Training & Development

Debt Collection

An effective training program for debt collection agents should focus on building confidence and providing skills for handling sensitive calls.

Some companies view collectors as a necessary evil, like the Hunchback of Notre Dame. “Yes, we have them, but they’re in another building—deep inside the basement where they will do no harm.” Companies that excessively focus on customers often forget that some customers are downright bad. In these organizations, management finds it hard to imagine that their customers could ever default. Debt collection staff typically are looked upon as the “bad guys,” translating into lower wages and limited developmental opportunities. When it comes to allocating training dollars, usually the lowest paid employees suffer the most, especially in recessionary times. Engineers, IT staff and business professionals can take a larger chunk out of the training budget. Yet, collectors touch a company’s two most valuable commodities: customers and revenue. And without proper training, companies could find themselves losing a third valuable commodity: the collectors.

An Accidental Profession
Let’s face it. Most of us fell into the credit/ collections field. When our elementary school teachers asked us what we wanted to be when we grew up, few of us said, “A bill collector, Mrs. Mercer.” For most of us, training has happened haphazardly, as well. On Day 1, we were given a quick tutorial on the collection system, whether that involved collection filing cards, a computer system or Excel. Perhaps we were given a quick rundown on some legal aspects, then we were paired with a “top collector” for a day—two days if we were lucky—o observe the “right” way of collecting money. I observed our department’s top collector who excelled over the phone, but who had problems dealing with debtors face to face. She also didn’t like training new collectors who might steal her “secrets.” Like any good student, I tried hard to quickly pick up her techniques—both the good ones and the bad ones that I couldn’t see at the time. Then I hit the phones. I worked for about six months before I received my first real training program.

Today, I feel sorry for those first few thousand debtors I called. I didn’t know what I was doing. I collected either too hard, which caused some customers to cease doing business with the company, or I was too soft, which turned the debtors into prima donnas who later gave me and my colleagues more stress and problems. Through trial and error and a lot of stress, I taught myself the collection techniques that I use today. I remember being angry at HR for having no development program in place. I always wondered what those guys did.

Build Confidence with Training in Systems, Tools and Procedures

Employers can either put a formal training program in place from the start, or wait for their agents to train themselves after handling a few hundred or thousand customer contacts.

A basic collector training program should include:

  • Overview of the department and its goals
  • Telephone techniques and scripts
  • Steps to follow on a collection call
  • Handling disputes and excuses
  • Handling tough customers
  • System training
  • Legal issues
  • Internal process flows
  • Observation of several top collectors (and possibly some poorly performing ones for comparison )

The goal of your training program should be to give the new collector the basic skills and confidence to try collecting. Collections is a difficult job and it can’t be learned in one to two weeks, but we can give collectors the confidence to start.

I remember taking my first Excel beginner-level course. The course was conducted similar to those connect-the-dot pictures that we drew as kids. I simply followed the instructor. Click here, click there, click some more, then—presto!—a greatlooking spreadsheet was created. “Nice job!” the trainer told us. But we had simply copied his steps. The next day, back at my workstation, I opened Excel and froze. I hadn’t learned much at all, but I did have the confidence to try it. Eventually, I taught myself how to use it, but the time spent was much less than if I had received no training at all.

Training not only builds confidence, it can reduce staff attrition rates. If collectors see a development program in place, they are more likely to stay with your company. Nowadays, with uncertain job stability, employees want to be as valuable as possible. To do this, they need more skills. Providing developmental opportunities encourages people to stay and become more valuable. It’s a win-win deal.

Developing your collectors will also reduce your risk of lawsuits. Collectors use tools like interest penalties, legal actions and service disconnections to get payments. If the tools are wielded unprofessionally, you stand to lose a lot in lost customers and lawsuits. And if your company loses a lawsuit, showing that you provide training will help to mitigate the damages.

Empathy and Rapport Are Critical Skills

Collection calls are likely the most sensitive calls an organization makes with its customers. No one likes to receive them, so it’s critical that the staff making them be properly trained.

Just like the Elton John song, “Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word,” in collections, “sorry” seems to be hardly ever heard. Yet it’s a great word.

Oftentimes, collectors focus on the money and not the debtor. You can hear this when a debtor explains a serious problem and the collector responds with, “So when can you pay?”

As an ex-supervisor who performed call quality assessments on collectors’ calls, I have heard debtors explain that they are hospitalized, and then give a payment arrangement for 30 days later. The collector then responds to this payment offer with, “No, that’s too late.” Wow, not even a simple “sorry.”

When collectors talk like “money faces,” they become unintentional arsonists. They are burning valuable customer relationships. In their pursuit of the money, these collectors slash and burn anything that stands in their way. Instead, collectors need to show a little empathy, even apologize when approprirate, and then go for the money. I promise that they will have a much better chance of collecting the bill.

In collections, my two favorite words to show empathy and build rapport are “sorry” and “understand.” These two “human” words have allowed me to collect more money than just about any other statement. How can debtors be angry when you show empathy?

When training collections agents, I have had collectors get defensive and argue, “Why should I say ‘sorry’? I don’t have anything to apologize for. The customer should apologize!” It’s a point well-taken, but “sorry” isn’t only about apologizing— it can also show empathy. But let’s face it, if a debtor wants me to apologize for something real or imagined before making payment, I will pretty much apologize. Heck, if the debtor wants me to sing a Brittany Spears song before he or she will pay, then I’ll do that, too.

In collections you need to show empathy on every call. If agents feel uncomfortable saying “sorry,” then coach them to say “understand.” If they feel uncomfortable saying “understand,” then try, “I can only imagine how you must feel.” If they feel uncomfortable saying that, then they should get another job!

Debtors typically are dealing with all kinds of financial, personal and professional stressors. They might start the call sounding calm, but if the agent doesn’t use the right word and tone, the customer can quickly lose control. This happens most often with new collectors who either feel uncomfortable showing empathy or are too rushed to say “sorry” because they need to hit their daily targets. Often, the debtor starts the call calmly by explaining their problems and why they can’t pay. The collector interrupts the explanation and goes straight for the money, “So when will you pay?” When collectors are so direct, you can usually hear a little “ssssssss” in the background, followed by a loud BOOM! Now the supervisor needs to get involved.

When I used to take escalated calls, the collector almost always blamed the customer for getting angry. They would say, “I didn’t do anything. The customer just exploded. I was only trying to help.” Never once has a collector told me, “I didn’t show empathy and the customer exploded.” Of course the customer is hot, but once I showed empathy (and confidence to solve their problem) they usually cooled down and paid.

Besides keeping customers calm, empathy builds rapport. Debtors generally pay people they like or respect. Just as we like to buy goods from shopkeepers whom we like, customers will pay you if they like you a little. If debtors view your agents as partners rather than an enemy, your company will have a better chance of getting paid.

Showing empathy is easy. It just takes one or two key words. If the effect calms debtors, reduced supervisor calls, gets people to like your agents, and encourages them to pay, why wouldn’t any of us use these words?

 – Reprinted with permission from Contact Center Pipeline, www.contactcenterpipeline.com


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