Delivering debt advice using Whatsapp

Joel CrawleyIn this guest post, Joel Crawley, Project Coordinator for the WhatsApp Money Advice and Casework Development Project at Citizens Advice Manchester, gives an overview of the project, one of three funded by the Trust’s Innovation Grants programme for 2017/18.

The remarkable pace of change in technology and communications is a challenge for just about every industry and the advice sector is no different. As the way in which we consume information and communicate with each other changes, the importance adapting and developing new ways of delivering advice is becoming an increasingly relevant issue.

These changes bring with them a host of new challenges but they also bring new opportunities for us to reach and help more clients. At Citizens Advice Manchester we now offer services using Skype, Webchat, and Facebook Messenger. As an immensely popular social media platform with more than one billion global users, we felt WhatsApp was a natural next step.

Our WhatsApp debt advice pilot, funded by the Trust’s Innovation Grants Programme, is testing WhatsApp as a platform for the delivery of debt advice. There are three main components:

  1. We have created a new digital access channel allowing clients to obtain debt advice from a specialist adviser, using WhatsApp.
  2. We are using WhatsApp as a tool caseworkers and their clients can use to communicate with one another.
  3. We are using WhatsApp as a keeping in touch tool – contacting clients after their cases have closed to check in on them.

We felt that using a popular and easy to use social media platform could encourage those harder to reach groups to seek the advice they need, make it as easy as possible to obtain relevant advice, and to streamline communication and exchange of information between advisers and clients.

One group we have had in mind from the outset was younger people. Research by the Money Advice Trust found that younger people are harder to reach than other groups and less likely to seek advice. This is despite the fact that they are more likely to be over-indebted than other age groups, as the Money Advice Service have shown in their research ‘A Picture of Over-Indebtedness’.

How is it working so far?
The 12 month project began in April and we have established a fully operational access channel, meaning clients can contact us 24/7 using WhatsApp and they will receive specialist advice from a debt adviser within two working days. Our debt team are using the platform with their clients, making it easier to share documents and paperwork and offering another means of clients communicating with their adviser.

Early data is showing an average age of 30 for clients accessing debt advice by WhatsApp. We have also noticed a number of non-English speakers using the service. It may be that WhatsApp, perhaps already being familiar, is a more comfortable way for them to access advice compared with face-to-face and over the telephone given the language barrier.

From the point of view of the adviser, WhatsApp has proven to be a flexible and adaptable platform for delivering money advice. There are a number of useful features which have proven a great success, most notably the ease of which a client can share a photo – two clicks of their screen and we can see what paperwork or letter they are referring to. This ensures that we can give accurate and correct advice with less room for confusion or misinterpretation. It also means a caseworker can easily and quickly obtain documentation from clients without waiting to receive it in the post, which could be subject to delays or even loss.

By providing an alternative channel for accessing initial advice, the burden on other channels experiencing extremely high demand – such as telephone advice via our Adviceline – is eased and left available for those who most need it. This means that those who do not have the access or means to contact us via WhatsApp will be able to access advice more swiftly using the traditional channels.

The range of enquiries that we have been able to assist with on the platform has been varied. We have been able to help people with one-off, specific issues, such as challenging Council Tax liability and responding to a court claim. On the other hand we have also been able to assist clients with more complex enquiries, such as multiple debt cases in which we have explored a range of options with the client. So far we have only had to refer about 5% of our incoming clients on for a telephone/face-to-face appointment with our debt team, indicating that the vast majority of enquiries are able to de dealt with via WhatsApp.

Feedback from our follow up surveys has so far been positive. Clients seem happy with the ease of use, quality of advice, cost and anonymity of using the service.

For many, fast paced lives at home and at work can reduce the available time to call up our adviceline or drop into a face-to-face session. Being able to send a WhatsApp at a convenient time and then continue with their day means there is less of a barrier for taking that first step and seeking help.

We will know more following completion of the independent evaluation at the end of the project, but early feedback is promising.

Even at this stage it’s clear that using a platform such as WhatsApp brings with it a host of benefits and can improve the experience for both clients and advisers. As the role of technology continues to grow in our lives, opportunities to use it in order to improve and extend the reach of our services will present themselves; we must try to take them while ensuring they complement and support the more traditional channels of advice.

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