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ATLANTA — In my last article for Repo & Recovery, I referenced a recent survey we conducted that examined business practices, issues and preferences of repossession agencies. If you are like most agencies, keeping costs down and finding new work continue to be your top challenges. According to some of the leading industry economists, finding new work will become an even bigger challenge as the recent surge in repossession volume begins to ebb this year.

Early results of the 2010 AutoIMS Client Survey indicate that our clients — which include all manner of banks, credit unions, finance companies and more — share repossession agents' common pain of keeping costs down. Interestingly enough, "loan defaults" rank highly in their list of top challenges as well, pointing to an ongoing focus on how best to handle defaults — including repossession. Up or down, the repossession market is becoming more and more competitive, and agencies must constantly ask themselves what they can do to get noticed and set them apart.

In our survey, when asked about advertising techniques, agencies commented that they rely heavily on their clients to spread the word about the benefits of using them. The biggest potential pitfall facing agencies in this regard is recognizing how word-of-mouth takes place in today's connected world. Traditional conversations at conferences, reference phone calls and good, old-fashioned sales calls are still important tactics. Yet the major shift to online, social networking interaction is drastically changing the way clients communicate and share information.

To be a part of those conversations, agencies need to make it easy for clients to include them. One method which only costs a little bit of time is to connect to your best clients through LinkedIn, Plaxo, Facebook or other social networking outlets, making it easy for your clients to remember you and recommend you. Even more opportunity awaits agencies that have yet to deploy a Web site and an official e-mail address. These tools will lend significant credibility to your client's recommendation when they pass your information on to another potential client. 

 What Kind of Advertising Do You Use?
 Type   Percentage
 Company Web site  50
 Trade Publications  29
 Conference/Event Sponsorships  27
 Other  25
 None  21
 Outdoor Advertising  8
 Local TV/Radio  1

Dedicated Web domain and e-mail hosting is now a price to pay for an effective word-of-mouth strategy — even for small businesses — and reliable, secure service is affordable and easy to deploy. Agencies should think of this not as a technology cost, but as a passive form of promotion, and part of their broader marketing plan. Luckily, that marketing plan can and should rely heavily on word-of-mouth, which isn't a big shift for most agencies. 

You've Got Mail

Among the items mentioned above, e-mail should be the top priority. A surprisingly small number of agents have gone the extra mile as it relates to e-mail — one of the most common and important elements of communication. Even though 50 percent of agencies reported having their own Web site, only 45 percent reported using a dedicated, corporate e-mail domain according to our recent survey. 

 Which Type of E-Mail Do You Use? 
 Type  Percentage 
 Free E-Mail Provider (Yahoo, Gmail)  46
 Corporate E-Mail Domain  45
 Paid E-Mail from ISP  26

Recovery agencies need to consider three core issues as it relates to their choice of e-mail system:

—Reliability: Free e-mail addresses unfortunately do not come with service level agreements or other fail-safes, should they stop working. And while immense infrastructure supports those providers, they have little if any liability for lost data or other key information, should a system crash. With a dedicated domain and e-mail hosting, even smaller agencies should receive strong expectations or even an SLA for up-time, and will have a course of action should the e-mail system go down.

—Professionalism: While this is more of a client perception issue than an actual reflection or indicator of recovery agencies' professionalism, in today's competitive environment agents should at least consider the perceived added level of sophistication that comes with having a dedicated, privately hosted domain.

—Security: Issues can arise with hackers, identity theft and all other areas of security with any type of e-mail system, though the risk of unprovoked attacks and SPAM-borne incidents certainly goes up for those using a free e-mail provider (such as Yahoo or Gmail) or even a generic, ISP-provided e-mail (such as @comcast.net).

Make the Metrics Work for You

Regardless of projections about repossession volume, information about agent performance and preference is becoming more widely available, and the market will continue to become more competitive across the country.

Clients are routinely able to track and evaluate agent performance based on key benchmarking metrics like days to accept an assignment, days from assigned-to-repossessed, cost and more. And they are sharing this information with their peers and your prospective clients.

In response, it's up to the agencies to embrace opportunities to deploy new field technology (license plate recognition, e.g.), and new operational technology (e-mail, social networking, Web presence, repossession management programs, etc.) to win as much business as possible. Any tools that increase the professionalism and zeal of agent-to-client communication will help to set those agents who use them apart from the pack.

Joe Miller is director of customer service for Auto Auction Services Corp.