UK charity StepChange aims to ease financial hardship from COVID-19 with new online service

(Image by Mohamed Hassan from Pixabay)

For nearly three decades, UK-based charity StepChange has been helping people get back on solid financial footing, offering free advice and solutions to citizens. Working with government and creditors, StepChange aims to provide long-term solutions for people struggling with debt.

However, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit the UK earlier this year, many people found themselves in a volatile and unpredictable financial situation. Job losses have ensued and many people have been unable to get the government-backed financial assistance they need, leaving them in dire financial straits.

StepChange quickly recognized that COVID-19 could mean that a different type of debt counseling or financial support was needed than ‘problematic debt’, as those affected may only need short-term help to get back on your feet. Since March, for example, the charity has seen more than a million people visit its website in search of coronavirus-specific advice.

As such, StepChange has begun working with Pega and other vendors, as well as government and creditors, to rapidly build a new digital solution that aims to provide relief to those impacted by COVID-19. Currently, Pega also provides StepChange with its core debt management solution.

We had the chance to speak with Lorna Allan, CIO at StepChange, about how the charity approached this project, why it was needed in the current climate and how it could potentially help thousands of people in the near future. coming. Allain said:

Over these years we have learned a lot about how our customers need help. What kind of services do they need, what debts have they invariably struggled with, how can we help them. We have built fantastic relationships with creditors and other government agencies to try to get this help to the right people at the right time.

We are already helping many people who are in debt. Either they come to see us because they realize they need help, or they are referred to us by our creditor partners or by the various government websites.

When COVID-19 hit in March, the kind of help we could see arriving was very different from those who are systemically in debt. So COVID in particular, through no fault of our own, has thrown an awful lot of individuals into a temporary situation. Where this temporary debt is not something of their doing. We have seen substantial disruption to the economic climate in the UK. It’s very different from someone who needs advice on long-term debt. This could be a very temporary situation – if the economic climate changes again, these people may well start meeting their contract payments again.

Rapid development

StepChange recognized that they needed a frictionless digital solution for COVID-19 debt relief that didn’t necessarily mean being placed on a financial plan for a long time. As such, Allan and his team began thinking about how best to provide a solution that responds and offers support in the event of a short-term financial disruption. This spawned the creation of the COVID Payment Plan (CVPP), based on the Pega Customer Service Platform.

CVPP was to be designed and built in a matter of months, at a time when StepChange itself moved to a distributed work environment and needed to continue its ongoing plans for continuous service improvement. According to Allan, Pega was the obvious partner to support this project, given the work he has done with the charity on its core platform. She explained:

We had to deliver something very quickly. So we had to think about how to bring a complete ecosystem to life in a very short time – in just eight months. And this ecosystem had to recognize that the customers we could deal with can be very different from the normal customer who comes to us. These are people who are probably relatively self-sufficient, but they just need this help now.

So we have worked closely with Pega over the past three years. We put the Pega platform at the heart of our solution for managing debt problems. And the reason we did this is because of the power of the solution itself. This allows us to take advantage of very good workflow services and very good basic technical solutions.

This allows us to scale quickly, as and when needed. And one of the challenges of the CVPP in particular is that we already know that since March 1, a million people have already come to our site in search of advice specific to the Coronavirus. So in trying to anticipate the scale of potential customers, the scale of users in the UK who might need to use this service, we needed a platform that we were confident could evolve quickly with us. We already know from the work we did with Pega to create the core debt management service that the platform is evolving.

Frictionless and digital

Allan said it was clear that the CVPP tool needed to be both online and as easy as possible for people seeking advice. The solution had to allow citizens to sign up quickly, go through a series of checks and balances to make sure it’s the right service for them, and then quickly get them the help they need.

The aim is to get as much done online as possible, with StepChange then relying on being able to talk to someone if they need more detailed help. Allan said it set a different precedent for the charity.

StepChange plans to launch the full CVPP service by the end of November, but has already released a tool to allow individuals in the UK to register their interest and answer some initial pre-qualification questions. Allain said:

We are actively working on the next version, which is the workflow piece and allows people to tell us about the details of their financial situation. Our goal is to fully launch by the end of November. We are currently working closely with Pega and our chosen vendors and partners to bring the final parts to life.

It needs to be very digitally enabled to make it as smooth as possible for individuals to use, in what is potentially a high stress scenario. We are moving to electronic signature services, we have the ability to upload your documents, we have integrated a chat service into the heart of what we do so that we can intercept and talk to you at any time. journey. We also have links in there, so if at any point during this journey, we thank you that it is not suitable for you, we will also recommend and take comprehensive advice on debt.

Challenges and Tips

For StepChange, Allan said developing and designing a solution from scratch, at pace, is a challenge in itself. However, the main hurdle for the charity has been building something quickly when there are multiple partners and stakeholders involved – from creditors to suppliers – that require coordination and integration. She explained:

As soon as you have multiple partners and a very short time frame, this conversation and the integration of how data moves between systems becomes absolutely critical. Most things you can build in isolation are happy enough, but it’s the glue when you integrate them together, which means pinch points invariably occur.

So we worked very carefully with all the partners. We had regular weekly conversations with suppliers at a summary level. We have daily working group sessions. I have a team of over 30 people in the charity focused on doing this and we’ve had to take people out of their day jobs. And all the great work we’re already doing in the association hasn’t stopped. We continue to improve our normal charitable service, and doing so at the same time and at a pace is certainly difficult in the current environment.

And finally, in terms of guidance and learnings, Allan said the most critical element of the project so far has been making sure that StepChange doesn’t lose sight of the user’s need. This is still true, but it is particularly relevant when considering the stressful context in which users of the charity will approach the CVPP service. Allain said:

Some of the things we’ve learned are to make sure you step back when designing digital services and think about the end user experience. So what may seem obvious to us doesn’t necessarily translate into a frictionless experience. So taking a step back, collecting user feedback, asking customers who have worked with us, asking our internal user base to test and try the system – to make sure it translates from what was on paper, into a truly frictionless process. Does it offer what you need?

This is a very important step to take. Also, it’s okay to throw something that isn’t fully formed. It’s best to launch something that you can start to scale and develop further. As long as it serves a purpose, customers tend to be quite forgiving.

Previous NEWSMAKER-From agriculture to finance, Greensill's crusade sparked supply chain backlash
Next These restaurants have filed for bankruptcy and many more are at risk