Have you ever been on a collection call where the consumer shared that they can’t pay the balance because they just lost their job? Or maybe they've shared another personal hardship, like a loss of a loved one?
This has happened to my collectors many times, especially during times of crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic. Before my team used The Communication Code, these situations may have gone one of two ways:
The collector is sympathetic, which makes them passive and scared to find a solution that will work for the consumer, so they end the call without discussing next steps.
The collector reacts in a way that creates conflict because the consumer doesn’t feel heard or understood.
We don’t want either of these outcomes, so what’s the correct way to navigate a situation like this?
The way I see it, we can navigate a consumer’s hardship by using empathy and connection.
I wholeheartedly believe this is the answer to most challenges we face on collection calls. The difference here is that the consumer is in a crisis situation. They’re experiencing financial hardship due to a sudden loss of employment, which means they’re likely feeling anxious and maybe even defensive.
This means that to navigate the call effectively, the collector needs to, first and foremost, address the elephant in the room. Let me explain what I mean.
Have you ever felt tension between you and a friend or colleague, and instead of addressing the tension, you try to move on in the conversation like nothing happened? Instead of the conversation moving forward though, the other person reacts negatively, which lands you in the conflict zone?
The reason this happens is that people typically can’t move forward when there’s tension unless the tension is addressed and they feel heard and understood. So, when a consumer shares that they’re dealing with a hardship like a sudden loss of employment, they’re likely feeling tension since the collector is asking for payment while they’re in a financially vulnerable position.
That’s why we need to address the elephant in the room. In this case, the elephant is that the consumer is having financial and situational hardships.
From my experience, the best way to address the elephant in the room is to ask a feeling question, which is a question that will open up the conversation and give the consumer the space to convey their current emotions and ease the tension. Here are a few examples:
“How are you feeling about your current situation?”
“How are you feeling about your finances?”
When you ask a feeling question, you have the unique opportunity to listen to the consumer’s response and gather information that will inform the solution you eventually suggest. Specifically, you should listen for either an uncertainty response or a certainty response.
Uncertainty: This is when the consumer is unsure of their finances. The consumer might say, “I’m worried about how long it will take for my unemployment to start.”
Certainty: The consumer feels ok about their current situation. The consumer might say, “I’m already receiving unemployment, so I think I’ll be ok.”
Depending on how the consumer responds, you can begin to work on an action plan to help them pay off their account. If they have and certainty response and say their unemployment benefits coming in, you could begin to negotiate a payment arrangement that works for their new budget.
If they answer with an uncertainty response, you can keep asking more questions to gather even more information to make sure you fully understand their situation and can offer a solution that will actually work.
Ultimately, the key to handling a consumer hardship like a loss of employment is to listen and be empathetic. A little bit of compassion on a difficult call goes a long way, and I encourage you to try out these tips the next time you run into this challenge. If you do, make sure to let me know how it goes!