Online banking is so easy and convenient that Americans now take it for granted. We pay bills online, transfer funds between accounts and even open brokerage accounts in a matter of minutes.
But when this technology was introduced, many of us were concerned about conducting such important transactions over the Internet.
Today we are facing a similar evolution in the delivery of credit counseling services. The Internet has made it so easy to communicate that many people are willing to exchange their financial information online and then "chat" with a certified counselor to help solve their financial crisis. My agency's Internet counselors now handle hundreds of inquiries each day, and I anticipate this number will continue to grow.
More Americans need financial assistance, and they are reaching out to nonprofit counseling agencies in record numbers. This year I expect Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Greater Atlanta will serve about 700,000 Americans, including more than 100,000 seeking counseling on how to avoid foreclosure.
The counseling industry needs to respond by embracing the Internet and by providing new, innovative ways to provide quality, responsive services where, when and how people want and need them.
The key will be effective quality control, so that people turning to the Internet for help can do so with confidence. We are asking regulators to require all agencies that provide Internet counseling to offer the full use of a certified counselor throughout the entire chat and counseling process, as well as real-time interaction with a counselor that mirrors the processes used for in-person and telephone counseling.
Consumer demand is driving the need for Internet counseling, but reacting to this change quickly will not be easy, simply because providing financial counseling over the Internet is still relatively new.
When Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Greater Atlanta was founded nearly 45 years ago, all counseling was done in person. In the mid-1990s telephone counseling emerged as a convenient and cost-effective alternative to face-to-face counseling, dramatically expanding access to these critically needed services.
We introduced Internet-based counseling a number of years ago. The reasons for its popularity are clear.
Immediacy. By the time most people turn to us for help, their situation is urgent. With Internet counseling, consumers can get answers quickly. Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Greater Atlanta is open 24/7, with both telephone and Internet "chat" counselors available around the clock.
Convenience. One-third of the people who choose Internet counseling do so after 6 p.m. and before 8 a.m. This is not surprising, as many people facing financial distress either can't take time to address their problems during the workday or find it difficult to sleep because of the stress they are experiencing. Internet counseling also provides our clients the opportunity to start and stop their counseling when they need to gather additional information or tend to other demands at work or at home.
Anonymity. Speaking to a credit counselor about financial problems is often a difficult, emotional experience. Many people find the anonymity of the Internet makes discussing financial challenges more comfortable.
Integrity. Our Internet-based services are structured to ensure the same robust content and support as our face-to-face and telephone counseling. Our program, which differs from other Internet counseling offerings, engages clients in a real-time, interactive "chat" throughout the session. This enables our professional counselors to respond to questions, guide clients through sessions and provide comprehensive support across multiple service areas.
This last point — integrity — is critical to ensure that all clients, regardless of service delivery channel, receive the best possible support for their individual needs.
For that reason, we commissioned a proprietary study to examine the effectiveness of our Internet counseling, relative to the other delivery channels. Mike Staten and John Barron, two researchers well known for their work in the credit counseling field, studied the credit scores of over 100,000 of our agency's clients one year after they received counseling. Their findings indicate that Internet counseling (as performed by CCCS of Greater Atlanta) is equally effective as face-to-face and telephone counseling.
I am heartened by the outcome of this research, but I am also cautious in my enthusiasm. As noted, we have defined a very robust offering in our own Internet counseling services, and the research demonstrates that, if done properly, Internet counseling has the potential to save millions of financial lives in the years ahead.
Our goal is simple — to get financially distressed individuals and families on the road to stability. With unprecedented demand for our services, nonprofit credit counseling agencies in America are straining to respond. Innovation is critical to deliver the right resources where, when and how consumers need them, and to do so in more efficient and effective ways than ever before.
We believe the Internet offers significant promise in responding to this challenge.