Amy Radin

In the mid-2000s Amy Radin was working for a major consumer bank around the time the housing bubble burst and a lot of people suddenly had trouble paying their bills. Even in the best of times, the CEO would say “It’s easy to give people your money, it’s another thing to ensure they pay you back.” she says. And around 2008 it was harder than ever to get it back.

Radin was given the unenviable job of increasing the effectiveness of the bank’s collections. “The traditional model for collections on late payments is telephone based. A gents call people, and as you can imagine this is an embarrassing phone call especially if it is coming in, say, while you are with your family over dinner.,” she says. But Radin wanted to use a less intrusive approach, contacting the customers digitally and letting them negotiate and arrange repayment online.

The old model relied on the assumption that people who didn’t repay loans had to be proactively contacted to ensure they would get their payments back on track.

Radin and her team took a different approach to the problem by thinking about what it was like to be in a position of not being able to pay the bills. “It’s very emotional and stressful,” she said. “The reason most people go into default on a loan is because something bad has happened in their life: an unexpected medical expense, a car accident, or a job loss. Forty percent of Americans don’t even have $400 in the bank to cover a car repair.”

Radin believed that most customers weren’t just stubbornly refusing to pay debts. Rather than the “proactive” approach, Radin thought it was better to step back and think about what it was like to be in collections. If they made the experience better, rather than provoking anxiety, the bank might actually have a higher success rate.

It took her two years for her team to persuade their colleagues in collections to let her try an experiment. The collections department grudgingly gave her access to a list of customers for whom they had no working phone numbers, so there was no downside to trying a different approach. As it turned out, offering customers the ability to negotiate repayment in the privacy of a mobile device or laptop greatly increased the amount of money the bank collected. “Every bank now has digital collections infrastructure,” Radin says.

Radin has spent much of her career as a c-suite corporate officer, including as an innovation officer and is now an independent advisor and mentor for early-stage founders. She is also the author of “The Change Maker’s Playbook: How to Seek, Seed and Scale Innovation in Any Company.” She is speaking at an upcoming meeting of the Ellevate networking group on Thursday, November 14, from 6 to 8 p.m. at Tigerlabs on Nassau Street. For more information, visit www.ellevatenetwork.com.

Radin grew up in Brooklyn “before it was cool” when there were still blue-collar businesses located there. She worked weekends and summers at her father’s drug store, where she learned about face-to-face customer service. “It had a very diverse clientele, and it was a real corner merchant that was very service-oriented, so you really learn a lot about taking care of customers and solving problems when it’s your family’s well-being on the line,” she said. “I think I learned a lot from my dad about how to do that.”

She was educated at the experimental John Dewey school, which had open classrooms and emphasized exploration and curiosity. She later attended Wesleyan and then Wharton, where earned an MBA.

Early in her career she worked at American Express, where she was a direct marketing manager at a time when this mostly meant sending marketing materials by mail. When the Internet came along Radin started to get a lot of phone calls from recruiters who wanted her to apply her skills to the digital realm. Much of her work involved targeting customers and creating personalized offers based on data — skills that would prove crucial in the new digital world.

She ended up at Citi, where her boss gave her the tall order of increasing innovation at the company. “I was one of the first corporate chief innovation officers,” she says. Her evolution into an innovation expert was “unplanned and unpredictable” but once she had the job, she set out to turn innovation into a process with discipline and structure.

She refined the process with the benefit of experience over the years, and described it in her 2018 book on the Seek-Seed-Scale process. “It’s a method to the perceived madness,” she says. “It’s not chaotic. If you talk to successful founders, things don’t necessarily happen in that order or with any degree of predictability, but you can structure what you’re doing to increase the odds of success.”

That doesn’t mean “bolt from the blue” ideas don’t happen, but the process is about translating those ideas into viable, scalable businesses. “Ideas are not worth very much. What’s valuable is your ability to execute them into something scalable and viable.”

Small startups and big companies have different challenges when it comes to innovation. The “seek” phase of the model requires researching customers to identify problems they have and ways to solve them. Small companies don’t have the resources to do focus groups and extensive market research, but they do have the ability to talk to customers firsthand, which can be even more valuable.

Radin recalls one incident where she visited a financial advisor’s office and gained an insight that no marketing company could have told her: the man’s office was piled high with financial product brochures that he certainly never had time to read. The advisors were being inundated with information from different financial institutions and could probably use help serving their clients that was not being delivered via yet another glossy brochure.

For their part, big companies could learn a thing or two from startups about changing their approach as needed. Radin has noticed that often, successful corporations can be reluctant to change the ways that have led them to success in the past. They also can be overly reliant on formal research, but Radin believes that they can still benefit from simply talking to customers.

Companies no matter the size innovate more when they display curiosity and empathy, Radin says. It was that mindset that led to the change in bank collections she mentioned, and countless other innovations besides. “Curiosity and empathy are two really important mindset components to people who are successful at innovation,” she says.

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