Instant reward is key to the work culture at debt management company Cabot Financial (Europe), says Nicola Sullivan
Walking round the Kent call centre that is at the heart of debt management firm Cabot Financial (Europe)’s operations, the links between motivation, achievement and reward could not be more obvious. Giant ribbon-dressed gift boxes containing monthly rewards for employees who best reflect company values are propped up against the wall and Grand Prix-style flags poke out from the banks of desks.
Employees are divided into teams named after sports cars such as Maserati and Ferrari, and mug shots of the call centre’s top performers are hung on a wall near the entrance. And just in case this is not recognition enough, six message screens flash up regular updates on team achievements.
Cabot’s strong focus on engaging and motivating frontline staff takes into account the challenges associated with its most common employee role of account officer, which entails building relationships with customers over the phone to get them to repay their debts. Bennedetta Peto, HR director of Cabot Financial (Europe), says: “We are in a challenging economic environment. A lot of customers are having financial difficulties, which requires us to be more adept at what we do in terms of finding the right solutions for our customers, while at the same optimising our collections.
“It is very important to establish a relationship with the customer and find out whether they can settle their debt. We are looking to optimise the amount of repayment we get and the amount of cash we collect.”
The uncertain economic climate has taken its toll on the industry, not only affecting people’s ability to settle their debts, but also leaving many banks and lending organisations unable to sell off debt. “The financial institutions we buy debt from were in crisis, so they stopped selling debt to all intents and purposes,” says Peto. “Anything that was core, they stopped doing. So there has not been a lot of debt in the marketplace to buy.”
Ethical approach to debt
Despite the tough conditions, for the year ending 31 October 2009, the Cabot Financial Group reported a gross profit of £39.3 million, compared with £38.5 million in the previous year. Peto says an ethical approach to debt collecting has enabled the firm to weather the economic storm. Its method involves offering customers long-term repayment plans, allowing them to pay back debt in small amounts of £1 to £10 a month.
“It has been an challenging commercial and economic environment for Cabot,” she says. “However, because our core strategy was not to rely on cash settlements but to build relationships with customers and take a longer-term view, we have weathered the storm very well.
“At the core of what we do are ethical collections. Some of our customers cannot settle their debt and, in the last couple of years, in terms of the credit crunch, getting mortgage extensions or loan extensions has become increasingly difficult.”
An ethical approach to debt collection requires high levels of customer service from call-centre staff, which is another reason why they must develop positive relationships with customers, says Peto. This business objective has influenced the firm’s bonus programme.
Two years ago, bonuses were based primarily on the amount of cash collected, but today they also depend on quality targets related to customer service. For example, call-centre representatives have to achieve an 80% pass mark on quality measures to get their monthly bonus. Employees who achieve 100% on quality can increase their bonus.
Bonuses ratcheted up
Bonuses are ratcheted up and uncapped, which means high-performing collectors can double their basic salary. “Two years ago, collection targets were mainly cash-based,” says Peto. “Now quality measures are fully integrated into those targets. If employees do not achieve their quality target, they do not get their bonus.”
In May, the company launched a reward and recognition scheme called Cars (Cabot Achievement and Recognition Scheme) which allows managers to reward their teams each day. Staff are awarded points on a discretionary basis, for example in recognition of good performance or good teamwork, and they can redeem the points against a variety of gifts and experiences accessed through an online system. The reward points can be spent on smaller gifts straight away or saved up for more expensive items.
Cabot also provides information on the kinds of achievement that are acknowledged with rewards, as well as details of employees’ cash bonus entitlements. If a worker consistently performs well over a three-month period, he or she can achieve bronze, silver or platinum status, which is rewarded with points or other non-cash benefits, such as a car parking space or flexi-time.
Also, every month, managers can put forward team members who have demonstrated exceptional performance against at least two of the company’s values to be entered into a prize draw. The winners receive a variety of prizes, including weekends away, iPads and televisions. Last year, the names of all those who did not win a monthly draw were entered into an annual draw, for which the top two prizes were cars.
Aoife Habben, head of HR at Cabot Financial (Europe), says: “Ken Maynard, our chief executive, actually shuts the business down once a month. All employees gather and there is a presentation to celebrate our top performers. At the heart of that we have a mystery prize draw.”
Amidst all this high-impact prize-giving, Cabot’s HR team has not forgotten the importance of the humble thank-you, and its reward and recognition scheme enables staff and managers to send electronic thank-you cards to each other.
“We knew the points, the prizes and the financial bonuses were motivating people, but since May we have had more than 1,000 thank-you messages sent between employees,” says Habben. “It is used on a daily basis and people really do value that thank-you.”
The company’s reward and recognition is underpinned by a comprehensive review of benefits based on job evaluations. The project, conducted with Watson Wyatt (now, post-merger, Towers Watson) at the end of 2009, saw Cabot benchmark its benefits against those of competitors and assign perks to different job bands. As a result of the project, Cabot upgraded a number of its benefits, including holiday, as well as bonuses, which were given to junior management staff for the first time.
“We have spent more money [on benefits] as a result,” says Peto. “However, the company, in line with its values, has a strong focus on people. We want to be a leader at what we do in all aspects. We know things move on in terms of benefits and it had been some time since they were reviewed.”
With 62% of its employees under the age of 35, the HR team at Cabot Financial (Europe) does everything it can to tap into the mindset of younger workers. “Younger people have much shorter horizons and what is going to change and drive their performance is what is happening now,” says Peto. “They want to know what they can achieve this month and what they can achieve now.”
Both Peto and Habben also believe it is important to create a fun working environment. For example, during this year’s World Cup, employees were divided into 32 teams to represent each country in the tournament. Throughout the competition, members of each team had to dress up, decorate their desks and bring in food that reflected their country. Every World Cup match was shown on flat-screen televisions around the office and Cabot’s teams took part in their own table football contest in the staff canteen.
Habben says: “Clearly, from a commercial point of view, we recognised the greater chance of having absenteeism and really wanted to make sure our employees felt we were supporting and recognising that they wanted to be involved in the World Cup. You would come into the call centre and there were flags the whole way down.”
Working in a call centre is not always easy, but Cabot Financial (Europe) has demonstrated how it can boost staff morale by tailoring bonuses to meet specific business needs while being creative and quirky in its use of incentives.
Cabot financial at a glance
The Cabot Financial Group, which was established in 1998, buys consumer debts from banks, building societies and other major lending organisations. The company, which is owned by venture capitalists, has acquired portfolios from various well-known financial institutions, including HBOS, Royal Bank of Scotland, HSBC, Barclays and Capital One.
Cabot Financial (Europe) is one of seven companies that are part of the Cabot Financial Group, which has bases in the UK and Ireland, as well as mainland Europe, including Spain and France. At the heart of operations at Cabot Financial (Europe) is its customer service centre at West Malling, Kent, which houses 225 representatives who work with customers to settle debts.
The average age of its staff is 31 and 62% are under 35. The average length of service is three and a half years.For the year ending 31 October 2009, group gross profits were £39.3 million, after £38.5 million the year before.
Career history: Bennedetta Peto
Bennedetta Peto, HR director of Cabot Financial (Europe), has been with the debt management firm for two years. Before that, she worked as an interim HR director for a number of organisations, including Lloyds Banking Group and Homebase.
Peto took on her first HR director role at the Austin Reed Group 12 years ago after spending several years in commercial management roles in the retail industry, including Marks and Spencer, Aldi and Kingfisher Group. She feels it is this commercial experience that gives her an extra edge as an HR director. “My unique point of difference is my philosophical approach to HR,” she says. “Because of my commercial background, I take a very customer-facing, integrated view of HR. Our focus on the commercial drivers and driving engagement throughout the business is at the heart of what we do as a team. I like my teams to have the right behaviours and good commercial understanding, and for that to be underpinned by skills within their area of expertise and, again, rigorous processes.”
Case study: Cabot Financial rewards staff behaviour
Rebecca Lyon, who has recently been promoted to team leader at Cabot Financial (Europe), has been with the firm for two and half years. For most of that time, she has worked as an account officer, which involves talking to customers on the phone and advising them on the best way to manage their debt.
Lyon says her favourite benefit is Cabot’s reward and recognition scheme, Cars. “The Cars points system is brilliant,” she says. “You can pretty much choose from thousands of prizes and it is a great reward system, and great recognition. It is a really good way to show appreciation.”
Collections team leader Tony Minieri has worked at Cabot Financial (Europe) for four and a half years, and in his current role is responsible for 11 account officers. Minieri really appreciates the ad-hoc, non-cash incentives used to reward employees.
“There is so much variety,” he says. “It is not just about money. We concentrate just as much on praise and telling people they have done a good job.”
The benefits at Cabot Financial (Europe)
- Group personal pension. Senior management employees receive matching contributions of 2% for every 1% they contribute up to 10% of base salary. For other staff, the company will match up to 3% of base salary after one year’s service.
Health and wellbeing
- Private medical insurance for all employees, with the level of cover depending on seniority.
- Gym membership.
- Senior management staff get 27 days, which increases after two years’ service by one day a year up to a maximum of 30 days.
- Skilled and technical staff receive 22 days, which increases one day a year after two years’ service up to a maximum of 25 days.
- Group income protection for all employees up to 75% of base salary.
- Death in service for all staff covering four-times base salary.
- Annual bonuses for senior and middle management staff.
- Monthly bonuses offered to all other employees.
- Travel insurance, which is part-subsidised by the employer.
- Car allowance for directors and heads of department.
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