Updated: May 20
Are your collectors stuck in the friend zone with consumers?
In other words, are your collectors sympathetic to consumers to the point where they feel bad asking for payment and don’t collect any money or only a small amount?
Or, maybe it’s the opposite problem.
Are your collectors so aggressive on collection calls that their words and behavior land them and consumers they’re speaking with in the conflict zone?
The other day I was sitting in on a sales meeting with a prospective client, and I asked them if they had any roadblocks or concerns when it came to working with a collection agency. They told me they recently had to fire two collection agencies.
One of the agencies they fired because their recoveries were too low. On a positive note, the organization wasn’t getting any complaints from patients about this agency, but the recoveries were just not there.
With the other agency, it was the opposite challenge. Their recoveries were very high and so were the number of complaints coming in from patients about this agency. The high recoveries but low patient satisfaction wasn’t worth it in the end, the organization felt.
And as seen with the other agency, keeping patients happy and limiting complaints is important, but it can’t be at the cost of recoveries.
There has been a push, particularly since the COVID-19 pandemic, to focus on how collectors interact with consumers and to encourage collectors to demonstrate greater empathy towards consumers.
While it’s positive to see that drive, there is also the challenge of not coming across as “too sympathetic” with consumers and getting stuck in the “friend zone” where you don’t collect any money.
Let’s start with a few reasons why some collectors, I believe, get stuck in the friend zone:
Fear of the freak-out – I discovered years ago that whenever I would train new collectors, I would notice how much fear and anxiety they had over asking people for money. My reps were terrified to ask for money because they were afraid of the emotional outbursts they were going to get from consumers.
Fear of coming across as mean or feeling guilty – The next big fear that always came up was that asking for money felt awful, like you are a bad person. Your collectors may feel sorry for the consumer and feel guilty asking him to pay.
Fear of not knowing what to do or say – As a collector, there is nothing worse than being on a collection call and not knowing what to say, and your voice cracks, or you talk too fast, or you just don’t ask for payment in full at all.
Bottom line, when consumers verbalize their feelings or hardships, it can make it incredibly difficult for collectors to move the call forward toward payment.
Collection managers, one of the tell-tale signs that your collectors are stuck in the friend zone with consumers is that they will be using passive language such as, “Is there any way you can make a payment on your account today?” or “Will you be paying your $500 payment today?”
When asked in this way, most consumers are going to respond “No.”
Another way I see this play out is when collectors talk in circles, subconsciously waiting for the consumer to interrupt them to offer a payment or end the call.
For instance, I once had a collector who would ask consumers “Is there any way you can pay this today orrrrrr” and she would stretch out the “or” until the consumer would interrupt and request a payment arrangement. This would make my collector feel relieved, and she would proceed to set the consumer up on a monthly payment plan.
The fear and anxiety over asking people for money is what causes many collectors to use passive language.
Passive collectors, though, end up in the friend zone which is a problem because it means fewer payments collected by your agency.
On the flip side, collectors who consumers perceive as too aggressive run the risk of moving the call into the conflict zone. As a collector, you know you’re in the conflict zone when tensions are high. Your blood pressure is rising. The consumer is frustrated and angry.
One example of what will push a call into the conflict zone is if the consumer perceives the collector is being demanding or threatening.
Another way I see it play out is when a collector recites policy or uses language like “by law…” which makes the consumer anxious and uneasy and feel the need to defend himself.
This causes the collector and the consumer to get stuck in the negative part of the conversation. Think about it:
How can a consumer defend himself and move forward at the same time?
The conflict zone is a problem because it will result in fewer payments and more complaints.
The question for you and your collectors then becomes, how do you find the middle ground between being too friendly and too aggressive?
I call it the “Goldilocks Zone of Connection.”
The answer lies in these three areas:
1. Demonstrating empathy and emotional intelligence
Empathy is the ability put yourself in a consumer’s shoes; to truly make the consumer feel heard and understood.
There is no doubt that talking about debt is uncomfortable and makes many people feel cornered, angry, defensive, and afraid.
To be successful, collectors need to be able disarm those negative emotions, establish trust, and motivate consumers to pay.
You can create a culture of empathy at your agency and still collect payment.
For instance, having your collectors use validating language like “That sounds really challenging” and “I appreciate you sharing that with me” helps create an instant level of trust with consumers and makes them more likely to engage with your collectors further.
People want to feel heard and understood. If they don’t, they’re going to have a hard time moving on in the conversation or being receptive to a solution from your collectors.
Additionally, using positive language like “The great news is” or “I am happy to…” allows the consumer to relax and builds his confidence in your collector.
Another way your collectors can demonstrate empathy and move calls forward toward payment is by always talking in terms of solutions.
Have your collectors state what they can do and stop focusing on what they can’t do.
By talking in terms of solutions, we make people feel important and valued.
One of the important things for your collectors to be aware of is the feeling their words evoke. That’s because people make decisions based on how they feel.
When we can lift consumers up and motivate them to pay off their debts – rather than tearing them down – we are going to be more successful.
2. Replace passive phrasing with active phrasing
Unlike passive phrasing which makes it sound like you’re asking someone for a favor, active phrasing is direct and to the point.
What that means is, instead of asking consumers “Will you be paying your $500 payment today?” I encourage my collectors to say, “Your payment of $500 is due in full today. How would you like to take care of that? Cash, check, or credit card?”
Can you feel the difference between the two statements? Active phrasing is more persuasive and confident without being overly forceful.
Passive phrasing weakens your message. It minimizes the importance of your request.
Collectors who use active phrasing are going to collect more.
3. Strengthen your payment negotiations
I’ve noticed that many collectors will negotiate from the bottom up, meaning they’ll immediately accept a low payment arrangement offer from a consumer (like $50 per month).
On the other hand, well-trained negotiators start from the top down, which means they start out asking consumers to pay higher amounts each month so the debt is paid off quicker.
Collectors who negotiate from the bottom up instead of the top down are leaving a lot of money on the table.
Empathy has been the buzzword in business lately, and for good reason. A company without compassion won’t last long. An agency that’s overly friendly and passive, though, runs the risk of seeing fewer recoveries.
It is possible to be both compassionate and profitable. It’s all about finding that “Goldilocks Zone of Connection.”
To learn more about creating a team of empathetic and high-converting collectors, book a call with me today.
Additionally, if this content resonates with you, join me on Thursday, October 15th at 1 p.m Eastern for a free webinar exploring how to find the "Goldilocks Zone of Connection." The webinar is hosted by PDCflow, and you can register on PDCflow's website here.
Make sure you stay through the end of the webinar. The last 15 minutes will be a rapid-fire question-and-answer segment where I'll help you implement techniques to solve your biggest communication challenges.
This article originally appeared as a guest blog post for PDCflow by Mary Shores