38% have recently had a bill in collection. The financial industry thinks they're sick

A new study from a novel startup shows COVID-19 is severely affecting Americans' ability to pay bills. Yet the language the financial and collections industry uses is a touch disturbing.
Written by Chris Matyszczyk, Contributing Writer

But does she need treatment? (An image from the Symend website.)

Screenshot by ZDNet

Things are dire and, I suspect, for many people they may not get better for a long time.

As the retail and hospitality industries are decimated because of COVID-19, millions of people face the coming months with utter fear.

How bad, though, is it?

A new study reveals a little of the harsh realities. Conducted on behalf of a company called Symend -- which claims to be "a leading customer engagement platform designed to better engage, treat and retain financially at-risk customers" -- the study shows that, since the pandemic began, 38% of Americans say they've had a bill in collection.

Given the hardships that many are undergoing, knowing some debt collector is coming after you isn't exactly what you need.

Fifty-one percent of Americans confess they've been late paying a bill because they simply don't have the money. While 33% were honest enough to admit they've been late paying bills because they're trying to conserve as much money as they can.

I confess, though, that I'd never heard of Symend. So I went to its website to learn more. Symend's heart appears to be near the center of its business. It says it uses behavioral science, AI, and data analytics to "engage customers and build loyalty." As opposed, I suppose, to threatening people with a devastation from which they can never emerge.

Symend explains: "We recognize that the customer is more than a 'transaction' or money left on the table. They are complex human beings on a journey that may hit some bumps and potholes along the way."

Quaintly, the company believes its technological mix can actually bring empathy and an understanding of the individual to the whole process of getting people to pay. This may be very effective. It certainly sounds all too human, in its way.

Indeed, Symend's co-founder and CEO Hanif Joshaghani told me he and his family lived in refugee camps for more than 10 years, having fled from Iran. He told me: "Growing up, my family had very negative experiences with debt collectors. I wanted to develop a solution to improve on the dismal experience of dealing with debt collectors, which is where I came up with the idea of Symend."

Yet as I wandered about Symend's website, I felt my own heart dipping slightly toward my duodenum. Words can do that to me and these words had a shivering air.

Sample: "Our engagement platform helps service providers and financial institutions develop positive, individualized treatment programs." Treatment programs? People who don't pay their bills on time are sick? They have an illness?

Or could it be that, through no fault of their own, a virus that carries real sickness has utterly wrecked their lives? Some might even wonder that a concomitant sickness here is that combating the virus was so mismanaged and there's insufficient or sometimes no state help to support people at such a dreadful time.

Joshaghani explained that the financial industry's sickness terminology represents progress: "We adopted these industry terms and see them more frequently. Five to 10 years ago, no one was using terms like this because the customer was viewed as a risk, and collections were referred to purely in monetary terms. Now we are helping companies realize the lifetime value of the customer is greater than the customer's current outstanding balance. Treatment and curing of customers is not about collecting debt, but rather seeing a customer that is at-risk and helping them become a healthy customer again."

Oh, but if your thing is empathy, surely the idea of saying those in financial distress need treatment doesn't sound excessively, well, empathetic.

Symend's technology allows companies to use emojis and other, gentler forms of communication, so that late bill-payers can be treated with dignity, rather than the usual cudgel of nails.

But sometimes when tech companies, just like other industries, talk among their own kind -- the Symend website is targeted at businesses -- they struggle with the kinder forms of self-expression.

It seems, you see, that the sickness metaphor does rather pervade the financial and bill-collection industry. Symend's website explains that "positively engaged customers are more likely to self-treat and have lower incidents of delinquency."

And then there's this: "Digital engagement automates positive customer experiences that result in higher cure rates."

Bravo for the cure rates. Yes, if you can't pay your bills you have a disease, but you can be cured of this sudden poverty.

Please, I don't doubt Symend's intentions here. But isn't it moving how financial institutions talk about you behind your back?

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