In the age of collection compliance, the slightest mishap on a phone call can take your career in a new direction, a too often detrimental path.

Violations happen daily but most call center employees understand and embrace professionalism and courtesy on the phone. Unfortunately, the bad apples receive the attention, which means that the rest of us are looped in with them.

The odds are stacked against anyone who uses the telephone to make a living. Before you get a word in, people are quoting bits and pieces of anti-collection propaganda  - and they often are misinformed.

That presents two challenges: 1) Avoid generating a complaint; and 2) Resolving the account. It’s a balancing act that each of us will have to face for the foreseeable future. Some people are not even trying to resolve accounts honorably anymore. Regulators’ offices are overflowing with frivolous complaints.

There's a harsh reality the collection industry must accept: we have never been popular.

Publicans were tax collectors that worked for the Roman Empire, and they were known for their corruption. In colonial times, British tax collectors were literally tarred and feathered. This is our legacy, and we have not done enough good to erase the bad.

The task is to change society’s perception of us. With the rise of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the uphill struggle just got tougher. The battle will be won one phone call at a time - by the collector, the agent and the customer service representative. But how can this be done without falling into familiar traps?

First and foremost, control your voice. Some debates on collection calls occur because the consumer feels they are being yelled at or threatened. Tone is everything. The more facts that you present, the more serene the tone will have to become. It’s the only way the facts will be heard, and the opportunity for the consumer to jump off subject and become offended can be limited, which is what consumers do sometimes when they don’t want to face the responsibility of handling an account.

If the consumer doesn’t catch on, it may have to be spelled out. A statement like “we don’t conduct business like that here, sir/ma’am” goes a long way. In most cases where I have done this, I get a distinctly different consumer from that point to the end of the call.

Collections 101: A prime objective is to keep control of the conversation. How can this be accomplished with preconceived notions on the other end of the line? Along with tone control, hit the consumer with a strong dose of empathy before hitting them with the reality that payment is expected. If they feel that you truly understand their story, they are more likely to trust you and lower their defense shields. Here’s the chance to win them over. Yes, I’m saying it: It’s not required that you personally care about anyone you talk to, but you better sound like it.

Second, stay away from the “snappy comeback.” You might score imaginary points for creativity, but you lose the money. You must stay on task during phone negotiations. Both sides are looking for ammunition to validate their case. These statements usually occur in volleys, and as exasperation builds on each side, tones start to change and the call is basically over.  

Dialogue must be focused on directly addressing a consumer’s concerns. When they complain about being called too much, this is not your opportunity to remind them of their payment history. Everyone knows why we are on the phone. This is an opportunity to drive home your intentions.

“Mr. /Mrs. Consumer, I assure you that my client would not purposely make you uncomfortable. Have we given you the chance to make arrangements that will work for you?”

This is a good statement when used on a consumer who has not paid at all since placement. It forces the next statement from the consumer to contain an admission of wrongdoing, which keeps momentum on your side. You didn’t throw their payment history out as an offending blemish. You got them to do it for you, and how could you possibly be blamed for that?

Third, let’s talk about demographics. This can be the hardest part of a collection call because you have two forces at work.

Consumers want to protect their identity but agents are trying to get the demographics verified at all costs. Agents never seem to remember why updated demographics are so important. It’s easy to make the consumer feel as if they are being interrogated, which will lead to a communications shutdown. Advise the consumer to review their original contract.

In most creditor contracts, there is an area that speaks about providing a creditor with updated demographics. The consumer is obligated to keep their contact information updated, no matter the status of the account. This obligation extends to anyone that works the account on behalf of the creditor, including contracted collection agencies. Be sure to take an indirect approach to pointing this out, or you will lose them.

Try something like this: “We are updating this information in conjunction with your original agreement. It ensures a continued line of communication for both parties, just as it did when you first contacted my client and opened the account.”

This is a nice way of reminding them of how we all got here. Once again, you have gotten the consumer to take a look at their actions, or lack thereof. Without the luxury of being able to blame you for their actions, it’s more than likely that you will get through to them.  

None of these suggestions are fool proof, and they won’t get you out of every awkward jam. But they will help show the consumer that they are wrong about you.

The ultimate goal, of course, is to resolve the account for the creditor by finding a path not littered with misquoted collection laws and frivolous threats of retaliation. With one call, maybe you have helped remove the stereotype and shed a little positive light on the industry.

Daron Ratcliff is director of Operations at Hospital Receivables Service Inc. in Carrollton, Texas. He is a member of the board of directors for ACA of Texas. He can be reached at: dratcliff@hosrec.org.

 

 

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