Be a Friend, Foe, or Partner with your Customers / Debtors?

On March 5th, 2018, posted in: Blog by

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Customer as a Friend

My first job was to be a Customer Service agent at a cellular phone service company. I remember during my induction training, the CS trainer told us how important it was to treat customers friendly, nicely, and delightfully. And I didn’t disagree with all that. The 2-week training ended with a song about how great we treat our customers. I was sold.

Then I was assigned to the Bill Collections department.

I was put in the 90 day+ consumer account team. Customers who haven’t paid for over 90 days. Their cell phone service was either barred (1-way) or suspended (2-ways).

I quickly realized that the styles of friendly, nicely, or delightfully didn’t work with such customers. They simply didn’t care. When I treated them as friends, per my training, they paid me as friends. Have you ever lent money to a friend?  Any success?

Customer as a Foe

So, I angrily threw out the induction training and I started treating customers as foes. I wanted money. Here in Malaysia, they call such people ‘money-faces’. “Mr. / Ms Customer, if you don’t pay $XX by Friday, we will send your account to an external debt collection agency.”

The words “if” and “we” are threatening. Customers would start fights which often led to supervisor complaints. Or, they would simply surrender, disappear, and become ghosts. In collections we call such accounts ‘uncontactables’. The end-result was the same: no payment.

Customer as a Partner

After two months of missing my collection target, my boss told me if I missed another month, I’d be fired. I decided I had time to make one last change. This time I would be neither a friend nor a foe. I would become a partner.

My stats immediately improved.  Supervisor complaints decreased. My stress level decreased. I kept my job. Eventually I was promoted to be a trainer.

To collect as a partner, I used the word ‘help’ a lot. I wanted to work together with customers to solve the non-payment problem.  I would reduce the words ‘if’ and ‘we’ and replace them with ‘help’ and ‘I’. “Mr. / Ms Customer, I recommend you settle the $XX by Friday because I’m trying to help stop the account from going to an external debt collection agency.”

[Note: in negative situations, I usually avoid the words ‘you’ or ‘your’.  E.g. “The overdue account” sounds less toxic than “Your overdue account.”]

Some customers don’t like the truth. They want to not pay and not have the account sent to the collection agency. They say things like, “Are you threatening me?” But since I had earlier used the word ‘help’, I could use it as a shield. My response, “No, Mr. / Ms Customer, I’m just trying to help stop this from happening, but I need your help too.”    

Sometimes I would continue using the ‘help’ shield with the toughest customers. I say, “Usually my other customers like it when I tell them what will happen. I was being transparent with you. I’m just trying to help stop this from happening. I don’t want you to be surprised. I’m sorry if I upset you.”

Such tough customers, usually, apologize. They would either say, “I’m sorry for losing my temper.” Or, “I’m sorry, you’re just doing your job.”  In any event, they are calming down and their brains are moving to a rational, problem-solving mental state. Often, a payment plan came next.

What’s your experience?

Can we sometimes be friendly with 90+ day consumer debtors, or foes, or is it best to remain always in the ‘partner’ mindset?


Author:  Steve is an American collection and customer service trainer based in Malaysia for 20+ years. He’s the author of Debtor Collections: Stir-Fried or Deep-Fried?  available on Amazon. His website:

Artwork:  ®Colin Kinnear,, Alpha Stock Images –

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