‘It was like talking to a friend’ – resources to help debt agencies use WhatsApp as a tool for effective money advice

Evaluation summary image 350wToday we launch the resources created by Citizens Advice Manchester through their WhatsApp money / debt advice project. The Trust’s chief executive, Joanna Elson OBE, highlights the project’s outcomes and learning for the sector.

We are delighted that we were able to fund Citizens Advice Manchester through our Innovation Grants, to test WhatsApp as a digital access channel for money advice and engage indebted individuals in financial capability and debt advice.

The project has created helpful resources, including;

  • A learning document aimed at giving organisations considering adopting WhatsApp within their advice channels the key considerations prior to start-up.
  • A user manual and instructional video for frontline advisers who plan to use WhatsApp.

These resources can be accessed via Wiseradviser.

In generating these resources Citizens Advice Manchester engaged with 490 unique clients over the course of the year. 88% of clients did not need any additional support following contact on WhatsApp. Overwhelmingly, users have expressed positive feedback in terms of the ease of use and convenience of accessing advice via WhatsApp as well as the quality and overall satisfaction with the service.

“They got back to me straight away… They gave me a lot of information, gave me a few options, and were very empathetic to my situation and that always helps because I feel like the problem has been shared with someone.”
(Client testimonial).

How the Service Works Infographic
Overview of WhatsApp service

In addition to the access channel, WhatsApp was also used as a ‘follow-up’ channel that provided clients who had received face-to-face or telephone advice with the ability to stay in touch.

The project has demonstrated clear benefits for clients in accessing debt advice via WhatsApp, including:

  • It is free; you don’t need credit.
  • Ease of use and accessibility, particularly for younger people and or those who do not have English as their first language. It is a familiar communication platform used by millions.
  • Advice can be seen as more personal. Client verbatims included, “It was like talking to a friend”, and one client reported that the advice process felt “like you’re in a conversation… because you see the person online so you know that they’re listening.”
  • For some, the impersonal element of WhatsApp provided anonymity which helped clients disclose sensitive topics. A client noted, “It’s very similar to other types of advice, but it’s easier to type your name rather than say it, and say what my problem is.”
  • Improved reassurance for clients as they could see when message were read by an adviser or their message had been sent, providing “peace of mind.”
  • Decreased feelings of being overwhelmed, as advisers could send follow-up messages with the key information post an advice session.
  • Quick advice process – users were able to send paperwork instantly rather than bringing it to a session or posting it.
  • Improved control, particularly for clients who wanted time to think between messages or had difficulties in communicating. “I can explain better by typing rather than talking and I was very upset crying did not want anyone to hear me crying so this was great.”
  • Clear next steps, as these clients highlighted, “Direct information that came back after I sent the message felt like something real to grab hold of. It was tangible and offered a path to a possible solution” and “The WhatsApp [Debt Advice service] was quick, it was direct, and they were experts… No waffle, straight to the point, information passed over and also a check-up on service given and anything further that I may require.” 

In addition to client benefits, the organisation and frontline advisers gained the following:

  • Improved journey into the debt advice support system.
  • Able to determine which clients could be supported over WhatsApp and alleviate some of the demand on other channels.
  • Quick processing of client documentation / evidence e.g. proof of income.
  • Reduced drop-out rates compared to telephone.
  • Better engagement with hard-to-reach groups.
  • Application to other advice areas e.g. applications to trust funds.

We are pleased that Citizens Advice Manchester are continuing to use WhatsApp as a follow-up tool to support existing clients.

“Receiving an Innovation Grant provided us with an exciting opportunity to use WhatsApp to deliver debt advice, and has been invaluable in allowing us to provide support to groups of clients who may not otherwise have used our service. This has proved incredibly popular, and we will embed this into our service for follow-up support to our clients where needed.” 
Dan Pye, Head of Specialist Advice & Legal Services

Like any pilot project, there were issues and challenges including; data protection issues, managing client expectations, managing demand and back-end platform / technology capabilities. With regard to data protection, it is worth highlighting that agencies will need to consider GDPR regulations and obtain client consent if they want to store people’s data on their internal database systems. Citizens Advice Manchester’s learning report is particularly helpful in grappling with these issues and providing recommendations for organisation who wish to explore adoption of WhatsApp.

From a wider point of view, this project has raised questions in terms of how as a sector, we can better support people who are typically hard-to-reach and who may not be comfortable using traditional advice channels. As a sector we need to continue striving to ensure our channels are appropriate and offers the flexibility that people need.

In the next few months we will be launch the resources of our other Innovation Grants projects; Mary Ward Legal Centre and Mencap Liverpool – watch this space!

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