‘Collections,’ ‘collectors,’ ‘collection agencies,’ ‘collection attorneys’: words that evoke strong emotions, sometimes even terror, in the hearts of uninformed debtors. Robocalls, automatic dialers, dialing for money, calling centers, SMS, texting, e-mailing, invoicing, phone calls, and personal visits—some of the avenues that companies pursue to collect their precious asset known as accounts receivable. When we look at the landscape of debt collection, we can see three things that beckon our attention: technology, outsourcing, and compliance.
These three areas have a great impact on people on all sides, creditors, intermediaries or third parties, and debtors. Let us look at each of these three areas separately.
Technology: Technology is a blessing, but it has side effects. When technology is employed, people lose their jobs. Technology leads to higher productivity at the beginning of the process, but it has long-term negative consequences. Digital technology, machines and robocalls do not satisfy the desires for human interaction. The fact is that technology should enhance the human factor, not diminish it. Technology should help us humans to produce more so we can have more time to interact and build the goodwill and loyalty. So the short-term need is to curb the negative effects of the technological factor in collection.
Outsourcing: Another factor that complicates collection is the outsourcing of debt collection to companies that do not understand the power of customer service and preserving customer and debtor goodwill. The calling-center mentality in collections is unempowered. It follows a certain script and cannot deviate from it. This railroad track mentality usually leads to derailment. The short-term benefits to the bottom-line will ultimately lead to long-term consequences that both eat the top-line and erode the bottom-line.
Compliance: As highlighted in the recent reports from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), consumers are being hounded by unethical collectors and unscrupulous collection agencies. These dial for money at all cost, intimidating the debtors with lawsuits and other methods that convey the thought of threatening their livelihood and dignity. To them, it is the money that counts, not the individual. To them, the debtor is totally at fault and they approach the debtor in a manner not fit for human dignity. The result is that the reputation of collectors and the agencies they work for are negatively affected. They become something to fear and avoid. The good news is: the collection industry is still filled with good law-abiding collectors. But unfortunately, it’s the bad apple that corrupts the whole bunch; the little poison that makes the refreshing glass of water on a sweltering day undrinkable. With technology the offense could easily be amplified. Bad collectors tend to hide behind their technological gadgets and screens, thinking that they can never be found in cyberspace. This new digital landscape allows bad collectors to abuse debtors, hurling at them every insult, thinking that the path of offense leads to collection success.
All of the above issues highlight the significance of compliance, which is compliance with existing codes and regulations, but above all compliance with the codes of human decency.
So, how can a company thrive in an environment of constant technological change? How can a company outsource its collection function without affecting the long-term profitability? How can a company be compliant?
The answers lie in a simple acronym: COLLECTOR.
The word ‘COLLECTOR’ embodies certain key qualities that need to be present whether a company pursues internal or external collection. If these qualities are pursued, then compliance issues will disappear. And if a company outsources to a third party to pursue its collection function, then the third party should have strong ethical standards that highlight the human factor. Here is the acronym:
C: Compassion, Connection, Communication, Courtesy, Customer-centric, Common sense
O: Options, Overcoming obstacles, Open-minded
L: Listen! Listen! Listen!
L: Learn! Legally-minded
E: Empathy, Education, Experience, Expertise, Excellence
C: Collaboration, Cooperation, Compliance
T: Teamwork, Targets, Timelines
R: Respect, Resolution, Results, Regulation
The above acronym highlights the human dimension of collection, not the technological and digital. It starts with the ‘C’ of compassion. Yes, collectors should show compassion to the debtor, especially in consumer transactions. Collectors need to connect in order to collect. Making that connection by building rapport is vital. Two-way open communication hallmarked by courtesy is paramount. Furthermore, a customer-centric approach is crucial in every collection call. I believe that collectors should always put on the customer service hat when they engage in collecting a debt. Simply put, it is common sense that should rule in collection.
Next, we see the ‘O,’ that opens the doors to options and alternatives. Collection is not a black and white approach. It should not be either / or. Collectors should work with the debtors to find the options and overcome the obstacles. Collectors should be open-minded throughout the collection process.
The first ‘L’ underlines the significance of listening. The key function for a collector should be to listen—listen to the debtor, listen to the debtor, listen to the debtor, listen to common sense. It is through listening that collectors move to the second ‘L.’
The second ‘L’ is a natural by-product of listening. When collectors listen, they learn, they go beneath the surface to see the unseen and the hidden. When they listen, they find the options that are practical and relevant. And yes, collectors should be legally-minded. They need to know the law, abide by the law and respect the law. Listening leads to the next letter ‘E.’
The ‘E’ reminds us of empathy. And empathy will make the collector’s job more exciting. Empathy humanizes the process; it allows the collector to walk in the debtor’s shoes—to feel, see, and experience the world from the debtor’s perspective and through the debtor’s eyes. Empathy leads to education that equips the collector with the experience that builds the expertise needed to show excellence in handling the collection process.
The next letter ‘C’ puts the spotlight on collaboration and cooperation. I read a quote that says: “If you want to be incrementally better: Be competitive. If you want to be exponentially better: Be cooperative.” So, for collectors to be better, to feel better, and for debtors to be better and feel better, they all need to cooperate and collaborate. Collaboration that reflects all of the previous ingredients will lead to compliance. Ethical and moral collectors that embody humanity and exercise their function with integrity and dignity cannot help but be compliant.
Now, the ‘T’ introduces teamwork that adds the flavor of joint effort and togetherness. When teams come together, they have a goal, a target to achieve. And with targets comes timelines. Thus, the collection process has an objective to collect in a timely manner to ensure the timely cashflow of the creditor while helping the debtor to be released on a timely manner from the burden of debt.
For collectors to really be successful they need the ‘O’ of organization. Organization allows the collector to handle the workflow with ease and proficiency. Organization allows the collector to become efficient and effective.
The final letter ‘R’ reiterates the importance of the human factor. Respect is a human need and collectors should show it at every step in the collection process. In addition to respect, collectors should never forget that collection is about resolution, resolving the issues, dissolving impasses and finding the options that lead to results. All should be done with dignity and decency under the vigilant eye of the law and regulations.
Just imagine collectors who exemplify the above! Collections, collectors will become words that elicit admiration and appreciation.
The human approach in collections will yield greater results than the hard-nosed and hardliner approach. Good, ethical, and law-abiding collectors are guides. They guide their debtors through the collection process leading them to win-win solutions. They steer them in the direction of resolution keeping the goals in sight, while showing understanding and empathy, maintaining initiative, and demonstrating high integrity and strong discipline. They allow themselves to be educated by the process and by the debtor in order to reach the destination without victims and injury.
From the above, we can see that collection is a multi-disciplinary process combining among many things a human approach that reflects knowledge of psychology, anthropology, sociology, negotiation, time management, organizational techniques and a host of functional skills needed in the collection field. To collect is not just about the moment, it is about the future. Though the digital age is here collection will always be a human function.
Eddy A. Sumar is the President & Founder of ERS Consulting Services. He is also the director of education and community outreach for CMA, and will be speaking at the upcoming CreditScape Fall Summit. He can be reached at 909-481-9869 or firstname.lastname@example.org.