According to the annual CFPB 2017 report, there were 130,000 people employed by 6,000 collection agencies in the “$13.7 billion dollar industry”. Although the base salary of a debt collector is low, he (or she) can earn a lot in commissions, which are based on the amount of debt he collects. In this article we are assuming that the reader of this article (you) is a debt collector.
This is a fairly long and comprehensive article, we have attempted to make it as informative as possible.
Best case scenario:
Some individuals did not pay because they simply did not realize the seriousness of not paying the bill till they hear from a debt collector or they had simply forgotten to clear the dues. This happens more often than you would think. Lucky for you, such cases can be often cleared amicably in a single call.
a) Prepare your mind:
Before making a collections call, make sure you are fully relaxed, and regardless of how bad your last collections call was. Tell yourself “I will remain calm during this call, no matter what“. Let’s agree, a collections call from a debt collector is really that last thing any person wants to receive on given day. About half of the debtors (or less) will talk to you properly, others will give you all sort of excuses, some may even be nasty or abusive. Do not let any of this impact you, it’s a part of your job, laugh it off after the call is over. It is important for the debtors to understand that you are calling to work with them, not against them.
b) Yes, some debtors owe nothing, your data could be outdated:
Accept it, there is a possibility that the debtor might have already paid the debt, just that you are not aware of it or your corporate system is not up to date. In such cases, take whatever payment information the debtor can provide and end the call nicely. Get the payment information checked.
Collection calls are commission based, collection agency gets paid only when the debtor makes a payment. The debtors are ideally required to pay the collection agency directly and then the agency remits the amount back to their clients after deducting their collection fees. Occasionally, debtors pay directly to the clients, in this case the clients are required to pay the collection fees back to the collection agency. Your client could have just forgotten to inform you guys about this payment. Rarely, but you may come across some sneaky clients who intentionally do not inform you about the payment they received, hoping to avoid paying your collections fees.
And lastly, it is possible that the person really does not owe the debt or is protected since he is legally bankrupt. The debt could also be past the Statute of Limitations (SOL). Clarify your company’s policy when handling such past SOL accounts.
c) Inaccurate billing by clients:
Inaccurate billing and overcharging is another big complaint from debtors. This is particularly common in the insurance industry, phone and cable companies. These clients generally have no problem in paying off the debt, provided the bill is fixed per their understanding. Listen to the debtor, if he sounds genuine and the difference is large then discuss the matter with your supervisor after the call for the further course of action. At times, the debtor really owes nothing.
d) Be Professional, Confident and Somewhat Authoritative:
Imagine the debtor is sitting in front of you. Your attitude should be somewhat similar to a recruiter. Personally whenever I have taken a job interview, I tend to be in my best behavior, act professionally yet authoritatively.
A debt collector does not have the option to get angry. He should also avoid using any “Sense of humor” during the call. Something may be funny for you but may be offensive to the debtor. It’s a good practice to keep a smile on your face while making these collection calls, it helps to maintain a positive attitude. Never eat or drink during the call.
Be aware of the FDCPA laws (Fair Debt Collection Practices Act) and other state laws that may apply. Never cross those limits. Other laws like HIPAA or TPCA may also apply.
f) Review all the documents that you have before the call:
Scanning through the related documents once you are on the phone with debtor will look so unprofessional and unprepared. Here is some of the minimum information you should have in hand before making the call.
* Exact amount owed
* What services and products were sold and on what date.
* Date when the payment was due.
* Payment terms and any other supporting documents.
* A summary of previous communication between your client and your collection agency.
* If any payment has been made so far.
* Are you permitted to settle the debt for a lower amount?
Many debtors crosscheck the information a debt collector has about the debt in order to fend off the collector. But if within the first 30 seconds the debtor strongly feels that the collector must be having sufficient information about the debt, he will likely not go into further details, the tide will quickly turn from interrogation to how the debtor is going to pay.
g) Maximum time for the call:
Do you want to spend the same time in collecting on a debt which is $100 vs which is $1000, probably no. Obviously, you do not want to spend too much of yours and company’s time on a small debt. If the collection call on a lower outstanding debt happens to go for a longer time than anticipated, and its still unclear whether the call is going productive or not, try to get the debtor back from auxiliary discussions or end the call nicely, and possibly call the client at a later time. Try to keep your call short but effective.
2. Starting the call – First thing first:
a) Are you talking to the right person:
By law, you are not allowed to discuss collection matters to anyone other than the debtor himself (or the co-signer of the debt if debtor is unreachable/unable to pay). This is also called the No-Third party disclosure law. Ensure that its the right person on the other side. Some debt collectors additionally verify customers by checking their last four digits of SSN or address. Start your call by speaking clearly and with confidence, neither too loud or too soft.
b) If someone else picks the call:
If person on the phone does not know the debtor at all, then its possible that the debtors contact information has changed. You may need a Skip Tracing service to locate the debtor.
If this other person asks what you are calling about, you can simply say its regarding some business matter. In case its the debtor’s correct number, just that he is not available at the moment, you can either decide to call at a later time or politely leave a message with your name and number and request them to pass it to the right person.
c) Landline or Cell Phone
It is a always beneficial to be aware if you are calling on debtor’s personal landline, cell phone or work phone. FDCPA Collection laws are more strict when calling on the cell phone.
You can leave a voicemail but do not mention that the call is regarding a past due bill. Leave your name and number and request the debtor to call you back.
3. Your collection call starts now:
a) Address the debtor by his First Name, avoid using words like “Sir / Mam / Bro/ Buddy / Sis”.
b) Tell the debtor that this is an attempt to collect a debt, any information obtained will be used for collections purpose only. Some debt collectors record collection calls.
A little off the topic – These states require All Party Consent if the call is being recorded. (Washington, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Nevada, Montana, Michigan, Massachusetts, Maryland, Illinois, Florida and California.) This list could have changed by now, but overall your agency will make you aware of their call recording procedures and/or if you need to ask the debtor’s permission before recording the call.
c) Then you let them know who your client is, which would be whom ever you got the actual debt from.
d) Make them aware that the client has legally authorized your collection agency to collect the debt on their behalf.
e) Then right away ask the debtor how they would like to pay. Most collection agencies will accept payment over the phone. Get ready for all kind of excuses, we have an article on excuses here. Most likely the debtor himself will tell you the reason for non-payment, but if they do not then ask them.
f) If you end the call without getting a payment or without a commitment of payment date/amount then that call has been wasted.
g) Sound serious about getting the payment, if you do not show seriousness and haste, then the debtor won’t get serious either.
h) You can indirectly have the debtor to accept the debt by simply asking “Do you have any more questions regarding this debt?”
i) If the debtor tells that he will make payment at a later date, then right away ask him will it be by Check, Credit Card over the phone, Money order, (or other options like Western Union). Most debtors reply that they will mail a check, ask them which Bank/Credit Union will they use. All this will reflect how serious you are to get the bill paid off. If the debtor demands a return envelope for making the payment, then confirm their latest mailing address. In fact sending a payment envelope is encouraged, as serves an additional payment reminder.
j) If the debtors tells that they do not have money now, ask them when will they get their salary. Tell them to remit the following day and if they can call you to confirm when the payment has been sent.
k) Many debtors will start explaining you their personal financial hardships, although they may be correct but do not fall for those and yet do not appear indifferent. Take a middle route – “I understand why you are feeling this way”.
l) Try to finalize the payment arrangements, if the debtor cannot pay lump-sum then offer them to pay in installments. “To prevent you going further into the debt, I can offer you to make payment in installments“.
m) If the debtor is being unreasonably aggressive or angry, ask them “I have clearly called you at a bad time, when will be a good time to call you again.”
n) Take short notes, so you can recall what happened during the call. It will also help you to pin-point if debtor changes his story in the next call. Before the call ends, do let the debtor know that you have taken notes from this call. All this conveys your seriousness to collect the debt.
o) Give few seconds pause after your questions especially when you ask for the payment arrangements, allow the debtor to speak. Short silences are a powerful tool in debt collections, they will likely spill vital information.
p) Debtors may get angry, emotional, embarrassed and may even yell at you. Remember to stay calm and focused. Over time you will get immune to all these things. But, you can never threaten a customer. Making false statements like “You can go to jail” or “We know how to get money out of people like you” is a complete No-No.
q) If the debtor is not willing to pay at all, politely let him know the consequences of not paying the debt, which includes entry of this unpaid bill on his credit history.
Read your company’s policy before telling the debtor that “this account may be transferred to the legal team” is acceptable or not. If debtors feels that they are about to get sued, they will also contact a lawyer making your collection efforts even harder.
r) Lastly, if the collection call is going unfavorable, try to intelligently end the call rather than hanging up. This will help avoid making matters worse.
4. After the call ends:
a) Finalize/formalize your notes from the call, including dates on which the debtor has agreed to send money.
b) Most debt collectors become better over time. Do not hesitate to ask your co-workers (collectors) how they would have tackled a situation which you were not able to handle too well during the call.
c) If you unfortunately/mistakenly violated any collection laws or yelled back on the debtor, do make your supervisor aware of that right away before the situation gets worse. Any unfortunate/critical situation should be documented and communicated to your supervisor immediately.
d) Put a reminder for yourself to contact the debtor on the date on which you had agreed to talk again or when the payment is supposed to be made. Regular follow ups will maintain the pressure on him.
5. Debtor’s Legal rights:
a) Be aware, debtors are aware of their legal rights more than ever. There is an unlimited supply of articles and videos telling the debtor how to escape from making payments. Many of these videos do provide valid information but more often than you think these videos go over board and land up providing misinformation as well. People posting these video’s are often not even associated with the collections industry or lawyers. Their experience and suggestions may not even fully fit with the debtors own situation. They often arm themself with this misinformation and argue with you unnecessarily.
Even the state collection laws vary largely by state, which these videos generally do not talk about. Many people post these misguided video’s just to make money out of advertisements, nothing else. So, yes there is pretty good information online regarding the debtor’s rights, but there is an equal amount of incomplete/misinformation out there which a debtor may not realize.
Then there are lawyers who make a living out of filing a lawsuits against the collection agencies. Many debtors are so much loaded up with information (and misinformation), that they may start sounding attorneys themselves.
b) According to consumerfinance.gov, the debtor has the legal right to ask you these things:
* Identity of the debt collector, including name, address, and phone number
* The amount of the debt, including any fees such as interest or collection costs
* What the debt is for and when the debt was incurred
* The name of the original creditor
* Information about whether you or someone else may owe the debt
Debtor can also tell over the phone or send the collection agency in writing:
* I do not owe this debt.
* I need more information about this debt.
* I want the debt collector to stop contacting me.
* I want the debt collector to only contact me through my lawyer.
* I want to specify how the debt collector can contact me.
* Dispute the debt itself, likely within 30 days of the first contact.
A debt collector needs to be flexible and handle situations smartly and diplomatically. A collections call is never easy. There is no magic-wand to collect debt.
Information presented here is not a legal advice or something which fits in all situations. There are way too many situations and laws beyond what have been covered above. A large portion of this article is based on the feedback I got from fellow co-workers during my last 15 years in the collections industry.
We would really appreciate your feedback on this article, and how to enhance it further.