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Conversation Marketing Hacks: 8 Ways To ‘Speak Human’ & Change The Game

Nobody starts out automatically caring about your products or services. They care about how you can make a difference in their lives.  No matter the context, all relationships begin with a “handshake moment,” whether literally or figuratively—those first few introductory moments that reveal a great deal about the character of the person standing before you. Why should company interactions with current and prospective customers or clients be any different? 


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Sure, “content marketing” has been a crucial ingredient impelling the evolution of traditional marketing into today’s more personalized approach, bridging the gap between cookie-cutter TV, radio, and print mass marketing to highly customized digital and social media-driven communications. Even so, today’s more personalized digital communications have plenty of challenges, all too often falling on “deaf ears” and “blind eyes” amid a marketplace becoming highly desensitized to the glut ofadvertising and marketing messages its exposed to any given hour of any given day…year in and year out. 


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So, how can brands can make and maintain meaningful connections and create a lifetime value with customers in ways that’ll set them apart in a “noisy,” increasingly jaded and discriminating marketplace? How can businesses tell an authentic story so as to foster maximized marketplace engagement and breed brand loyalty?  According to Kevin Lund, author of the new book, “Conversation Marketing: How to be Relevant and Engage Your Consumer by Speaking Human”the proverbial key to the Kingdom is for companies, no matter their size and scope, to simply “speak human.
In this new book  Lund, who’s CEO of T3 Custom—itself a content marketing firm helping brands learn to “speak human” and supercharge ROI reportedly by as much as16-times, provides an in-depth analysis of what’s required to succeed in today’s modern marketing era, which he’s aptly coined the “Conversation Age.” Specifically, he details key principles critical for driving the more evolved conversation marketing approach, which can help companies amplify results on multiple fronts. 


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According to Lund, “Those who are wildly successful at conversation marketing understand the strategy is not simply about propagating online content and sharing through social media accounts. Rather, it’s a disciplined approach to communicating with a target audience in a way that tells a simple, human story that will educate, inform, entertain and, most importantly, compel customers in a way that fully captures mind–and-market share through messaging that truly resonates. Companies must stop talking ‘at’ their customers and, instead, connect with them by simply speaking human. And, it’s far beyond that initial ‘handshake moment—it’s through a constant stream of congenial engagements with each individual consumer, or the marketplace at large, based on trust and performance.”


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Think it’s complicated to be an adept conversation marketer and speak human to your constituents? Think again! Below are eight of Lund’s tactical strategies from the new book that can help companies large and small become more engaging and relevant with customers, and the marketplace at large:

1. Earn Attention

To gain attention in today’s crowded marketplace, it’s prudent to do the opposite of what most everyone else is doing. That means don’t deliver clichéd, boring content that’s written for robots—search engines or otherwise—and for generic consumption. It’s unsustainable for you and your brand as well as frustratingly futile for the audience you’re trying to reach. Instead, speak human by engaging your audience with eye-level language in order to gain their attention and set your brand apart. Learn to use language that educates and entertains the audience. 

Earning attention starts with asking yourself what you and your company are passionate about and conveying that genuinely in that all-important “handshake moment” of first contact—online or otherwise. Assume you’re meeting the person on the other side of the screen for the first time. Think of what you can say that’s new, memorable, a standout, and jargon-free. Also, understand and adapt to your audience. You wouldn’t talk the same way to an aging Baby Boomer as you would to a teenager.

2. Tell a Story

How do you hold someone’s attention long enough to break down a topic and engender his or her trust, but also in a way that’s unforgettable and leaves that person feeling more knowledgeable than before? The answer lies in good storytelling. 

Good conversations are filled with good stories and anecdotes. But be mindful that the hero of the story isn’t your company or its products, but rather how your product or service will have a positive impact in your customers’ lives. If you can elicit an emotional response, you’re onto something.  Some standout companies have figured this out. Apple’s story, for example, isn’t about devices. It’s about innovation and how our lives are being changed for the better with Apple technology in them. Learn how to make your story short, to the point, and easy to share online.

3. Stay Humble

Being humble begins with letting go of ego—that instinctual part of the psyche that screams for a marketer to make too much noise about products or services and brag about themselves. Sigmund Freud developed a psychoanalytic theory of personality he coined the “id,” and marketers often tap into their own ids by telling the world how great their company and its products are, and how great a potential customer will be for buying them. The id operates based on the pleasure principle, which demands immediate gratification of needs. 

In conversation marketing, speaking human dictates that your customer’s needs, not your own, are top priority. Your audience wants to know what you can do for them, and that means stop talking about yourself and drop the megaphone. Instead, embrace a different approach that thoughtfully and humbly explains why you do what you do and why it can make a difference in someone’s life instead of focusing on your bottom line. Stop beating them over the heads with the fabulous features and benefits of your products. Instead, tell stories that inspire and resonate with their own life experiences.

4. Pick Your Party

Equally important to the “how” of your conversation is the “where.” It should all fit seamlessly together and feel natural and organic in that moment.  Part of learning how to talk to your audience and engage them in any form of conversation is deciding where to talk to them in the first place. 
This means doing the footwork to learn where your potential customers gather, and meeting them on their own ground. Where do your potential customers hang out on social media? What are they saying, and what challenges are they discussing that you can compellingly weigh-in on? Easily available research tools can help you join the right conversation at the right time and in the right place with consistency.

5. Be Relevant (on a Molecular Level)

True listening is about far more than hearing words. It’s also about fully understanding the message and concepts being imparted—whether they’re needs, wants, desires, or even complaints. Being relevant means making sure you’re talking about topics that are of sure interest to your audience, and that’s often achieved by addressing their pain points. Before a marketer can aptly communicate and speak to such pain points, however, he or she must first hear what the prospect, customer or marketplace has to say. It can be dangerous, expensive and ultimately futile for companies to presume to inherently know what should be said in conversation marketing. 

6. Start the Conversation 
How do you gain audience attention in a way that prevents you from just being part of the noise? It’s no longer a question of whether you should insert yourself into the world of content marketing. It’s a matter of when you’re going to start talking, what you’re going to say, and how you’re going to say it. One good approach is to base that initial conversation on your unique value proposition for the given audience. 

It’s important to always remember that your target audience doesn’t care about you. They care what you can do for them. If you’ve done your research, you’ll be familiar with their pain points and better prepared to offer answers that address their needs. Don’t be a “me-too” marketer who dishes out the same information as everyone else. Instead, develop a unique angle with a thought-provoking headline that sparks attention—even better if it disrupts conventional thinking. In addition, know your topic inside out before communicating, and make sure any other people handling your communications are experts in the field. You don’t want to risk sounding trite or inaccurate.

7.  Stop Talking

Unlike a monologue, a conversation is a two-way endeavor. Knowing when to stop talking is as important as knowing what to say and when to say it. It’s the only way to truly get a sense of what your audience (or your potential customer) is thinking in reaction to what you’ve offered, and whether to stay the course in your strategy or tweak it on-the-fly. Once you hear preliminary reaction, you can respond to questions and concerns before moving ahead or otherwise couse-correct as needed. Also bear in mind that what your audience isn’t saying can be just as impactful as what they do convey.

Once your message is out, take a step back and “read the room.” That could mean monitoring online response to your blog post or using various tools to learn which of your resources are drawing attention. Are people engaged? Are they adding to the conversation? What should you do if the feedback is bad? Don’t consider a negative response or lack of response necessarily a failure. Instead, see it as an opportunity to adjust, make changes, and perhaps find ways to better meet your audience’s needs.

8. Ditch the Checklist

Before every takeoff, airline crews verbally work through an extensive checklist. There’s a detailed set of tasks to cover before the plane can even push back from the gate. However, in an ebb and flow conversation marketing context, this adherence to a certain protocol can pose limitations. Indeed, one problem with simply sticking to a checklist is that a content marketing strategy will never evolve with the times or differentiate itself in any way from what everyone else is doing.

Successful marketers endeavor to open new horizons. They take a step back and ask bigger questions about themselves and their companies’ ultimate goals, as well as what sort of new challenges their audience or customers might face over time–how to aptly adjust when needed. 

Lund also suggests finding sources of inspiration. “Explore some of the successful content marketing plans that showed passion, ditched the tired old language, zeroed in on what customers needed, and started a real conversation with the market,” he urges. “Then scrutinize your own strategy and see where it might be lacking, so that you can continually refine your own checklist.”

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3 Communications Basics That Build Confidence

Communication is ingrained in every facet of life, yet many struggle with fear, insecurity and general ineffectiveness when they find themselves eye to eye with someone to present ideas, address complicated situations, express feelings, negotiate or just “sell them self”—all whether in a personal or professional context.

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According to Megan Rokosh, a global business communications expert with over 12 years of agency public relations, media and creative strategy experience, “Some people are paralyzed with fear at the very thought of taking an idea and communicating it, both in the workplace and in their everyday life. However, confidence can be significantly bolstered by heeding even a few simple strategies—some basic fundamentals and essentials—that can improve one’s poise and self-assurance…and results of the endeavor at hand.”

Here are three of Rokosh’s confidence-building communications requisites:

1.) Craft situation diffusion dialogue. Create an assortment of “go-to” statements you can have at-the-ready to handle awkward or hard situations and moments. These are assertions and declarations that you know work well and that you can whip out quickly when needed. For example, if you are late to a social outing, rehearse saying “I’m so sorry I kept you waiting, my rule is when I’m late, all the drinks are on me.” Or, when you’re at a loss for words, you can assert, “I could have sworn that I packed my tongue today” and lighten the moment. Having such short statements up your proverbial sleeve helps to avoid stumbling your way through awkward moments.

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2.) Give in to vulnerability. Vulnerability often equals likability and they are indelibly connected—so use that truth to your benefit! There’s not much more off-putting than arrogance, and seeming vulnerable can make you more relatable. If you’re nervous and kicking off a meeting, tell your audience to “be gentle with you” and have a quick laugh to loosen everyone—and yourself—up. Self-effacing humor can be a powerful tool. Or, if you’re having a difficult time understanding something, you can say, “I’m so sorry if I’m holding us up here, but would you mind explaining one more time?” Your contrition will surely endear.

3.) Address adversities head on. You will undoubtedly face times at work and at home that require you to address something difficult. Although challenging and scary, the situation usually must to be addressed to be effectively resolved. Great leaders always speak up and you should, too!  Make clear from the beginning that you intend to hear and consider the other person’s side, stating something like, “Your perspective is valid and really want to hear what you have to say, but first, please allow me to share my thoughts….” followed by a the suitable words. This will give you the floor, hopefully uninterrupted, since the other party has been given the assurance they’ll have a chance to present their side as well. As goes without saying, this discourse should be in person versus via text or email whenever that’s a possibility. There are times when a call or in-person meeting is just the right thing to do and where words, inflections and expressions if face-to-face will be far more impactful and meaningful.

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Rokosh also reminds us that the world’s best communicators are trained. “It’s very that an incredible communicator hasn’t put in extensive work toward their oration skills so they can speak eloquently, pause in powerful silence when appropriate, address very difficult media questions, etc.,” she notes. “It’s important to remember that, while some people are inherently talented communicators, for many (if not most) becoming a confident communicator requires learned skills. It’s one simple strategy like those above built upon each other, and proactively putting them to use, that will get you where you want and need to be.”

As an advice-doling expert, Rokosh doesn’t just talk the talk, she walks the walk. Having worked with many high profile global organizations and consulted with C-suite executives from nearly every industry, she’s created hugely successful platforms founded on effective communications. This includes working directly with top-tier media like Forbes, Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, Ad Age, Adweek and scores more. Rokosh was even invited to partake in the elite “Business of Media, Entertainment and Sports” program at Harvard.

So, if effectively communicating is an area of insecurity for you, if you find yourself being held back by the fear, or if you just want to amp up your existing communications prowess, try Rokosh’s three easy tips above to feel more resilient and controlled—or, at least, exude the image that you are.

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Communicating Like Never Before

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In PR and communications, we’ve faced a familiar challenge for quite some time. Sometimes, we do the usual: send a few press releases, do some media outreach, pat ourselves on the back and do it again tomorrow. But for a long time, our industry has needed evolution. We do the same thing, and yield the same thing – yet wonder why we don’t earn more budget or praise.

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When we talk about evolution, sure: tools, technology and breaking down silos have been the key to many industries taking the step to greater value within their organizations. But, there are often more simple, overlooked steps we can take to communicate faster, more effectively and enact more change than public relations has ever been able to before. At the Cision World Tour stop in San Francisco, Altimeter principal analyst and visionary Brian Solis shared some of his research based tactics for being positive change agents in our industry:

1) ROI doesn’t always have to mean Return on Investment. In fact, it can mean Return on Ignorance.

The risk of remaining stagnant might not be that daunting for some, but let’s put it into perspective: would you rather do the same old things and produce the same old results, or implement new things and be able to demonstrate new, exciting and meaningful results? It’s not always easy to break out of the mold and get approval to experiment and try new things or A/B test, but done right, these learning experiences can garner valuable takeaways for brands and inform future strategy.

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2) More mindfulness, less strategy.

This tenet may seem counterintuitive, as strategy is a term thrown around a staggering amount of times daily by brands, but at its core, it’s about keeping the audience and end-user in mind first, rather than the other way around. Cision CMO Chris Lynch echoes a similar sentiment – consumers should dictate influencer and outreach strategies, so that we’re communicating the right message at the right time to the right audiences.

3) Success lies in how we use technology to see around the corner and fundamentally change.

Adopting new technologies is essential to brand evolution, but it’s not always about chasing the shiny object and spreading yourself thin across tools or platforms. Having the foresight to evaluate the implications of technology and the big picture, long-term effects can help advise you on where to where to spend your time and money to ensure you’re getting the most out of new tech.

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4) Brands shouldn’t leave experiences to chance – experiences should be designed.

Just because User Experience (UX) isn’t necessarily the “duty” of the communications team doesn’t mean that PR can’t contribute. So how can we be a part of it? There are many ways: provide great customer experience on social media no matter whether a customer is having a great experience or not, engineer an influencer experience that immerses key audiences into your brand via an activation or content, or utilize data to refine strategy across your team. Like #2, keeping the consumer at the forefront of your planning does more benefit to your brand than harm.

5) Be truthful. Be engaging. Be proactive. Be human.

During our “Creating a win-win relationship with the media” panel, a recurring theme from brand leaders from Adobe, Kimpton Hotels and Evite were these simple rules. Transparency, focusing on more than just engaging and being more than just an auto response can foster an emotional connection with a brand that has been proven to be a significant amplifier when someone considers a purchase. Can comms drive this? Absolutely.

In essence, what’s old is new again in the communications industry, and the basic principles we were taught still remain: public relations is about people and relationships, and without this foundation, many comms practitioners fail. Once this philosophy is part of the equation in everything that we do, we can then layer on the tools and technology to knock it out of the park.

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A New Way To Communicate

In real estate, communication is the most important part of the relationship between an agent and the client. Understanding “how” to communicate is daunting. Rapid-fire methods including email, text messaging and social media channels are preferred methods of contact for most Millennials, Gen Xers and even Baby Boomers these days. In order to help REALTORS get up to speed on the latest trends in social media, Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices New England and Westchester Properties has scheduled “Social Media Bootcamps” taking place this fall to teach best practices in Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and Snapchat. The newest member to the group – Snapchat – needs a class all on its own and with it, a real estate specific guide was created to get their agents engaging and ‘snapping’ with clients.

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Like Real Estate, Snapchat is a visual entity. Snapchat is used to send photos and videos via a downloaded app for smartphones. REALTORS who use Snapchat can record videos when previewing a home to create a virtual open house, showing off unique aspects of a listing while using text to convey a short description. The use of Geofilters adds to the diverse features Snapchat has to offer by identifying where a video or photo was taken within a geographical area using the phone’s GPS. As the app’s consumer base expands, so does its value as a convenient marketing tool for businesses to promote and communicate directly to its users.

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“Snapchat is an innovative tool for REALTORS,” stated Candace Adams, President and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices New England and Westchester Properties. “It visually tells a story and allows for more personal engagement with clients. Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices New England and Westchester Properties understands the importance of social media in the digital age. It is essential to reach clients where they are already looking.”

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Even more valuable than Snapping listings, Snapchat lets REALTORS be more personal. It’s a great way to show clients how homes are marketed for today’s modern era and have fun showcasing their personality.

In an article created by eMarketer, they project “58.6 million US consumers will use Snapchat at least once per month in 2016. eMarketer’s user estimate would represent 28.3% of US smartphone users and 18.1% of the US population.”

By adapting new technology trends early, Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices New England and Westchester Properties REALTORS will benefit greatly by acclimatizing quickly in an ever changing industry. They will engage with clients, provide valuable information and promote their expertise. Why do I bring this up? Because mortgage lenders should learn from their REALTOR friends and use this same technology to improve the mortgage process and better communicate with borrowers.

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Problem Solving In The Workplace

You Can Download This Full Article As A PDF HERE

TME-Becky-BarbaraWikipedia’s definition of problem-solving is used in many disciplines, sometimes with different perspectives, and often with different terminologies. For instance, it is a mental process in psychology and a computerized process in computer science. Problems can also be classified into two different types (ill-defined and well-defined) from which appropriate solutions are to be made. Ill-defined problems are those for which we do not have clear goals, solution paths, or expected solution. Well-defined problems have specific goals, clearly defined solution paths, and clear expected solutions. These problems also allow for more initial planning than ill-defined problems. Being able to solve problems sometimes involves dealing with pragmatics (logic) and semantics (interpretation of the problem). The ability to understand what the goal of the problem is and what rules could be applied represent the key to solving the problem. Sometimes the problem requires some abstract thinking and coming up with a creative solution. To expand on this further – Problem solving from a coaching perspective is the gap between the current situation and a desired outcome. It’s an ongoing process that is an integral part of work and life and maybe it’s time to look at it some a different perspective.

In this article, we will explore techniques for leaders, management and staff to identify and define problems, move from problem oriented to solution focused thinking and finally talk about creative solutions. Problems can be looked at through the lens that shows they are really opportunities. Lessons and growth both professionally and individually can come from problems. The learning comes from the process of addressing the problem; sometimes having to stretch us pass our comfort zones. Problems can point out blind spots and make us aware that we may be doing an OK job with a particular situation but we could do better.

Empowering Problems come in various sizes:

>> Big and complicated

>> Some more easily resolved

Big and complicated problems may take some time to resolve and should include other people to help resolve the problem. Easily resolved problems occur at any time and typically someone has the answer to the problem or a process/procedure that can be followed to get the resolution completed quickly. An example of this could be the power going out, and if there is a generator, getting it running as quickly as possible or going to a contingency plan that was created so clients/customers can be notified quickly and staff understands what they need to do.

Workplaces present ongoing challenges on a daily basis that require solving problems. The problems have to be dealt with constructively and fairly. Employees need necessary skills to identify solutions to problems through knowledge, facts, data, and the ability to think on their feet. They have to have the ability to assess the problem and then find solutions. Sometimes it’s very important to not try and tackle the problem by oneself but instead involve others which is called collaboration. When others are pulled into help, the first important step is to establish ground rules. Important ground rules include no criticism of an idea is allowed; strive for the longest list – go for quantity (brainstorming); strive for creativity – “wild and crazy ideas should be encouraged and build on ideas of others. Of course this way of thinking works on problem solving that doesn’t need to be done “right now.” An example of this could be a branch office that is uncooperative and continuously turns in reports late, there are poor morale issues, there is a lack of consistent communication with the branch manager and poor performance of the branch overall.

A problem solving technique that is very effective in working with an issue such as this is called the “Fishbone Diagram Technique” which breaks down Cause and Effect. This is how it works: Gather the people together who can work together to create a solution. Then define the problem or opportunity in a brief statement that all can agree upon. In the fishbone diagram, list potential causes to verify their relevancy and impact. You may want to gather data on some of these issues. Brainstorming begins with the mindset that any idea is allowed. Ideas come from these thoughts:

>> What the team knows

>> What the team needs to know

>> What the team needs to do

>> What the team needs to know how to do

A completed FISHBONE DIAGRAM example after facts and thoughts are mapped out looks like this:

tme914-chart

After the data gathering, completing discussions through brainstorming and filling out the fishbone diagram, the next step is to evaluate the alternatives to the problem. There needs to be an explanation of the concept/thinking behind each idea by the person proposing it. Then expanding on these ideas and “bottom line” the issue. Next numbering and ranking what’s important to be considered is a helpful technique when reaching agreement on the best solution as a team.

Then it’s time to develop an action plan which includes Goals, Strategy, Timeline, Who is responsible and Expected Outcomes. This information should be recorded on flip chart pages (each page labeled by the categories above) or on a wipe board. Someone needs to take responsibility for compiling all the information, distributing it to the parties involved and getting agreement on when the solutions will be worked on and completed; by whom and most importantly…..everyone involved should understand why it’s important that this process is being done and how it impacts the company – if it gets done and if it doesn’t get done.

Accountability is a problem for many people; great intentions but “things slip through the cracks” at times because other things get in the way of “what I said I’d do.” It’s very important to designate someone to keep everyone informed and every task tracked and recorded. Reporting the impact of the completed solution should be conveyed to everyone involved as well when the solutions have been implemented. And, don’t forget to thank the team.

Being proactive is also important before any problems crop up, especially in strategic planning. One example is Solution Focused Thinking – where the emphasis is on when the problem does not occur. Create a roadmap to success and backtrack on what needs to happen from now to then. Focus on people’s strengths and resources to construct potential solutions. Ask effective questions rather than leading questions such as “why don’t you? OR “have you thought of this?” Building on this success, it’s good practice to ask “What are people doing right?” If there are exceptions to this, you ask “When is there a time when the behavior doesn’t occur or occurs less often?” Have discussions on these key questions so you can uncover information. Future focused questions include “What will you be doing differently?” “How will others know?” “What will they see or hear that will be different?”

As mentioned earlier, problems simply happen. What you do differently and proactively during the course of managing the problem(s) makes the difference of making smart decisions, involving others and creating successful solutions vs. taking on the task yourself and getting stressed in the process. Involving others to help create solutions allows for creative thinking and new ideas that possibly may never have been thought of in the past. Our problems can show the need to include others, can show us our strengths and our limits and be a resource for being better as professionals.

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Borrower Communication Comes Of Age

Recently, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau announced a new electronic closing pilot program to allow consumers the ability to review mortgage documents prior to reaching the closing table. This follows closely on the heels of changes to Regulation B back in January that required lenders to provide borrowers copies of appraisals or other written valuations promptly upon completion. Add these to the existing regulations requiring documents to be delivered to the borrower within three days of application, and it seems that you are being asked to send information to your borrower at every turn.

The intent of these regulations isn’t to just provide borrowers with the appropriate documents, but to give them time to review, analyze and ask questions. The last thing anyone wants is for the borrower to be surprised when they get to the closing table. An informed borrower is a happy borrower.

So how exactly do you accomplish this? The answer is with a secure communication platform. A secure communication platform allows you to not only deliver documents to the borrower throughout the entire loan process, but also allows for the borrower to securely ask questions and return documents back to you if needed.

When considering a secure communication platform, there are several things to consider. The first of course is security. While many lenders would never consider sending sensitive information via e-mail, it is amazing how many sensitive documents are delivered back to lenders in this manner. Paystubs, W-2’s and previous year’s tax returns all contain information that should never be sent via e-mail. Unfortunately, many borrowers have no other option of delivering this information back to the lender.

The next thing to consider is availability. Today’s borrowers are always on the go. For any communication platform to be effective, it must be able to be accessed via mobile devices. By making sure that your platform is mobile ready, you are assured that you can always reach your client, and more importantly, they can always reach you.

Workflow is another factor to look for in a communication platform. What happens if a request goes unanswered? What if the borrower doesn’t consent to receiving their documents electronically? To stay compliant with all of the regulations it is very important to be notified when manual intervention may be required.

The last, but definitely not the least, thing to look for is a complete audit trail. Being able to produce proof positive that documents were delivered on time and that all ESIGN requirements were met, along with a history of messages exchanged between lender and borrower will keep you in good graces with your auditors.

As I mentioned earlier, lenders are being asked to deliver information to borrowers at every turn. By installing a secure communication platform you can not only meet both the letter and intent of these regulatory requirements, but make the entire loan process faster and smoother for the borrower.

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Lost In Translation

You Can Download This Full Article As A PDF HERE

rsz_michael-simmonsIn 2003, Francis Ford Coppola’s daughter Sophia Coppola directed her second film, Lost in Translation. It was a comedy-drama starring Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson. It received 4 Academy Award nominations, made a tidy little pile of money and was generally greeted favorably by those who like that particular genre.

I never saw it.

While there’s no direct connection to the movie, I would suggest that any relationship—personal or business—suffers when communication is missing. Let’s start with something obvious; language. Have you ever noticed that, regardless of what part of the realm we occupy, all of us employ our own language. I sometimes think that this ‘secret language’ is designed to create and protect the power of our respective roles. We build it around a kaleidoscope of acronyms: TILA, GFE, OCC, FHFA, FDIC, SARS, UAD, XML, FNMA, MAI, NMLS … and a thousand more just as jaw tightening. They serve to erect walls between lenders, investors, regulators, mortgage brokers, real estate agents, AMCs and their appraisers, and consumers. The net result can inhibit real understanding. And that’s important, because it’s the ‘knowing’ that we’re all really after.

Your most important role: Delivering information

Early on in my own career, first in real estate and then in lending, I learned an important truth; that my role was to deliver information. As a real estate agent, it wasn’t to sell homes, it was to help my clients understand the market and to guide them through the process of buying a home. As a lender, I never sold rates; I provided information and solutions to my clients so they were able to make informed decisions. In both instances it was still the noble and important profession of sales, but it was always oriented to serve the consumer by helping them to understand. It’s what most successful loan officers and Realtors do, they deliver information and help their clients understand how things worked.

Why is all this “understanding” so important? Isn’t it sufficient that all of us simply perform our appointed functions? That’s a very good question. By way of an answer, let’s look at a not so atypical transaction as a case in point.

A real world, very common example

Take a young family buying their first home. They get a referral from friends for a real estate agent who loves to work with first time homebuyers. She in turn refers them to a mortgage banker she’s worked with and sends them to get pre-approved. They get thoroughly prequalified, understand their borrowing capacity and even have some gift funds to get to that magical 20% down payment. Armed with all that information, the couple venture forth into the world of open houses. They encounter a market with limited inventory, but their Realtor reassures them there’s something wonderful waiting out there just for them.

So far, so good. Informed and prepared, they visit open houses and peruse the new listings that their Realtor provides them. And then it happens; the house they’ve been looking for shows up on their agent’s MLS. They schedule an appointment that evening to write an offer. Their agent knows there will be multiple offers—and surely over the asking price given the limited inventory—so they’ll have to make their highest and strongest offer if they hope to prevail.

Lo and behold, the offer’s accepted and everyone is ecstatic. The Realtor feels validated that her advice on price won the day. The loan officer springs into action and immediately requests updated paystubs and bank statements, warns his borrowers not to use their credit cards, checks to insure that rates are still good (they are) and says ‘closing in 30 days is do-able’. The only thing left is to order an appraisal. Once that’s completed, it’s on to the closing table.

The lender orders the appraisal through one of their AMCs and an experienced local appraiser schedules an appointment to meet the Realtor at the property to perform the inspection. Because the Agent knows how quickly the market is moving, she brings closed sales and listings for the appraiser and makes sure he knows that there were 5 offers over asking. The appraiser thanks her for her professionalism and suggests the report should be done in about 3 to 4 days.

And then it happens. The appraisal comes in and it doesn’t support the contract price! The Realtor explodes at the loan officer. Obviously the lender engaged an appraiser who didn’t understand the market and who ignored the fact that 5 other people made offers in excess of the list price. How could the value not come in? The Realtor warns the loan officer that he’d better get this fixed right now or there won’t be any future referrals.

The loan officer is angry and embarrassed. He tells his borrowers that he doesn’t have any control over whom his company selects as an AMC and nobody can choose the appraiser, so sometimes they get stuck with a bad one who brings in a low value. Meanwhile, the borrowers are devastated and confused. Their Realtor told them this was what the house was worth, yet it didn’t appraise. Their loan officer is blaming his company for making him use that AMC, and the best the lender can do is suggest the borrowers appeal the value decision or try to find some material error in the appraisal so they can declare it flawed and safely order a new appraisal.

Before we get to the end of this story, let me play a recent, actual interchange with a seasoned mortgage banker that addresses the underlying issue here.

Banker: Hi Michael, what percentage ofappraisals come in low? Refis vs Purchases?

AMC:Interesting questions. The smart aleck answer is none. But here are some additional thoughts:

What’s the basis for determining an appraisal coming in ‘low’ on a refinance? Good appraisals come at value; sometimes expectations don’t match up with that. That doesn’t indicate that the value is wrong or low or anything else. There is a process to reconsider an appraiser’s conclusion. We get requests on about 2% of the files we manage. Of those, some 28-30% result in a changed value.

All of the above is pertinent to purchase appraisals toowith one addition: the worth versus value issue. I co-authored an article in Mortgage Banking Magazine last summer that might help to shed light on this topic. I’ll attach it. … after a short interval,

Banker: Thanks. Refis I get because most people think their property is worth more than it is. It’s the purchases that are perplexing, especially in such a competitive market. To me, purchases indicate next month’s value vs last month’s value. I’m not sure this is taken into

AMC:Ok, do me a favor then. Go to your secondary marketing person and tell them you want them to fund a loan based on an appraisal with next month’s value and then call me back and tell me what they said.

Banker:Good one … thanks for the education.

So, something had gotten lost in translation for the above exchange to have taken place. This was a seasoned mortgage banker with many years of experience and his questions mirrored the issues of our previous story. And he’s not alone. There’s a reason that transactions can devolve into open warfare even with experienced professionals who are guided by the best of intentions. It’s about ‘knowing’ or, perhaps more accurately, not knowing.

Giving borrowers the right information

How does one know those things that are critical to prosecuting one’s responsibilities? Here are a few ways lenders can be ready to share the right information with borrowers:

>> Choose AMCs who work WITH you: Work with an AMC vendor who fosters a culture of learning. Choose an AMC who believes that working with a lender’s sales team, their broker or correspondent customer base, and their Realtor partners represents a real opportunity to advance understanding and better serve borrowers.

>> Use AMCs with great appraiser relationships: Work with an AMC who builds their vendor partnerships around a commitment to finding ways to translate what’s important to know. Choose an AMC that spends their time and resources to deliver information to those most in need; much as good lenders do who hold seminars for those first time buyers.

>> Consider an appraisal expert on staff:If you recognize that appraisals are a critical component of the lending process, you can hire an appraiser as part of your staff to help translate appraisal issues.

Explaining tough situations to borrowers

Let’s go back for a moment to our young family who were trying to buy their first home. According to their Realtor and loan officer, the appraisal came in low. The truth is, appraisals don’t come in low, they come in at value. Now the question of whether a report is good or bad may be a fair question, but there are ways to determine that answer. Multiple offers can set off a bidding competition with the net result that the issue shifts from a property’s value being based on existing closed sales, to what someone is willing to pay for it, i.e., what someone feels it’s worth to them. It’s in part why auctions can sometimes be so effective a sales tool. The bidding doesn’t stop when the price reaches market value, it stops when someone wins by offering the most money because that’s what it’s worth to them. Markets can become distorted when there are limited sales and demand outstrips supply. The problem for the appraiser is finding data that supports the new expanding price points. The problem for everyone else in our transaction is that they didn’t know any of this. They didn’t understand the distinction and thus all were left disappointed and betrayed by a system that failed them.

Can we better define what we should know? I think so. I think lenders need to have the right AMC relationships and have someone with appraisal experience on their staff. The risk of not being fully prepared to explain to their own team and their clients what constitutes good appraisal practice is too great with every transaction being so precious. The most successful lenders make a commitment to invest in those people who can foster that understanding. And the smartest lenders ‘invest’ in working with AMC vendor-partners that focus on being a resource to help bridge better understanding among all the actors in the play.

More understanding results in more business

When presented with a clear understanding of collateral valuation, borrowers will understand the appraisal’s role in their transaction and why it has such a great impact on lending decisions. The right information will save your relationship with the borrower, and positions your company as trusted experts they can rely upon. If the lender sticks with the old “my hands are tied and the appraisal came in too low” explanation, the borrower will have a bad impression of you rather than knowing you can guide them in the future. Lost in Translation needs to stay a movie – and not define one’s business model.

About The Author

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Magazine Feature Article: Calling Out Single Point Of Contact

*Calling Out Single Point Of Contact*
**By Barbara Perino and Rebecca Walzak**

***Do you know SPOC? No, it’s not a character in an outer space science fiction movie, nor is it the name of your new neighbor’s dog. “SPOC” stands for Single Point of Contact, the requirement that every borrower have one individual who is their link between themselves and the servicer when working through a default management issue, be it forbearance, loan modification or short sale. It first became a requirement when established by the Treasury Department as they struggled with the massive delinquency and loan modification programs which began in 2008 and continue to this day. This concept, the idea that a borrower can call one representative of the servicer at any time and receive information as to the findings, issues and status of their problem or requested option, has not been an easy one or even a welcomed one by servicing organizations. Yet it seems, at least on the surface, to be a win-win for everyone. The borrower can get up-to-the-minute information with just one phone call and servicing personnel are freed from the handling of numerous interruptions and frequent phone calls made by frustrated borrowers. Yet servicers, from largest to smallest, seem to be slowly working through this “evolving process” rather than stepping forward to embrace the idea as they implement a single point of contact program. Is this concept so new that we are struggling to understand exactly what is required? Is it so labor intensive that the volume of work completed comes to a near standstill in order to take a customer call? What exactly is the problem?

The idea of a single point of contact was not a new concept developed by regulators in response to mortgage consumer complaints, but has been adapted from other industries faced with an overwhelming volume of calls that they attempted to manage through dysfunctional, outdated methods for providing customer support. Technology companies were among the first adaptors of implementing a structured unit within an organization whose objective was to be the communication link between the company and those that it served. The focus of the “customer service” unit was a means to provide information, accept orders, resolve issues and satisfy customer needs in an organized, efficient environment that is easily scalable to meet the ebb and flow of customer volume. Once initial implementation was achieved, the satisfactory rating of consumers skyrocketed. Companies continued to enhance the use of these units and expanded them to include assigning specific “order” numbers to calls so that any responder could identify the issues in the customer service program and answer questions and/or give updates. The next step of course was to assign each individual caller with their own service provider. This individual would take responsibility for a specific caller, their needs and concerns, until such time as the caller was satisfied with the result.

Despite concerns about the potential costs associated with creating this special unit the use of “call centers” proved very successful. Management found that through this process they were able to remove the ambiguity of issues and quickly identify what the “real” issues were. This allowed the customer service representative to more easily address the core problem and resolve the callers’ issues. Ultimately this produced results showing higher productivity numbers for companies as other employees were not haphazardly interrupted with phone calls that took them away from their assigned work load. It also eliminated the customers receiving redundant responses or conflicting information which ate up even more of employees’ time as they attempted to untangle the issues and resolve the problem.

One of the most beneficial results of this single point of contact concept was the move from constantly being in a reactive state to one of proactivity. Customer service representatives began to more effectively manage the process of correction and improvements as requested and took the initiative to begin placing calls to customers on a regular basis to advise them of the status of their issue. The responses to this type of proactive calling were overwhelmingly positive.

This practice also had more easily quantifiable economic benefits as well. As the data on issues and problems was collected in a single source database, it was much easier for management to identify the common issues and sources of problems. Once these were isolated, improvements to processes and new technological innovations could be developed. Funding for opportunities established through this information source was routinely successful in creating more effective and/or efficient products and services.

Today there are world-wide call centers for just about every major industry and global company. While the number of companies that assign specific representatives to specific callers is smaller, the overall nature of the calls has moved from one of calling when a problem arises to one of seeking resources and information in implementing some new aspects of the servicers provided or attempting to answer a question that may arise.

Unfortunately the status of the mortgage servicer “SPOC” programs does not appear to be quite as successful. The implementation of the single point of contact program by servicers programs have received only mediocre reviews and lawmakers have been focusing on national foreclosure reform legislation. Although this legislation seems to be stalled, many states have or are beginning to consider this issue.

Servicers in the meantime have been working on and experimenting with ideas for the best method for implementing the program. Not all of the plans have materialized into effective programs while some have been more successful than others.

The most common implementation approach appears to be the expansion of the more traditional call center. In this scenario, the standard 800 number is still used as the primary point of contact for the borrower. Once the borrower has reached a representative of the company, they identify the reason for the call and determine which employee would be best able to address the issue. In the case of modifications in progress, the individual assigned to handle the application then becomes the single source of contact. This process may attempt to minimize the modification specialists’ phone time, by arranging for a call back time, but the process still requires a great deal of consumer interaction time.  There are several other iterations of this approach as well. One of these is to advise the consumer that the individual who is handling the case will call them back. Unfortunately, many times this results in a game of “telephone tag.” Complications further occur when the individual to whom they are assigned calls them and leaves a message to return the call. Then when the borrower returns the call, they are sent to the main number and the individual answering the phone has no idea about the issue and cannot transfer the caller to the modification specialist.

Another approach is to create a program that will update information about the status of the application or request. Then when the consumer calls into the assigned number, any individual answering the call can refer to the system to identify the status and provide updated information. Unfortunately these calls often leave the consumer with unanswered questions because the individual on the phone has no knowledge of the required steps in the process or cannot provide specific information on how to address a problem. Ultimately these approaches are not successful because they do not meet the standard established by the requirement; a single point for the consumer to call and get questions answered and issued resolved.

How do we move beyond the stumbling blocks of today’s approach to SPOC? One way is to look at those who have been successful in implementing such a program. In reviewing information about other programs similar to what is required of servicers, there is one common thing that stands out. These companies see the person answering the phone, as the most important in the company since they are “customer facing.” In order to be assigned to these positions, individuals at these companies are assessed for their level of professionalism and overall attitude. In addition, they are required to have a comprehensive knowledge about the products and services that the companies provide so that questions can be answered correctly the first time. However the most stringent requirement mentioned consistently within these companies was the ability to communicate. These employees must be skilled empathetic communicators; not just talking, but excelled at listening to the customers to isolate and identify the issues so that they can be resolved. Training for these positions is in many cases extensive and rigorous. As a result, these employees are highly-valued and highly compensated.

In today’s servicing world many managers see these positions as entry level and low paying positions. They are hesitant to invest in these individuals who openly admit they are looking to advance to other positions in the organization. While some may have training in call center work, rarely do they have anything but a limited knowledge of the mortgage industry and/or the servicing process. While there are attempts to overcome this with prescribed scripts, the end result is less than effective.

In addition to the lack of appropriately trained and skilled professionals to work in a SPOC center, our industry has not yet grasped the opportunities that this type of function can provide. As mentioned earlier, many companies utilize the data obtained from documenting and tracking these calls through to final resolution to identify where there are productivity and cost-reducing gains to be made. While today’s servicing managers worry about absorbing the costs associated with hiring and training these individuals they have failed to balance these costs against the savings that can be achieved.

While today’s focus is on providing a single point of contact for the servicing organization, it is impossible to overlook the potential of this approach for the origination end of the business. One of the biggest failings of the mortgage boom was the borrower’s total comprehension around how these loans would work; what future payments would be and how they would affect the borrower’s equity in their homes. It is not a large leap to envision a resource for borrowers beginning the process of originating a loan to want and/or demand this type of resource from their chosen lenders. This idea has great appeal to consumer advocate groups. An originator whose approach provided this level of support and knowledge to their customers would undoubtedly be able to draw consumers to them.

Whether you think of SPOC as an alien here to take over your organization or as an opportunity to differentiate yourself from the competition, it is safe to say that the idea is not going away any time soon. And with the repercussions from regulators and state legislative interest in this idea growing, management, ready or not, is going to have to implement these programs.

So bottom line is; there is tremendous opportunity to embrace the value of putting a highly effective SPOC program in place in your company and create benchmarks that can be tracked for success, allowing room for any needed adjustments. It starts at the top. Leadership has to embrace the importance and value of this new requirement. If you don’t have leadership buy-in on the significance of this program you are going to be in the spotlight, under scrutiny and setting your company up for failure. Some things to think about:

  • Leadership creates a strategic meeting of the leadership team to talk about how they can implement a highly effective customer centric program. What needs to be done to get this in place? Who are ideal candidates for our SPOC program?
  • Leadership has to get very clear on the ROI of doing this process and exemplify it throughout the company. (walk the talk)
  • Possibly create a survey to be given to every employee in the organization to flush out possible candidates for these positions, including managers. Craft questions about what SPOC means, how it works; and some questions (or personality assessments) to find out which employees are perfect candidates to be the SPOC because of their knowledge of the loan programs, policies and procedures and just as important, their customer service, relationship building, organized skills, great with follow up, etc.
  • Create benchmarks and matrixes on the goals and results that will be needed and designate timeframes when to review how well the program is working going forward.
  • Create chain of command for problem solving if something gets escalated and a manager needs to get involved
  • Create ongoing training, motivational exercises, coaching of the SPOCs.
  • Compensate these people as they aren’t just answering phones and passing on calls; this position is a very important position that will impact the success of the SPOC program so promote and hire the best.

The government is here to stay for a long time and these types of programs are not going to go away so find how you can embrace this change and decide you are going to do it well. Take the bull by the horns and go for it. It will serve you in the long run.