instant access to trained mental health first aiders, should they need the support for themselves. There is also a supervisory structure to manage the team on a day-to-day and strategic basis.
Q. And what about your clients, what is the process to integrate ReachOut into their operations?
Sarah responds: ReachOut is designed so that it can slot seamlessly anywhere into our clients’ collections strategy, at the point our clients believe it would give the best outcome. This is usually before any external debt collection activity takes place. However we are truly flexible in our approach and have conducted post debt collection agency campaigns also.
The process typically kicks off with a two-week campaign. The client will send us a file of names and accounts for us to contact and we will first reach out to them with a letter, either via cloud or traditional mailing. We will then call the customer and discuss their situation with them.
Once that two-week campaign is concluded, we place a huge importance on reporting back to the client on the positive outcomes and engagements. No personal information is reported back unless the customer gives their consent.
This client report includes a variety of data which also allows them to do their own analysis to check if payment arrangements have been reorganised.
Q. And what about the charities involved in ReachOut. How deep are our relationships with them and how are those developed?
Sarah responds: We have two strategic partnerships and those are with debt charity Step Change and with AgilityEco, a fuel poverty organisation. Our relationships with them are stronger than ever and the warm transfer arrangements we have with them has been an undoubted success.
The other charities we signpost people to are really varied – including, MIND, the Money Advice Trust, Samaritans, WAY Widowed and Young, and even GambleAware. They are charities where people can get specific help, depending on their circumstances.
Q. What would you say to a company who is seriously looking at ReachOut as an option for their customers?
Sarah responds: The first pilot really did astonish us and we saw more engagement than we thought we would. The first two weeks saw a 27% engagement rate, increasing to 50% over the following weeks. This gave us the data to prove that the concept works, and it gave that particular client the chance to show their industry regulator that they are prepared to do things differently in terms of vulnerable customers.
So my message to those who are thinking about ReachOut is let’s have a conversation, give us a small sample of your accounts to work from, and we will report back on what we have achieved. I think they will be surprised and we are always happy to put people in touch with clients who are already seeing the benefits.
Q. And finally, what does 2022 look like for ReachOut?
Sarah responds: 2022 looks really positive for ReachOut. Our plan is to continue building on the service we are offering so that we can reach many more customers who are in need of our help. We have developed a clear roadmap of improvements and enhancements to the service. We would also love to sign up more strategic partners in our charity and advisory armoury so that customers can have a fluid transition from our service to the expertise they require.
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