Achieving Cultural Change Through Improved Training – The ACM Experience

In 2012, ACM Group went through a very public court action. When companies go through a period of reputational damage, they can follow different pathways. They can try to limit their losses by pointing the finger at the two employees who carried out the inexcusable actions, or they can do what we have done: acknowledge that while not representative of our hundreds of employees, it reflects badly on everyone, and people were hurt. Most importantly, companies can cross their fingers and hope staff learn that if they don’t comply with the laws governing our industry, they won’t have a job – or they an embark on more challenging, incremental process to achieve lasting cultural change. They can choose to implement a proactive program of structural change to ensure the past actions of individuals cannot be repeated. We chose that journey, and the results speak for themselves.The first thing we did as leadership team was look at what was actionable in the short, medium and long-term, and plan accordingly. In June 2012, we established a separate, centralised department for financial counsellors, hardship customers and public trustees so that they interact with specialist staff, whose years of experience our customers, and the company, could trust. Notice that I use the word ‘Customers’ . It’s incredible to see how much a seemingly simple thing can impact behaviour. We all know form our everyday lives how we like to be treated with respect. We can all relate to how we feel if someone is rude to us, doesn’t answer our questions or doesn’t try and help us. Why should anyone whose debt has been assigned to a collection company expect anything less?Around the same time as we embarked on our change program, we were looking towards opening our Manila operations, which double in size in just over a year. This took considerable planning and resources from the management team, but we knew we could not afford to lose sight of the big picture. That’s where our medium-term gold setting came in to play – addressing compliance issues.Starting in December 2012, we implemented stricter compliance controls and updated training materials and documentation. By January 2013 we had put in place a more rigorous training and exam program requiring an 80 percent pass rate. After an initial training program, all staff complete a 10 week in-depth training schedule and sit a refresher compliance exam every three months. Since then that regime has undergone two amendments as we strive for continual improvement.

As part of our compliance commitment, in April 2013, ACM instigated frequent and regular meetings with the Credit Industry Obudsman to ensure customer complaints are handled in a timely and efficient manner. Working with the CIO, rather than seeing compliance as something we have to do, really shifted our thinking.

In 2014 we continued especially on the new OAIC privacy legislation and came up with innovative IT solutions requiring staff to internally register every customer contact. It’s an efficient, effective system that ensures ACM Group works within the regulatory guidelines and offers our customers peace of mind.

ACM experience of achieving cultural change through improved training

We analysed new ASIC guidelines and updated our training accordingly, and by the end of July, all existing and new staff had been up-skilled in these areas. In August, we set firmer controls for IDR and EDR resolution and in October, we implemented a new compliance system and added 10 compliance staff to monitor calls and provide real time feedback to management. by mid- 2015 our deep commitment to compliance led to the implementation of a proprietary software system that counts every contact made to customers and associated third parties.

At the end of 2014, we progressed from our medium-term gold of making sure we met the essential standards of our industry, to our long-term gold of going beyond compliance to true customer concurrence, harmony and increasing customer satisfaction. That required internal change and external assistance. Firstly, we implemented a new call process. At the end of each call with a customer the Relationship Manager is to ask ‘Are you satisfied with the outcome of today’s call’ or ‘Is there anything else that I can help you with?’, ensuring ACM staff are ‘getting it right’ throughout every customer contact. Once that was in place, we sourced external training focusing on listening, respectful communication and recognising financially vulnerable customers which further enforced our culture of ethical customer service.

The critical test for cultural change is whether the people who can be your toughest audience notice it. In May, we supported and attended the National Financial Counsellors conference. The feedback we received was that ‘ACM is doing it right’, which is something everyone associated with the company, from our Relationship Manager to our blue-chip clients, can be proud of. In addition to the raw feedback (or ‘anecdata’), we can measure the cultural improvements our training investment has delivered both in reducing complaints and enhanced staff retention (which annualised rates of 75 percent).

If there is one thing to take away from the ACM experience it that good can come from taking responsibility for wrongdoing. The events of 2012 caused ACM Group to scrutinise and reform its systems. Now we have failsafe IT and compliance systems to complement ongoing team training, ensuring customers receive respectful and responsive service. We also recognise that excellent customer service relies on continual review and improvement, our enhanced online presence is the latest example of the incremental steps the management team takes to this end. Change has been gradual, but had a transformative effect on the way we do business.


Trent Vieira is Director of Operations of ACM Group based in Sydney.

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