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A man wearing a headset appears to be talking with a customer. At left is a quote: “We are focused on understanding and responding to our customers' needs - including those facing financial hardship.” –Michael DeVito, head of Wells Fargo Home Lendin
Housing
March 31, 2020

Steady voices help customers during crisis

Customers are seeking help with many issues, from refinancing to getting mortgage relief during the COVID-19 crisis. Two mortgage consultants talk about being there for customers during tough times.

As the U.S. has mobilized to fight the coronavirus crisis, many homeowners are now feeling a sense of uncertainty amid the economic fallout. Earlier this year, benchmark rate cuts by the Federal Reserve and falling mortgage rates sent homeowners flocking to lenders to take advantage of record low rates. Home sales also soared in February, though not at the same pace as the refinances. Now, mortgage lenders are also getting a high volume of calls for crisis-related mortgage assistance, as many businesses are shuttering, unemployment is rising, and communities are sheltering in place across the country.

Wearing a headset, Home Mortgage Consultant Felicia Scarfone smiles as she takes calls from customers.
Felicia Scarfone
“I’m the kind of person who wants to really explain what is going on and develop a trust with the customer, so they’ll know what program they’re choosing and why it benefits them.” — Felicia Scarfone, Wells Fargo Home Lending

“We are focused on understanding and responding to our customers’ needs — including those facing financial hardship,” said Michael DeVito, head of Wells Fargo Home Lending. “We are seeing rapid growth in customer service call volume in mortgage servicing and are collaborating across the industry to develop solutions that help our customers.”

On March 20, Wells Fargo announced a wide range of aid for people affected by COVID-19, including fee waivers, payment deferrals, and other assistance for customers who contact the company. Customers may continue making their mortgage payments, but the company will grant an immediate 90-day payment suspension for any customer who requests assistance. (Note: Customers can call 1-800-219-9739 with requests for help with their mortgage payment and other accounts.)

For home mortgage consultants Felicia Scarfone and Zach Gobin of Wells Fargo Home Lending, it is like being on the front line of history. As telephone loan officers, they have taken an avalanche of calls from customers, helping them keep a sense of normalcy in their finances, despite the virus’ growing effect on lives, businesses, jobs, and livelihoods.

“I definitely haven’t seen anything like this in my lifetime,” said Gobin, who works at a national customer contact center in Tempe, Arizona. “It’s been a real rollercoaster for us and the customers.”

Amid the economic jitters and volatility in mortgage rates, calls are still coming in at a record pace from customers who want to ask about refinancing and other mortgage issues, said Scarfone, who works at a contact center in Charlotte, North Carolina. For her, the goal is to be a steady voice of reason in the midst of turbulence, she said.

“I’m an educator when it comes to mortgages. That’s my approach,” Scarfone said. “I’m the kind of person who wants to really explain what is going on and develop a trust with the customer, so they’ll know what program they’re choosing and why it benefits them. In this current craze, for example, I try to help people focus on their potential long-term savings, not just how low the rates are from day to day.”

Navigating volatile times

After mortgage rates began to rise in mid-March from their record low, mortgage consultants received many calls from customers who had already started their refinancing transaction, but did not lock in their rate — on the chance that rates would go even lower. In one 48-hour period, however, rates actually increased four times.

“A lot of customers called after that happened,” Scarfone said. “They were kicking themselves that they hadn’t locked in their rate earlier. It seemed customers’ expectations were that rates would hold or drop further because of market instability, but that just wasn’t the case.”

In blue jacket, red tie, Zach Gobin smiles in a portrait photo.
Zach Gobin
“For some customers who are just starting the process, they’re being temporarily laid off or having their hours cut. So we are working with them as they are dealing with all these tough personal situations.”  — Zach Gobin, Wells Fargo Home Lending

When mortgage rates rose, despite the Federal Reserve’s historic benchmark rate cut, it was a cautionary tale for customers in how the mortgage business works, Gobin said. While the Fed controls benchmark lending rates, the marketplace of supply and demand ultimately controls mortgage rates, he said.

“Now, for those customers who didn’t lock in their rates earlier, we’re helping them understand that there could still be benefits to refinancing,” Gobin said. “And for some customers who are just starting the process, they’re being temporarily laid off or having their hours cut. So we are working with them as they are dealing with all these tough personal situations.”

Life turned upside down

Scarfone and Gobin know their biggest challenges are ahead. They’re beginning to hear from a growing number of customers who suddenly find themselves unemployed or otherwise financially distressed because of COVID-19, especially in hard-hit industries like tourism, hospitality, restaurants, and small business.

“I just had a customer email me today for the first time in weeks,” Gobin said. “I’d been waiting to get a couple of the final documents for her refinancing. In the email, she said, ‘I’m so sorry for the delay. This coronavirus has turned my life upside down. Is there a way we can still work together on this and get it done?’”

Scarfone said a number of customers are nervous about what is going to happen to the housing market as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.

“A lot of comparisons are being made to the financial crisis of 2008. But what is happening now is just not the same thing,” she said. “The best thing we can do is to make sure customers are informed about their options. When they are, they can make better decisions for themselves.”

While refinancing still appears to be an option for many homeowners, it is uncertain how long the silver lining will last, given the deteriorating economic conditions, according to Wells Fargo Investment Institute.

“Yes, the probability of a recession has increased,” the group said in a March 16 report. “It is difficult to pinpoint the exact starting date, but we are watching high-frequency data for signs of a broad decline in spending. Some conditions are still solid [for now], such as mortgage refinancing at a 17-year high.”

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