No Choice: Debt collectors need to collect creatively, lah

When debt collectors and their customers interact with each other, it reminds me of the old Spy vs. Spy comic in Mad Magazine. Collectors constantly need to update their arsenal of techniques to out-smart consumers on their ever-changing tactics of how not to pay.

Debtors’ brains are running in hyper-space when you ask them to pay. Who likes to pay? Who even likes the word ‘pay’? When I see waiters walking over to a group of people having drinks after work and says, “Who shall I give this bill to?” You can see people’s heads looking everywhere except at the waiter.

People think twice before paying something with their hard-earned money. Collectors’ brains, on the other hand, can run at slower speeds because they aren’t collecting their own money; they’re collecting their employer’s money. The debtor is speaking / thinking / feeling like a human. The collector, like a clumsy robot.

So, you have two people talking, but one person’s brain is moving at warp speed while the other is at walking speed. And, when the call gets tough, guess who loses most of these interactions?

Collectors can’t be robots. To convince consumers to part with their money, collectors need to think like humans. How? By using their creative thinking muscles already deep within their human brains. Humans are naturally creative. How else have we survived so long? Kids are so creative, but as we age something happens to us.

As a trainer based in Asia, I find training creative thinking is one of the most difficult skills to teach. My learning programs are usually 1-3 days, and when learners ask me to “make me more creative”, I shudder. I usually respond with, “Hey, I also want that.”

If you think that you will emerge a creative genius after a few days in a classroom, you’re sadly mistaken. Thinking patterns have been created over years via that person’s own unique life experiences. These experiences include: parents, siblings, schools, friends, home location, economic class, religion, culture, political system, work experiences, etc. How can you change all that in a short training program?

I believe it’s not so important to be creative. But it’s more important to work creatively. If you want to ‘be creative’ that puts a lot of stress on you, but if you want to work more creatively, that’s doable.

In training, I tell collectors that I’m not going to change their whole way of thinking, but I can share some ideas / tips on how to collect more creatively. And hopefully help them collect more money.

Let me share three tough debtor situations, then contrast each situation with a robotic and a creative collector response. Unfortunately, I find the robotic responses too common in Asia..

Tough Situation 1:

You’re calling a customer’s work number. A woman says, “S/He no longer works here.”

Robotic response (low chance of success): “Do you have his new contact number?” (Note: by using the word ‘do’, you have made it easy for the 3rd part to be lazy and say, “No.”)

Creative response (higher chance of success): You: “Oh, what’s your name?” 

(3rd Party): “Ms. Wendy.”

You: “Hi, Ms. Wendy. My name is Steve. I wonder if you could help me?” (Note: 3rd party will either say “OK”, “I’ll try”, or “Maybe”)

You: “What number should I call for (use debtor’s 1st name)?”


Tough Situation 2: 

You’re calling a male customer. You see he hung up on you or another collector the call before. The number is a direct number with a high probability of reaching the actual customer. A male voice picks up and sheepishly says, “Hello.”

Robotic response (low chance of success): “Mr. Abdul, please.” (Note: you then hear a ‘click’).

Creative response: “Thank you for taking my call, Mr. Abdul. It shows me that you care about your account. This is Steve from XYZ….” (Note: It’s more difficult to hang up after receiving a compliment, but it can still happen.)


Tough Situation 3:

You have identified the debtor. You asked for payment, then the debtor suddenly becomes silent. They’re using the ‘silent treatment’ on you.

Robotic response (low chance of success): “Hello, are you there? Hello, hello?” (Note: You can hear the debtor snickering as s/he hangs up. You have lost control. You sound desperate).

Creative response: (silence). (Note: Keep silent for as long as it takes until the customer starts talking again. If you feel uncomfortable, you can make little sounds, sniff, shuffle paper, whatever. But wait until the customer says, “Are you still there?”)


Do these creative responses work 100% of the time? Of course not, but using robotic responses in 100% of your difficult situations is simply not smart. Is collecting creatively difficult? Yes, exercising muscles is never easy, but, I hope, you’ll enjoy the results more. Good luck.

Please share your tips on how you handle the above situations or any other tough situations.


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? His website:


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