Our UK Managing Director John Pears discusses the challenges faced during the COVID-19 pandemic and how Lowell rose to the challenge...
In writing this I find myself reflecting on possibly the most challenging and stressful few months that any of us will have experienced, both personally and professionally.
None of us imagined that 2020 would bring a worldwide pandemic that would see us all working from home, unable to carry out our normal routines or meet up with friends and family. It’s impacted us all differently and I’m sure we’ll be telling lockdown stories for years to come. The scale of the pandemic has meant that its after-effects are far-reaching. We probably all know people who have been impacted by COVID-19, whether they themselves or family have been ill, or the impact the downturn in the UK economy has had on businesses and subsequently employment levels.
Our business, like many others and no doubt including your own, has had to quickly adapt to a new way of working. Throughout the lockdown period, we have adjusted what we do to meet the changing outlook and needs of our customers, colleagues and clients, and to protect the immediate and longer-term interests of the business.
Overall, our second-quarter performance shows the resilience of Lowell and proves the value of our clear Lowell23 strategy; the foundation of which is a strong financial platform. And it was from a position of strength we started the year and from which we were able to make and execute our plans.
We took a proactive decision right at the start of lockdown to extend all our forbearance options for customers. In doing so, we knew that there would be a drop-off in collections but that it was in the best interests of our customers. In doing so, we also switched our contact strategy to one of ‘care and support’ – letting customers know that we recognised the situation and that help was here if they needed it. We did see a softening in payments, but it was less than we anticipated, and we are seeing some upwards trend in payments already.
The launch of our new brand and customer website in March were decisions we could have held back from making with lockdown looming. However, it is beyond any doubt that moving ahead was the right decision. Digital channels have shown to be extremely effective tools in supporting customers during this crisis, and we will build on this capability to help customers self-serve and free up colleagues to deal with the most complex issues, where a human touch is essential. Expect to see much more from us in the digital space.
Our approach helped us continue to deliver really high levels of customer service throughout lockdown. Over the last 5 months, our Trustpilot score has remained at 4.4 out of 5 stars from over 5,000 customer reviews, which is a phenomenal result given the situation. Along with that, our agent scores from Rant & Rave, our customer experience research platform, remain high at 94%. That the levels of outstanding service we deliver continued during this very difficult period is a credit to all our colleagues.
We have also prioritised colleague communication and welfare during lockdown. The concept of remote working maybe something more senior colleagues are used to on an occasional basis but managing nearly 1700 colleagues fully working from home is very different. We rose to that challenge. There were teething problems as we moved at pace, but I am delighted that all the effort has paid off, with the overwhelming majority of colleagues telling us that we have done the right things to support them and make working from home viable.
Set against expectations of lower cash income, we actively sought to take even tighter control of costs. There have been opportunities to review our processes, in light of the change to homeworking, not just in Lowell but within our clients, suppliers and agencies such as the County Courts, and identify better, more efficient ways of working that we can continue post-lockdown. And whilst I’m confident we will never do away with face-to-face meetings completely, the effectiveness of video facilities, such as Zoom, means we are all far more mindful and respectful on when to use them. Certainly, even by the end of 2021, I think how we do business will remain very different.
Protecting our financial position did mean that we lowered our portfolio acquisition ambitions and focused on forward flow arrangements too, and consequently we reported lower year-on-year purchases. Over 80% of the Group’s portfolio acquisitions in the last three months were within these existing arrangements as we looked to maintain those mutually supportive relationships and our own liquidity.
As we look ahead, there clearly remains a lot of uncertainty, not just with COVID-19, but with the broader economy and consumer affordability more generally. What I am certain of, is that the decisions we have made over the last six months, and those we continue to make, have positioned us well for the future. As we move back to our new, better normal, we are continuing to work with clients old and new to see where we can help. I do hope at the appropriate point, to be able to do that in person. Stay safe!