One marketer on the challenge of having 7m reluctant customers

Having swapped the world of digital banking for debt collection, former Atom Bank marketing boss Neil Costello is on a mission to bring a message of financial wellbeing to an unloved sector.

Lowell has created a marketing playbook to reflect its refreshed tone of voice.

Neil Costello learnt many lessons during his three years as head of marketing at Atom Bank, not least the need to take real risks, not fake ones. This is a mentality he is now applying in his role as UK marketing director at debt collection firm, Lowell.

Costello joined the business in September 2019 after three “phenomenal” years at Atom Bank, working with CEO Mark Mullen and CMO Lisa Wood. He reflects on learning more about marketing and digital in those three years than he did in the previous 10, all of which geared him up for the challenge of Lowell.

Costello describes the debt collection company as one of the UK’s biggest brands no one has ever heard of. Lowell has 7 million customers and works with brands such as O2, British Gas and Tesco. The business buys the portfolios of customer accounts from companies that have been unable to receive a payment, either because customers have decided not to pay or forgotten they had an outstanding bill.

Lowell steps in and contacts the customers, using its strong tracing capabilities and engagement model to open a conversation about their debt. If customers engage, they are typically given breathing space or extra support if they are vulnerable.

Payment plans are set up for as long as the customer wants, with many paying just £2 a week and no fees or interest are applied. If customers cannot be traced, a substantial amount of the debt is written off or Lowell’s litigation arm Overdales Solicitors will decide whether to enforce a country court judgement (CCJ).

We don’t want to be talking about debt, we want to be talking about repairing people’s financial health.

Neil Costello, Lowell

It was the challenge of working in an unloved, and often misunderstood sector, that attracted Costello. He saw synergies with Atom Bank, where it was about building a trusted brand at pace and encouraging people to put their life savings into an app. Yet, despite the crossovers, the decision to go into the debt collection industry still involved a degree of soul searching.

“I remember doing a lot of call listening before I joined, just to find out what our customers were saying and sadly they were under a huge amount of financial stress, but equally emotional and mental health stress,” Costello recalls.

“When you see the proposition that we’ve built and what customers say about it you couldn’t be any prouder. It’s not delivering the collections targets for me. It’s more can I look back and say in a few years’ time I’ve helped half a million people get out of problem debt forever.”

He remembers during the interview process telling Lowell UK managing director John Pears that from listening to the customer calls it was obvious the brand perception externally was at odds with the positive customer experience. There was work to be done, but Costello accepted the challenge, fired up by a mission to make the debt collection business more customer focused.

“It was taking the learnings I had in Atom about how you build a successful, modern, progressive brand and apply it to something that was already over 10 years old, but just needed that injection of love and care,” he explains.

There were several areas that required attention, from the branding to the user experience. Prior to Costello’s appointment the business had never conducted a piece of quantitative or qualitative research. Then there was the digital offering to improve, the creation of an app and the prospect of adding complementary free services.

“It could have been easy for me to come in and keep things ticking over, just start the shift to digital. Whereas, I came in and had to very publicly show what I was about and what my attention to detail was,” he says.

The marketing boss started by asking the team to stick on a wall all the communications the customers received from Lowell. The notice of assignment letter alone, which tells the customer Lowell has taken on their debt, was running at seven pages long and included lots of legal jargon, but little empathy.

Costello asked the marketers to think about how they would feel if they received that letter. He then worked on updating the tone of voice and reworked the copy himself to get the document down to just over a page.

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The next move was to better understand the customers by meeting them face to face. The team also introduced customer feedback platform Rant & Rave to gain greater insight and plugged in Trustpilot reviews, changes which over the past two years have contributed to a net promoter score (NPS) of +70.

“When you speak to customers face to face you see the huge weight that’s lifted off their shoulders when they decide to engage with us and realise it’s not scary. It’s not like the perception back in the day when the sector was unregulated, and people were turning up and taking your television away,” he explains.

There has been a concerted effort to direct simple queries, such as the balance of a debt or change of address, online using the live chat function, leaving the customer engagement centre to focus on the in-depth calls. Currently 60% of customers engage with the brand digitally, double the level two years ago.

Costello has worked hard to ensure the tone of voice used both online and in the engagement centre matches the brand identity. Ratings and reviews are open live on all the marketers’ desktops, meaning if a one-star reviews comes in they can immediately check the recording and review the experience.

He calls out former mentor and manager during his decade at insurer Aviva, Jan Gooding, for instilling in him the importance of the customer perception.

“She always said: ‘A brand is what a brand does. You don’t tell a customer what your brand is, they judge that for themselves.’ I’ve been very careful, particularly with the tone of voice, to make sure it’s a fair reflection of who we are and what we do,” Costello adds.

Promoting financial wellbeing

He describes his job as a marketing role that genuinely owns the customer experience, which has given him the opportunity to expand the range of products and services. Lowell, for example, has recently launched an exclusive partnership with fintech app Snoop to help customers save money based on their spending habits and is set to offer free credit scores.

Helping customers with their financial health is seen as a differentiator for Lowell.

“We don’t want to be talking about debt, we want to be talking about repairing people’s financial health, which is hugely attractive from a purpose perspective,” explains Costello.

“Sadly, the state of the nation is that there will always be huge debt in the UK. We’re not going to do ourselves out of business if we repair everybody’s financial health, but if I can look back in a few years’ time and say half a million people got out of debt and we gave them free products and services to help them do that, there is something genuinely noble about that.”

Customers cannot opt to be a Lowell client, which adds an interesting dimension to the marketing challenge. They are only able to deal with Lowell if the business buys their debt and customers typically hold debts with multiple firms.

Lowell app
The new Lowell app is intended to help customers get to grips with their debt.

Costello, however, believes if he can engage customers with free services, like the credit score and tips to save money, they will choose to work with Lowell first, ahead of its competitors.

Covid has, of course, only put greater strain on family finances. At the onset of the crisis Lowell made several customer commitments, including promising not to issue legal proceedings to anyone in difficulty caused by the coronavirus, a policy which still stands.

The creation of Lowell’s new customer app is regarded as another way to help people take greater control of their finances in the crisis.

Initially there was debate internally about whether anyone would download an app from a debt collector. However, Costello saw the app as a simple way for customers to engage with their debt, using the notifications and nudges to set up a sustainable payment plan.

The app was tested with a customer panel of 2,000 people and is already live in the app store, with plans to publicise it more broadly in the coming weeks.

As UK marketing director, Costello has also been given the freedom to review the Lowell brand architecture, which prompted the decision to bring the UK business under the logo used internationally by the wider company. Off the back of this work, a marketing playbook was created to ensure consistency across all the company’s touchpoints.

Ambitious agenda

Given everything that has been achieved over the past two years, Costello believes businesses can only work at such pace if they adopt an agile mode of working.

While the debt collection sector has traditionally been “deeply analogue”, adopting a squad-based approach helped Lowell develop the app and improve the customer experience, as well as break down the barriers between the digital teams and engagement centre.

The marketers have also developed a close relationship with Leeds-based digital agency And Digital on the development of both the website and app. Costello chose to work with the agency based on its model, which involves training Lowell’s in-house developers on design and UX.

The business also works with Engine on brand strategy, architecture and design, as well as smaller specialist agencies focused on SEO, PPC, retargeting and B2B marketing.

It’s not delivering the collections targets for me. It’s more can I look back and say in a few years’ time I’ve helped half a million people get out of problem debt forever.

Neil Costello, Lowell

“I don’t believe you have to have it all in one camp by any stretch of the imagination, but you do need to deeply understand the relevant areas of expertise of each of the agencies within the stable and encourage them to work together,” he says.

“Despite having multiple agencies on the roster, I could probably look back and say they’ve worked together as if we’re all one team, which is crucial.”

Reflecting on his role, Costello describes it as a “fascinating” challenge, especially given his 7 million customers don’t actually want to be with Lowell.

“Customers don’t want to be our customers because of the situation they’ve found themselves in. I don’t want them to be our customers in the long term, because I want to be able to prove that we can help them get out of problem debt and not fall into the same cycle over and over again,” he explains.

The next step will be continuing to improve the financial wellbeing of of these customers, offering a warm and welcoming brand for them to engage with. Costello has the backing of the exec to continue pushing the digital agenda, with plans to introduce a new digital payments provider already in the works.

He explains that building services which genuinely help people rid themselves of problem debt is what gets him out of bed in the morning.

“We’ve created the right culture, environment, ways of working, enthusiasm and passion for the brand and we want to be pioneering and ambitious. We want to be different and change the sector,” Costello adds.

“There’s not many areas in financial services where you can say you can do that, or are you just a brand custodian for a period of time? For me, it’s definitely the former.”