Managing Customer Expectations As COVID-19 Impacts the Credit Process

by Keara Piekanski

Keara M. Piekanski is Director of Marketing at Oakmont Capital Services. She is a marketing professional with 16 years’ B2B and B2C experience in both the agency and corporate worlds. Piekanski has developed strategic plans, implemented multi-media tactics, and built marketing teams that have driven business growth. Piekanski serves as Chair of the Certified Lease & Finance Professionals’ Marketing Committee and is a member of the Philadelphia Chapter of the American Marketing Association.

The year 2020 and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have made life for people and industries worldwide feel like one continuous roller coaster. Many businesses, including restaurants, are still experiencing a downward trajectory, with the National Restaurant Association reporting declining, year-over-year profits as recently as July. However, the equipment finance industry is ascending, with cumulative new business volume for the year still up 1.5 percent compared to 2019, according ELFA’s Monthly Leasing and Finance Index. However, it’s still not “business as usual,” regardless of how well an industry is surviving the ride.

Even within the equipment finance industry, we are experiencing changes. Many of us pivoted to working remotely, missed the opportunity to travel to tradeshows and realigned strategies to help customers with no rule book to reference—one significant and unprecedented change brought on by the pandemic related to the credit process.

As a direct lender, Oakmont Capital Services and many finance professionals are now required to ask a few more questions as customers begin the application process. These questions are directly related to doing business during a pandemic. The first thought on everyone’s mind revolved around timing: how will this add to the initial credit process and affect an application’s turnaround?

“Of course, these additional questions slightly prolong the process, with slightly being the operative word,” said Andrew Halladay, CLFP and business development officer with Oakmont Capital Services. “The outcome of asking these questions enables us to understand our customers’ businesses better and ensure that securing a loan is the right financial move. A customer’s answers to the questions give us insight into how risky a loan is for all involved, and the extra time is worth it right now.”

One industry benefit revolves around presenting loans to the syndication market. The new questions help prepare a deal on the frontend for resale on the backend.

According to Oakmont Capital Service’s Vice President of Syndications and CLFP, Kayla Perlinger, these ‘new’ questions offer insight into how COVID-19 has impacted a customer’s business. “The more we can understand the effects, the easier it is to obtain the best financing possible,” said Perlinger. “By attaining greater detail upfront, we can provide customized financing solutions via a more streamlined process.”

Sales 101 tells us that selling the benefits, not the features, butters the bread. We recommend taking a page out of the sales handbook when it comes to the new COVID-19 questions. If these questions are now part of your business process, ensure your staff understands the importance of the benefits from a liability standpoint, e.g., without these questions you could be putting your business at unnecessary risk.

When speaking with customers, make sure they know the benefits as well: these questions can make the difference between a wise investment and a soon-to-be repossession (which no one wants). As finance professionals, it’s our collective responsibility to complete the due diligence of helping customers make a business decision during extraordinary times.

A Glimpse into the “New Normal” Credit Process

With all the changes the pandemic has brought on so far this year, staying flexible has been one constant. The additional questions brought on by COVID-19 have required sales, credit and funding teams to adapt quickly. The term “fluid” has taken a firm hold in our collective vocabulary over the last five months, a touchstone to remind us that change is inevitable, but it’s how we react in times of change that matters most.

“We looked at these questions not as a burden, but as a way to enable our customer-facing finance professionals to discuss current needs regarding equipment within the pandemic environment,” noted Perlinger.

“With the myriad variables and unknowns caused by the coronavirus, these questions help us understand how the shutdown has impacted current operations for a potential customer as well as the plans for the future,” added Perlinger. “In tandem with the customer, we’re able to forecast the volume of business expected over the next few months to ensure the loan is a practical business decision for all parties.”

With the new stipulations in place regarding the COVID-19 questions, some customers consider it a red flag, assuming that it’s automatically harder to get an equipment loan. However, that’s not necessarily the case.

“There is financing available, and we still conduct business daily,” added Perlinger. “We are so proud that we can continue to do work with many partners to support our customers and secure equipment financing. We also want to make sure the timing of the financing is right for our customer’s business while dotting all the ‘i’s’ and crossing all the ‘t’s’ throughout the application process.”

Although money is available, which satisfies the customer’s ultimate need, managing expectations has become more critical since March. According to Forbes, engaging customers in an empathetic way, especially during the pandemic, is necessary for today’s business environment. The key is to take time to understand customers’ mindsets and make recommendations, pro-actively, “before your customers come to you stressed and worried.”

For customer-facing financing professionals, this translates to turning up emotional intelligence and lending an ear during customer conversations. Halladay, who works with many customers in the delivery business, and has functioned as a “part-time” therapist on more than one call in the past few months, emulates this behavior. “Now, more than ever, customers need to know we have their backs. Communication, including high-touch phone calls, emails and text messaging, is not only expected by the customer, but it’s the right thing to do in this environment.”

To work through customers’ emotional states while managing expectations, finance professionals at Oakmont Capital Services are pro-actively communicating that the process is different from six months ago, and things might take slightly longer. To combat any delays, Oakmont Capital Services recommends that customers obtain pre-approvals, especially since they are valid for up to 90 days.

“Many conversations I’ve had over the past few months include customers intending to add step vans to their fleets. As people work from home and shelter-in-place, there has been an uptick in online ordering and package deliveries, and customers want to finance fast to meet the needs of the consumer,” said Halladay. “Without a pre-approval, the turnaround might not be as quick as some customers expect. It’s managing those expectations that’s a big part of the job.”

As the approval process has evolved during the pandemic, some businesses have asked whether they’re exempt from the COVID-19 questions. “I can just skip these questions to make the process move faster,” is a statement Halladay has encountered more than once from customers.

“The COVID-19 questions are asked of every applicant, so circumventing the process is not an option,” said Halladay. “The questions are in place, along with the process, to protect everyone involved.”

Recap: Today’s Financing Process

Change is inevitable in business, especially this year. Staying fluid and adapting to the changing environment, while supporting employees and communicating with customers, is critical to success. Some changes in the credit process brought on by COVID-19 were put in place to protect both lenders and customers. Oakmont Capital Services, along with many other lenders, has integrated the required COVID-19 questions into the financing process, adding an overall step.

Adhering to the required processes while educating the customer is a critical step for customer-facing professionals. Helping customers understand this “new normal” credit process is the responsibility of all equipment finance industry professionals. Being empathetic considering the current environment when speaking with customers and managing expectations is also a crucial part of doing what we do best: enabling customers to secure the financing they need to grow.

Try as they might, our industry professionals can’t slow down the roller coaster that is 2020 or anticipate what’s around the next curve. We can make sure our customers are prepared for a less bumpy experience by invoking due diligence, managing expectations and upholding the standards customers expect from equipment finance industry professionals.

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