No more delinquent debtors, borrowers, defaulters, cardholders, subscribers, or payment excuses starting NOW!

On September 15th, 2022, posted in: Blog by

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A client recently asked me to combine customer service training with my normal debt collections training. The organization was getting too many customer complaints and it didn’t want to lose customers and spread negative word-of-mouth. The big boss said something that hit me hard. She said, “Some of the collectors are too harsh. They make customers feel small.”

When I heard the words “customer service training”, my initial thoughts were, “For debt collectors? You’ve got to be joking.” Collectors tell people to do unpleasant things: pay. Plus, the negative consequences of not doing it. While customer service is about making people feel happy. Will the collectors accept such training? No way. They’ll eat me alive.

Then I started to think.

One of the few good things about Covid is it has given me lots of time to think. For others its given them time to protest. From here in Malaysia, we’ve seen Westerners demonstrate for Black Lives Matter, Me Too Movements, Against Hate Crime, LGBTQ+ rights, and others. They are all noble causes. To me, the essence of all these demonstrations is to ensure that people don’t make other people feel small.

Covid- and George Floyd– has forced us to think about others. So, how can I as a lowly American collection and leadership trainer, in far-away Malaysia, become more open toward others? How can I encourage people in my programs not to make their customers feel small?

One way is by choosing the right language. Until recently I unconsciously – and out of habit– dehumanized overdue customers by labeling them “debtors”, “defaulters”, “borrowers”, or even worse words. It’s common in our industry. And this dehumanizing carries over into our attitudes and the words we choose when interacting with overdue customers. Collectors have a lot of power. We are the only people in our organization who tell customers the nasty actions that will happen if they don’t pay. The words we choose and how we use them are important to maintain our customers’ dignity and our organization’s reputation. And get payment!

Years ago, as a young banker in Alaska, one of my jobs was to handle new loan inquiries. Our bank specialized in lending for ONLY commercial equipment loans for companies with a minimum of three years of existence. And we ONLY financed trucks, ships, barges, and construction equipment. One day, a woman called asking for a small loan to set up a new restaurant. My brain wasn’t functioning well, or perhaps I was busy multi-tasking on more important tasks. I just wanted to get her off the phone as she was wasting my time. After she was done with her pitch about her great new business idea I robotically rejected her, but I forgot two words: “of loan” at the end of this next sentence: “I’m sorry, we don’t lend to your kind.”

She exploded.

She told me she was African American. She thought I was a racist. The call lasted 30 minutes and I countlessly apologized for my poor choice of words or lack of using certain words. I told her that the bank didn’t care about her race as we just wanted to make money, but we didn’t make money financing new restaurants. I referred her to venture capital firms. I will never forget that call or the power of words.

As a collector, changing the words we use to label customers is difficult because we have used them for decades. But starting today, I’m committing to labeling people with overdue bills, loans, or statements with more positive labels like ‘customers’ or ‘people’. I’m going to stop using even neutral terms like ‘debtor’, ‘borrower’, ‘cardholder’, ‘consumer’, or ‘subscriber’.

Another verbal change, I’m no longer using the words “payment excuses” when I train collectors. Sure, some customers lie when they can’t pay, but I’m going to err on the humane side and use words like “reasons” or “issues”. By changing my negative labels, I hope to adopt a more customer-focused vs. money-focused mindset. Of course, I will still penalize customers if they break their payment promises, but if I start my negotiations with a positive mindset, I will have more positive outcomes. And I’ll give less stress and receive less conflict from customers.

To non-collectors, these changes may seem small, but for collections people, they aren’t. We’ve been labeling people ‘delinquent’ and listening to their ‘excuses’ all day long for years. Collectors who can’t change their cop-like mindsets lead jaded lives where everyone is to be distrusted. Such collectors cause lots of supervisor complaints. No wonder the debt collection profession has such a poor reputation. So, I beseech my fellow collection professionals, if you’re truly a professional, you must use professional labels on your customers and their reasons for non-payment. Without both of them, we wouldn’t have a job.

Eliminating long-held prejudices and habits is hard, but we’ve got to start. Using a positive mindset in our daily customer interactions focuses us on helping people get their overdue accounts back to healthy status. We stand to win more.

Collectors can use their power to improve the world, but it’s your choice. So, what negative words will you stop using, and what positive words will you use to replace them to make our customers feel big?

At your service.

Steve Coyle is an American corporate trainer and author based in Malaysia since 1995. He’s the author of the new book Good Boss, Better Boss: Practical Leadership Models for Post-Covid Success. He’s also the author of ‘Debt Collections: Stir-Fried or Deep-Fried?’,


Covered mouth:

Feeling small:

Exploding bomb:

No Excuses:

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