Adjusting to the new normal – [FULL INTERVIEW]

In this full interview with Jason Brunet from Pyxis Solutions, we chat about the changing work environment and debt purchase market process in Canada.

A new area of focus is on customer treatment and vulnerability in the Canadian market. A new customer-centric approach to resolving outstanding debt can result in better outcomes for the customer and the debt buyer/creditor. It is a big change underway.

We also discuss hybrid working, which is resulting in challenges with hiring, attrition and retention of staff. A change the market is now starting to adjust to, settling on new tools for management in this new environment.

Find out more about Pyxis Solutions-> Here.

Interview Transcript

So hi, everyone. I’m here with Jason Brunet, and he’s the chief business and Strategy Officer for Pyxis custom solutions and peak performance solutions, which is a company based in Canada. Jason, we’ve go back quite a long way. But it’s very great to see you. Great to see you again. And welcome.

Oh, thanks, Chris. Yeah, we go back quite some years ago, I guess, back into your AmEx and Bell days in Canada.

So just to start off America, just to sort of catch up a little bit in terms of like, what I mean, what’s been happening over the last sort of like, two or three years, I mean, there’s been massive, massive change that’s going on, I suppose, in in the environment, with the pandemic, and everything that sort of happened. And if you get slight, have you sort of seen that, I suppose, in the Canadian market, in particular, in terms of like, how that sort of flowed through the, I suppose the risk process and the collection cycle?

Yeah, I think, you know, what we’ve seen is really, we had to adapt very quickly, when the pandemic started back in March, and we had to start moving our workforce out, which was certainly a challenge. I think we companies adapted very well. And very quickly, I think regulatory bodies changed with the, the environment as well. So it was really just to get our workforce out being productive in a safe environment, and to continue with our day to day activities, you know, in the collection space and, and doing the BPO call centre, service work. So I think after that period, it was just we saw, you know, a workforce that was very engaged and, and actually doing a good job, and hitting their, their numbers and their targets and all that. So I think the first year with the incentives that were going out, businesses were able to adapt to the environment very quickly. And I think over the course of time now, there’s additional challenges with our workforce, that are not coming back into the office, which is caused some problems, there has been some recruitment challenges as well. So how do we recruit a labour force? How do we retain that labour force after we’ve invested in the recruitment and training process? That’s sort of where the challenges, I think they versus where it was, when the pandemic started in March.

And it had to do people find her? I suppose that into working remotely, I started ticking in the call centre environment, right, which is you have financial information, those kind of things was that was that relatively seamless? Did you see sort of, like productivity kind of get maintained? Or is it a bit of a drop off? But not too much? I mean, is it? How’s that? How’s that sort of transition sort of managed? Yeah, I

think productivity actually increase at the beginning of the pandemic, right. And I think now, it’s, you know, you still have a labour force, and sometimes, you know, if they are working from home, need to be brought back into a safe environment to for up training, you know, how do they get connected back to the core business through their the culture of the business. So there is a still a workforce that has to be brought in from time to time, to be supportive of their training needs, and really to get them connected back to the business. And to the people. I think it’s important as well. But I think, you know, the labour force that have been working from home over a long period of time, and who our top producers are producing at a high level, I think companies have to eventually adapt and say, Well, how do I bring that workforce back in, especially with the new variants that are coming out every couple of months? And then you have to, you know, you’re changing your corporate message have come back in, it’s safe? No, go back out? It’s not. And I think that’s become a little bit of a challenge, where we’ve seen a lot of our workforce, just basically say, No, I’m staying home. And how do companies adapt to that?

I mean, I mean, is that this, in some ways is an opportunity, right? So if you if you have remote, you can because you can pick people up from more remote locations, you know, and that can add flexibility and workforce and those kinds of things, I suppose, versus having people in the office, which has got the benefits of, you know, cultural type type, you sort of imbuing the culture into, like how you do customers, those kind of things. If you’re having people sort of face to face mean, is that kind of a balance that you’ll go through? And what’s the solution going forward? Is it just flexibility? Or do you think we’re gonna land on one or the other?

Well, I think it is flexibility and to your point about getting out or trying to recruit a labour force outside of your circle or your environment. I would say that companies maybe haven’t taken advantage of that as much as they could. Basically, you know, you kind of know the labour market in your area. You may not know, the labour market and other areas, typically, maybe if you’re hiring somebody across the country, it’s because there’s an association somehow. But just to go out and hire a labour force that you don’t know, never met, is, I think challenging at times, and I don’t believe companies have taken advantage of now the labour market is open across the country, versus just within a 50 kilometre radius. So, you know, I think those are some of the things that companies will have to look at eventually and say, How do I recruit? How do I retain that staff? And and where do I start looking for that pool of, of that labour force?

I’m not supposed to and the remote working challenges and the flexibility effects, not just, you know, BPOS, or outsourcers also affects also affects that the clients, the creditors, as an example, or energy companies, etc, then what are the challenges that they’ve gone in, one of the things we’ve seen here have been me got termed the great resignation as being on as a lot of churn that’s going on in the market. It feels like there’s a lot of sort of, like open positions in the market, certainly here. I mean, using something similar? And is that a challenge that creditors are having to?

Yeah, the creditors are experiencing the same thing, as you know, just the debt buyers who, you know, basically send their account maybe out to collection agencies, law firms. I mean, it’s it’s a labour force. You know, they, as you mentioned, that are basically looking for higher salaries, better positions, room, you know, remote working is is a big issue, there’s bonus incentives, you know, that they’re getting to move from one company to the next. So right now, I would say that the labour market has control a bit of sort of their own destiny and where they want to move to, you know, example, my wife has, you know, basically hired a very good analyst, and that analyst manager has been with the company for a year and a half. And now, they got recruited, and they’re working from home, and, but the company has invested a year and a half in that development. And it’s gotten, you know, like this. So, I think that’s sort of the challenges out there.

It’s quite interesting. So why do you think that plays out in terms of Do you think it plays out more to that model of you got to invest yourself in your own development, because companies will pull back from that, because there isn’t the the loyalty or the stickability within a role? So you sort of invest in it, and you’re not going to get the return? Do you think it’s going to sort of further force that kind of agenda on so like, I’m as transportable for my own development? So I need to invest in it? And I’ll make choices I want to rather than companies doing it?

Yeah. I mean, I think what we need to do is really have those open discussions with our labour force and, and see, you know, the environments that we’re creating the culture that we’re creating, in our own companies, how does that translate over to the employee who has to work a certain amount of number or hours per day, and really trying to get them focused on our core values, and sort of where we want to move the company in what direction we’re moving it in? Are they a part of those discussions, I think those are some of the things where, you know, before with, you know, with the market, you were able to go out and hire three or five people very quickly and get them trained. And, you know, you can do a lot of replacement of labour. Now, you have to really invest that time and energy in that labour force, because of productivity gaps, because of labour force. So I think training has to be at the forefront of, of companies now, and really investing in these employees.

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upon them. Also hearing about as much as investing in the training of employees is also about making sure that you’re investing in spending the time and employees are they’re invested back in the company as well. So they stay. So you get a return back from the from the training as well.

And that’s the biggest issue, how do they get connected to a business that they’re working from home? Yeah, you know, and that, that is some of the challenges where, you know, the water cooler, you know, talks between employees, you know, we always looked at that as a productivity gap, but maybe it wasn’t, maybe it was something that was useful that got them connected to the business, got them connected to people. And when you’re in an environment where, you know, you have colleagues that you you like, and you know, you come to work in a social environment, maybe that gets you connected to the business as well. And we’ve kind of lost a little bit of that. So how do you recreate a culture when you’re in the comfort of your home, right?

And how many times you say to company you got, you got a great boss, you’ve got a great Russia colleagues, you’re just having a great time you’re having a laugh, and you’re there. You’re getting your stuff done. But I mean, it really adds to it as much as the actual, you know, the pay itself, right? And it just seems like that that piece is, maybe that piece has been undervalued, do you think and historical 100%.

I mean, we used to go out after work, and socialise, maybe not in my later stages in life, and my career, but the beginning, it was, it was an important part as much as, you know, growth in my career and growth in my salary, you know, creating these friendships that I’ve even today, I still have friendships, when I first got into business, right? So that connectivity has been lost. And unfortunately, we’re gonna have to look at other ways to get people connected to businesses into people as well.

So I’m, what are your thoughts now in terms of like, how to do that? How to get?

Yeah, I mean, I think it’s difficult. I think you have to rotate your, your workforce to come in to be connected to the offices that they work in the businesses, the the people, I think that’s, that’s a big challenge. And how do you do that when a workforce is basically saying no, I’m not going to come in? Yeah. And how do you do it in a safe environment as well?

So I suppose so we talked a bit about suppose employees talked a bit about, you know, what that what that means for them. But then I suppose you also got the customer piece. I mean, you know, the whole change has happened is, you know, you have vulnerability that comes up different types of treatments that that might come up from, from a customer point of view. I mean, what have you seen from that, in terms of impacts that have happened in terms of the customer base, that your clients or your clients clients? I mean, what’s what’s kind of changed?

Well, like I mentioned, we have an internal, we’re a national debt buyer. So we purchase debt, from creditors, and then we assign it to a network of 10 agencies to law firm. And we also have an internal group that work accounts as well in more of a customer centric type environment. And that’s sort of where our company has decided to look at new ways of how do we collect more money? How do we treat our customer? And and what offerings do we provide them. So before it was all about payment in full, offering, maybe settlements, and there was a population of individuals who couldn’t afford making those large payments, to cover the balance. So now we’re looking at prolonged payment plans. And then we are also doing a lot more analytics on the vulnerability sector of these debt pools that we acquire? And how do we treat somebody who has who are in a vulnerable situation? I think the definition of vulnerable also is it could be financially, it could be mentally, it could be social environments that they’re in, you know, so there’s a lot of different factors of what’s considered as vulnerable. But I think what we’ve done is we’ve taken that different approach by segmenting and really isolating a pool or a pocket of inventory that we deem as vulnerable and that we’re taking different steps on trying to maybe do debt reconciliation, looking at interest freeze, looking at maybe prolonged smaller payment plans. And sometimes what happens even in payment plans, is we analyse and we basically talk to the consumer, we get them on a payment plan of $250 per month, and then they default on that payment plan, because the payment was too high for that consumer. So is it better to get $100 payment plan and have that consistent over a long period of time, until situations do change? Or, you know, that they they they can pay off the entire balance through interest relief. Right or through a reconsolidation of debt?

I know that the the Canadian market was was, you know, was was more focused as an example on, you know, you talked a bit about payments or, you know, getting getting accounts up to date, those kind of things. I mean, how’s that approach on vulnerability expanded across the the Canadian market in terms of the approach around collections. Is that is that is that something that you think is developing is that it’s a new area that’s developing or is it is it really rolled out as a result of the pandemic? Do you think more on a more wide basis other than pixel? Yeah,

I mean, I think we’re we’ve always treated a vulnerable population, maybe not to the extent that we are today. I think it’s in Canada, it’s certainly developing a lot slower than UK market. You know, I think a few months ago, there was a conference in the UK, specifically around vulnerability. So it is a new topic in Canada. And I think it’s an important one, especially with the pandemic, you know, and how we treat a pocket of, of consumers maybe that we have to put a more customer centric approach to it, and try to find ways and solutions and get them into the right payment plans, or the right financial situations, so that they can resolve some of their financial debt, because it’s just compounding it’s one debt over next with high interest rates, in some cases. So how do you try to find a financial resolution for that consumer,

one of the things I found quite interesting is actually by by focusing on the on the outcomes and getting good outcomes, you can actually get almost like better stick rates and better payments, you talked about your, you know, $100, I mean that over the longer term, the lifetime that you actually get more payment as a result of that you actually get better outcomes for the customer. And it’s an it’s not, you know, the fear is that you won’t get what you won’t get that but in fact, a lot of the evidences that shows that you do.

Yeah, I think it’s just having a dialogue and with the consumer, and really focusing on where they’re at and knows education is sometimes a big part of that. Informing the consumer walking the consumer, you know, holding their hand through that process, and really building, you know, in any relationship, building that relationship, so that there’s a trust factor there. And, you know, when there are hard times, you know, you can adapt as well and change, because maybe that $100, eventually will have to go down to a lower amount. And, and then it’ll increase back up again, but you have to have those dialogue with your consumers.

And it’s almost like, you know, like, history goes in circles. And it’s almost like we’ve gone back full circle through, you know, from, you know, in the olden days, I suppose you’d have this interpersonal relationship with your bank with the bank manager, and you’d know your situation. We’ve got all this digitalization outsourcing. And now we’re saying, well, actually, it also comes back to having that knowing your customer to certain extent, and working out solutions on almost like an individual basis.

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Exactly. And that’s sort of, you know, to your point, do you really know your banking manager, then the answer is probably not, right? Because we don’t go in to the the bricks and mortar anymore, or very rarely do you? So we’ve been, or we’ve had to adapt to? How do we communicate with these consumers in a customer centric way? And that could be through traditional dialers and making telephone attempts. But you also have a certain population that don’t want to speak to you. So how do you reach out to them? How do you communicate through different Omni channels, and we’ve had to adapt to that environment using email campaigns, text messages, and just other omni channel avenues that are available to us and to the end user, and see how we connect with them as well. So, you know, part of omni channel is also social media. Right? So how do you get connected to a consumer through not only your Omni channel avenues, but also through social media platforms, and education, so that the consumer prior to them actually being in contact with you know a little bit about the company, right, know, sort of what’s available to them. So the education that builds trust, then through the omni channel, or traditional one on one conversations through the phone, have produced some better results as well.

And you’ve seen greater uptake in I suppose, you know, things like messaging. So there’s either, you know, SMS messaging, there can be, you know, mobile messaging, that can be your web messaging that’s using greater take up in those kind of like digital channels, and there was sort of two, three years ago, is that sort of really sort of lifting off?

Yeah, I think it was, are starting to become more relevant. And, you know, even five years ago, I think, obviously, it may have sped up because of sort of the areas that were in, you know, used to have a workforce that you know, basically were there from eight to five and it was really hard to reach them during the day, but at night, you probably could. Now they’re so connected to their personal devices. And so, you know, your contact hours and channels are have changed dramatically as well. So

And then that makes a difference from an operational point of view. And he’s like, spreads out those traditional, like peak contact times of morning and evening and maybe a little bit over lunch too much more sort of, even across the, across the day, does it? So it’s, I mean, that’s easy to staff or I would think as well.

Yeah. And you also have, you know, you have consumers that are connected to their personal devices. 24/7. I mean, yeah, certain age groups, I mean, that thing doesn’t leave their pocket, right. And, you know, they’re not picking up the phone, they don’t make phone calls. You know, it’s the last thing that they want to do is dial a number, they don’t speak to, to their friends, they, you know, over the phone, so they’re doing it through text messages, and, you know, WhatsApp and different other platforms, but they’re not making phone calls. So we’ve had to really change our environment, how we do business and how we try to connect with with with our customers.

And teach, he talked a bit about your that purchaser as well. And we could just explore a little bit about what you thought, what you’ve seen in terms like the the debt purchase market? I mean, I mean, how’s that sort of an impact in certainly what what I sort of seen here or in Europe was, it felt like that sort of like fell off a cliff where I wonder sort of like, just stood back and just waited to see what to do. And there’s been sort of licence, certainly some interest now in terms like, Well, now, what do we do in this sort of built up some inventory in terms of like, potential sales? I mean, what what’s what’s been your experience in North America?

Yeah, I think very similar. I mean, it went through, you know, a period of time where it’s very dormant. And, you know, I think it’s maybe starting to pick back up, you know, creditors are starting to look at, you know, and in Canada, specifically, the debt buying space is, is starting to increase, you have more and more banks and telcos who are selling debt, now were years ago, they they weren’t. And I think, you know, once you have the opportunity to understand the debt purchase space, and how it could be a complement to your bottom line or a year end bottom line, I think more and more businesses are going to look at how do they sell their warehouse debt or how they sell their charge off and Ford float as well. So I think it’s maybe helped us that doormen period, and now companies are starting to look at new ways to maybe pad their bottom lines, right.

And I suppose what’s over what’s happened over the last year or so? I mean, it’s sort of like, often your pricing on debt is really dependent on the performance you might have seen over the last three or four years. I mean, I mean, how much is that sort of obscuring? In terms of like valuations, I mean, how much how much extra pricing is built in or, you know, discount on pricing is built in, because you don’t necessarily know what the performance is over the last few years? Because it’s been obfuscated to certain extent by the pandemic?

Yeah, great, great question. I think, you know, for us, we do a lot of a lot of data mining, right? Stand the debt pools and try to figure out where, you know, in certain pockets of the debt file that maybe you know, is or undervalued, and we have to put a higher price point to that. And then there’s a certain segment of that other debt pool that may be under, you know, maybe we have to really look at pricing a little bit differently. So AI is is a big part of how we data mine. And, you know, when we, when you look at it as a debt purchaser, we’re a data company. So data is so much more important today to be able to do the right price evaluations on those debt pools. Right. So, you know, we’ve had to become a lot better at data mining and using artificial intelligence to give us the you know, the the valuations because maybe before our appetite was at a certain level, and because we didn’t have the, the data mining behind it, our risk for appetite was x, and we would just stay at that price point where now maybe it either protects us or allows us to be a lot more competitive on pricing, because I have a lot of the analytics behind it to be able to go out and be confident that we’ll be able to recover certain liquidation

and the market for data and the amount of data that’s available, it seems to be sort of growing sort of dramatically. I mean, I mean, how much how much, how much more data do you think we can get and how much more value is going to add in terms of like, further fine tuning those those those price points? I mean, it feels like data keeps expanding into the data on the indicative data, at least anyway, as well as the techniques to really understand what the pricing would be?

Yeah, I mean, I think, you know, there could be too much data out there. I mean, you’re gonna talk to a lot of people and say, there’s not enough data out there. But, you know, I think it’s something that as long as you have the systems that are built in, that can get you to, you know, looking at a historical liquidation curve over a 1224 36 month period. I think, you know, as long as you’re focused on the right data fields, then additional information is always obviously better. It’s how you use that data. And, you know, we we see a lot of companies where they don’t use the data properly. And therefore, there’s work gaps, because they’re paying for the data, but they’re not utilising it properly. That’s another big issue.

When I suppose yeah, it has to be, it has to be more data is good, but it has to be the right data. Because if it’s the wrong data, it’s just going to distract you. Right. So sort of like whittling that down. So it’s the right data is actually it’s actually, and I suppose in terms of in terms of arrears and arrears levels, what’s your what’s your view, in terms of that mean, it feels like, that’s been quite, you know, relatively benign, at least, we’ve kind of seen with with with the support that’s happened, but, I mean, certainly, certainly, there’s potential risks on the horizon, things like energy prices as an example. You know, and, you know, there’s obviously a lot of change in the employment market as well. I mean, what do you think think arrears levels are going to change fundamentally, now? Is that going to have an impact on, you know, both the collections and industry market, but also the debt purchase market as well?

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Yeah, specifically, in Canada, we’ve lost sort of that mid market length. Right. So a lot of the lenders have pulled out out of Canada. So there is a gap there. And, you know, obviously, you know, we have to look at, you know, finance companies a little bit differently. debt loads have increased significantly. If you look at the cost of living, you know, I think Canada’s close to 4.5%, inflation, you know, the cost of goods, food, housing, yeah, those are really taking a big toll on people’s, you know, debt load, right. So they’re paying for the basics, you know, and food being probably one of the highest commodities out there. Gas prices have significantly elevated in Canada. So people are paying just for the, you know, the basics of life right now. And so debt loads are increasing housing prices are probably where consumers, at least in you know, certain areas in Canada, Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal, and Calgary, Edmonton, so are those areas where, you know, are people investing in their houses as part of their retirement plan, and I think that’s sort of what we’re seeing right now is, and then you have a new age group that can afford getting into the housing market, because it’s just too expensive to purchase a house. So, you know, they’re living at home a lot longer with their parents. You know, and so those are some of the challenges. And, you know, how we come out of this is going to, you know, even with the government subsidies, you know, I think it was good at the beginning of the pandemic. And now, I think governments have to start opening, you know, the economy up and changing some of that behaviour, which was good at the beginning, and maybe not as good today.

Well, and so the, the debt loads and tickly the housing market, it feels like people could get quite exposed to two interest rate increases as well. I mean, as well as the energy costs as well. I mean, certainly, gas prices, natural gas prices, or, you know, or gas prices, as in petrol. Right.

Yeah. Yeah, that’s, that’s exactly it. And that’s what we’re starting to face. And we’re hearing more and more about, about sort of these areas of concern and how, you know, the economists are coming out saying, you know, the bubble is about to burst. And we’re going to have to really change the way we do things, because it’s not sustainable over a long period of

time. And I know you’ve been in the industry a long time, and you’ve seen a few of these cycles in terms of like, you know, what, the best preparation for that in terms of, you know, being prepared and what the impact is going to be on, you know, arrears processes, collections processes, and then what’s your, your kind of guidance on that?

I think sort of that’s where we we’ve adapted to a different way of collecting right, we’re using more business partners to get us to the end. area that we need to be at from a liquidity standpoint, we have to look at new ways of customer treatment, and how we’re resolving consumer debt loads, right? We have to look at sort of interest relief. How do we offer supplements? How do we offer payment plans? How do we provide a higher elevated service to consumers? So customer centricity, although we’ve been talking about it, for years and years and years, and it’s always been been sort of at the forefront, we still have to be, you know, cognizant that there is, you know, different ways to help these consumers and, and vulnerability is one of the things that we’ve highly focused on this year and going into 22, it’ll be a greater mandate, as we get more educated on how to deal with vulnerability. And I think it’s gonna get even worse, if there’s a labour shortage out there. You know, how do we provide that high level of customer service, when you don’t have a workforce to be able to support that? And I think automation is is is is key right now.

Man, I think it’s fascinating through the this whole thing is, is just the similarities there are between between different markets. And it’s terrible, the pandemics been is one of the things that has done is it, it’s kind of brought a lot of a lot of us together, right in terms of you can start to see some of the similarities, you can have these conversations as well, very easily, which maybe we wouldn’t have done sort of like, you know, five years ago, even. And it’s fascinating, right? So it does feel like we’re moving towards that sort of like, focus around vulnerability and individual sort of customer treatment and make that it’s kind of going full circle to the way I used to be. Yeah, sort of 10 years ago,

you remember you and I were talking always in the AMEX days about globalisation? Yep. Right? And how it was important at that point, and how it’s changed, right? So it’s changed our environment. And maybe this is a new way of dealing with businesses and, and understanding best practices, were now some of the best practices, if Canada’s ahead of the curve or behind the curve, maybe it changes because now we’re communicating better between different countries and so on. So I think a pandemic has allowed us to do that. Yeah. So there’s been some rough times with the pandemic, but I think it’s also given us opportunities to stay connected with people through these types of channels.

One of the things I think is also true is just you mentioned that is, is when we talk about it, there’s a lag between when we talk about something, for example, globalisation, and sharing best practice, and then when it happens, and usually that’s around sort of like, it feels like a decreasing time period. But it’s, you know, they used to be five years ago. So think about Bust. And we’re all talking about it. But the reality is sort of, you know, within the last sort of five years, we’re doing everything now online, you know, and you can sort of draw out these sort of, you know, it’s almost like these, these these timelines, where it’s like that that’s getting shorter and shorter. And some of that may, we’re talking about globalisation five years ago, but now it’s actually happening as a result of the pandemic.

Yeah, I mean, I think there’s that part of it, I think, you know, you look at the United States, you look at, you know, by America first. So, you know, globalisation is certainly important topic and learning about best practices, and, and all that there’s still a regional component to it. Sort of every, you know, not every, especially in Canada, you know, we have different, you know, it’s a fairly large country, space standpoint, and it creates different cultural differences and, and sort of how do you adapt to those, those those pockets of individuals across a widespread country, right. So those are some of the challenges that we’ve had to, to deal with as well, we have, you know, a population that’s, that’s transient, now, that move a lot quicker. So, you know, you have to be able to adapt there a lot faster and try to get connected to those individually.

It’s quite an interesting theme in terms of like localization. So you we do have this sort of, we can share best practice, but it’s almost like even on the individual basis as well, we’re talking about treatment. It’s also around localised treatment as well, which is the same kind of thing. So as we sort of expand and become almost like danger become very homogenised people are almost like desperate to search for that. You know, what does that mean for me? How do I reflect my local community? How do I reflect my local culture, within the treatment as well and businesses have to adapt to that things?

Yeah, absolutely. 100% and we We’ve stayed focused on that as well. So,

yeah, it’s fascinating. And Jason, thanks very much for making the time to chat to me and it’s it’s interesting to see all the different dynamics going on I mean similarities but also different perspectives as well. I think it’s it’s fascinating so I really appreciate you taking the time. Oh, no

worries was nice speaking to you again and seeing you know that you’re doing well

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