UK debt charity StepChange aims to ease COVID-19 financial pain with new online service

Profile picture for user ddpreez By Derek du Preez November 10, 2020
For the past 26 years StepChange has been working to help people manage their problem debt. A new COVID-19 service is being built with Pega for more short-term financial needs.

Image of someone holding a pile of coins
(Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay )

For nearly three decades UK-based charity StepChange has been helping people get back on a sturdy financial footing, by offering free debt advice and solutions to citizens. By working with government and creditors, StepChange aims to provide long-term solutions to people struggling with problem 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 there are swathes of people that have not been able to get the government-backed financial assistance they need, leaving them in precarious financial situations. 

StepChange soon recognised that COVID-19 might mean a different type of debt advice or financial support is needed compared to ‘problem debt', as those impacted may only need short-term assistance to get them back on their feet. Since March, for example, the charity has seen more than 1 million people come to its website looking for Coronavirus-specific advice. 

As such, StepChange began working with Pega and other suppliers, as well as the government and creditors, to rapidly build a new digital solution that aims to provide relief for those impacted by COVID-19. Pega currently also provides StepChange with its core problem debt solution. 

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

Over those years we've learned an awful lot about how our clients need help. What type of services they need, what debts that they invariably have struggled with, how it is we can help them. We've built up fantastic relationships with creditors and other government agencies to try and get that help to the right people at the right time. 

We already help a lot of people who fall into problem debt. Either they come to us because they realise they need help, or they're referred to us through our creditor partners or through the different government websites. 

As COVID-19 hit way back in March, the type of help that we could see coming down the line was very different to those that are in systematic problem debt. So COVID particularly, through no fault of our own, has thrown an awful lot of individuals into a temporary situation. Where that temporary debt is not something of their doing. We've seen a substantial disruption to the economic climate in the UK. That's very different to somebody who needs long term problem debt advice. That could be a very temporary situation - if the economic climate changes again, those people could well get back to meeting their contractual payments. 

Rapid development

StepChange recognised that it needed a digital, frictionless solution for COVID-19 debt assistance that didn't necessarily mean being placed on a financial plan for a long period of time. As such, Allan and her team began thinking about how to best provide a solution that caters and offers support for short-term disruption to finances. This spawned the creation of the COVID Payment Plan (CVPP), built on the Pega Customer Service platform. 

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

We needed to deliver something really quickly. So we've had to think about how we can bring a full ecosystem to life in a very short time - in just eight months. And that ecosystem had to recognise that the clients that we could be dealing with may be very different to the normal client that comes to see us. It's people that are probably relatively self sufficient, but they just need that help now. 

So we've worked very closely with Pega over the last three years. We've put the Pega platform at the heart of our core problem debt solution. And the reason we have done that is because of the power of the solution itself. It allows us to leverage some really good workflow services and really good core technical solutions. 

It allows us to rapidly scale, as and when we need to. And one of the challenges for CVPP in particular is that we know right now that since 1st March, one million people have already come to our website looking for advice specific to Coronavirus. So trying to anticipate the scale of potential clients, the scale of users in the UK who might need to use that service, we needed a platform that we had confidence could scale rapidly with us. We already know through the work that we've done with Pega to build the core debt management service that the platform does scale. 

Frictionless and digital

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

The aim is for as much of this to be done online as possible, with StepChange then backing this up with the ability to talk to somebody if they need more detailed help. Allan said that this 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-qualifying questions. Allan said: 

We are actively working on the next release, which is the workflow piece and allows people to tell us about the details of their financial status. Our target is to launch completely by the end of November. We are working very closely right now with Pega and our chosen suppliers and partners to bring the final pieces to life. 

It needs to be very digitally enabled to make it as frictionless as possible for individuals to use, in what is potentially a high stress scenario. We are switching on e-signature services, we have an ability for you to upload your documents, we have embedded a chat service right at the heart of what we're doing so that we can intercept and talk to you at any point in that journey. We've also got linkages in there, so if at any point in that journey we thank that actually this isn't right for you, we will also recommend and take you into full debt advice. 

Challenges and advice

For StepChange, Allan said that developing and designing a solution from scratch, at pace, is challenging in itself. However, the primary obstacle for the charity has been building something at speed when there are multiple partners and stakeholders involved - from creditors to suppliers - which require coordination and integration. She explained: 

As soon as you've got multiple partners and a very short space of time, that conversation and the integration of how data moves between systems, becomes absolutely critical. Most things you can build in isolation quite happily, but it's the glue as you integrate them together, which means pinch points invariably happen. 

So we've worked really carefully with all the partners. We've had regular weekly conversations with the suppliers at a summary level. We've got daily working group sessions. I've got a team of over 30 people in the charity focused on delivering this and we've had to step people out of the day job. And all the great work we already do in the charity hasn't stopped. We continue to improve our normal charity service, and doing that at the same time and at pace is certainly challenging in this current environment. 

And finally, in terms of advice and learnings, Allan said that the most critical piece of the project thus far has been ensuring that StepChange does not lose focus of the user need. This is always true, but is particularly pertinent when considering the stressful context within which the charity's users will be approaching the CVPP service. Allan said: 

Some of the things we've learned is to make sure that you take that step back when you design digital services and think about the end user experience. So what might feel obvious to us, doesn't necessarily translate to a frictionless experience. So actually taking a step back, gathering user feedback, asking clients 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 really frictionless process. Does it deliver what you need? 

That's a really important stage to take. Also, it's okay to launch something that isn't fully formed. It is better to launch something that you can start to evolve and develop further. As long as it fits a purpose, customers tend to be quite forgiving.