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Digital Acceleration- Illustration by Ryan Krause

Digital Acceleration: The Customer Help Task Force

Last year ushered in a series of significant changes for Ally Auto. On March 20, we launched an all-digital payment deferral program in response to the economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. We started the project from scratch just five days prior, and one month later, nearly 1.1 million customers had put their payment schedule on pause.

With one-fourth of the customer base on a payment deferral, we had to reconfigure the way we viewed and treated the auto customer life cycle.

Rick Draper, senior director of technology, led the tech changes for the auto customer relief program and said this initial deferral population helped shape the strategy for when we’d need to welcome customers back into the regular payment cycle. The vast majority had taken 120 days as an insurance policy to shift financial priorities, and we certainly couldn’t bank on the pandemic’s effects subsiding in four months.

“We had the data: We knew how long our customers had taken deferrals for, and we knew when they were going to return,” Draper said. “So, we asked, ‘How many might need further extensions, and how many might need to do a [contract] rewrite?’”

These were some of the guiding questions leadership used to help drive the birth of the customer help task force (CHTF). In the span of four months (completed in August 2020), the task force created a new sector of the digital experience focused solely on payment relief solutions. The programs include online payment extensions, contract modifications (rewrites), and a customizable promise-to-pay for delinquent customers (known as a “catch-up plan”).

Draper said this is the type of innovation that differentiates Ally as a technology leader in the industry: “Ally was the first to provide customers with a completely digital experience for extensions and rewrites — offerings that far exceed those of our competitors.”

From big ideas to execution in no time

The process for requesting payment assistance had always lived offline, tucked away in the hands of a customer care representative. In the midst of a pandemic, though, we knew our call center agents wouldn’t be able to handle the volume.

Ideas to digitize payment relief programs weren’t new, and some of the critical pieces were already there. We’d begun working on the collections experience earlier in 2019, we had a call center framework for extensions and rewrites, and we’d completed an online extension program in five days.

Naz Saleem, now executive director of strategic planning for customer care, and John Morgan, senior director of digital product solutions, figured out a way to connect the seemingly disparate dots and bring these payment relief experiences together, especially now that the time was right.

“I remember having a conversation with John Morgan and saying, ‘These things all feel related,’” Saleem said. “They all felt like different endpoints when a customer needs help.”

Morgan refers to that conversation as “the catalyst.”

“That initial conversation Naz and I had was about asking why we couldn’t put these things online, and whether there was something prohibiting us from letting our customers self-serve,” he said. “There were already long hold times through the call center, and it was our belief that those were only going to get worse.”

When Saleem approached Mike Goyer, senior vice president of auto consumer asset management, for buy-in to create an all-encompassing digital solution, she said Goyer described the project as his dream.

“And then, I said [to Goyer], ‘With your support, I’m going to get going,’ and he said to run,” Saleem said.

What it takes to deliver a digital-first solution in a time of rapid change

The road to success was paved with grit, teamwork, a sense of urgency to help maintain the safety and financial wellness of our customers and employees, and, of course, new technology.

Ally Auto Advantage

We’d just completed one of Ally Auto’s biggest undertakings in early January 2020: a smooth transition from our legacy core system to a more modern, dynamic platform, known internally as Ally Auto Advantage. Little did we know how Advantage would set the stage for us to so nimbly help our customers through the pandemic and beyond.

After the Advantage launch, the majority of 2020 was slated as a “stabilization” period — with zero new product releases on the docket until well into Q3. But with the goals of the deferrals and task force, we didn’t have the luxury of time. Advantage afforded us enough runway to pivot quickly.

“We couldn’t have done it with our legacy system — not in that timeframe,” Draper said. “Advantage just has the ability to introduce change more quickly.”

In fact, Advantage made the process of building the new payment relief functionality a swift endeavor by cutting development time down by 60% and enabling new product releases every 30 days.

“For the customer experience, AAOS (Ally auto online system) would need to make calls to Advantage to retrieve or submit data,” Draper said. “We had the ability to easily stand up new services or modify existing ones to handle the extensions — many of the basic constructs were there already, and we were very easily able to extend them through the [web] services.”

Rigorous prioritization and strong partnership

With so many objectives and milestones to hit, and so little time, the team needed clear priorities.

Saleem remembered a pivotal moment when Draper forced leadership to pick three things to prioritize, which led to the development of online extensions, modifications, and the collections “catch-up” experience.

“If it didn’t help move those three things forward or jeopardized those three, we couldn’t do it…we had our North Star,” Saleem said.

Draper said agreeing on a mission statement was easy, but that the work boiled down to strong partnership and collaboration between IT and the business.

The business, legal, and compliance partners would lay the groundwork and rules; UX and digital leaders would propose designs and enhancements, and development and quality engineers would weigh in on overall feasibility.

“The business had to get very clear, very quickly on what they wanted,” Draper said. “We had to get into the weeds on what the screens looked like and what features and variants there might be. We would have to say, ‘If we do what you ask for there, it’s going to take three months — but if we do it slightly differently, we can cut it to one month.’”

And we weren’t just making concessions at work to keep things moving.

“We were all dealing with upheavals in our own personal lives — working from home, kids home from school, adjusting to significant changes,” Morgan said. “Everyone stepped up and was willing to make sacrifices and put in the extra effort for the greater good of our customers.”


No role was too small or insignificant. Saleem says one of the most important aspects in fostering motivation within teams while they work on such an immense project is empowerment. Not only does it make everyone feel as though they have the tools to succeed — it also eliminates swirl. Saleem often referred to this overarching theme of empowerment as “picking up the bat phone” or reaching out to senior leaders for help.

“The junior- to the senior-most person should have the ability to pick up the bat phone when they run into a problem. I wanted everyone to know that they could raise issues with senior leaders at any time — sometimes teams accept swirl as the cost of doing business, but it’s not; it’s just waste,” Saleem said.

Customer impact: Convenience and comfort

Now, thousands of customers forgo the phone when they need help, especially when navigating through financial hardship. And instead of waiting weeks for a payment relief request to take effect, most customers can secure approval within minutes or hours after using the online experience.

“Online is a pull. You’re doing your own research; you know you’re behind — you think on it and come back when you’re ready. So, when you sign up to do it, you’re more committed, and you follow through on it,” Draper said, touching on the success of the online catch-up plan and how more people now go online to resolve delinquency.

Through research, we learned customers appreciated the ability to go online to ask for help without having to call and share their financial situation with someone else. But even if they did end up calling, they were more equipped with the right questions to ask due to the greater amount of information online. This helps create a sense of mutual trust between Ally and the customer.

“For customers who are hitting a bump in the road — especially COVID-19 — it’s something they’re hopeful they’ll be able to overcome,” said Caroline Beacham, senior director of usability, regarding some of her team’s findings after interviewing customers who had opted for digital payment assistance. “Having a company that seems to recognize that this is not necessarily a permanent situation that you’re in — just giving some grace and trying to work with them is really, really appreciated.”

Setting the stage for the future

All four CHTF leaders agree the initiative created a solid foundation to continue to achieve the unthinkable.

“I think this does really put a great foundation for us to continue to deliver new features, new functionalities, and new initiatives to serve our customers and our dealer partners — it not only was a great and strong response to what was going on during the pandemic, but it really sets us on the right path to continue to lead, innovate, and deliver for our customers in the space going forward,” Morgan said.

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