Falling off the gerbil wheel: Secrets from Collections you can use for better customer service!


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Inside the world no one wants to talk about in public but everyone’s morbidly curious about….Collections.

I worked collections for 6 months, and learned an incredible amount about customer service. I can just hear the groans and see the rolled eyes, but it’s true. I was the only woman in the top five performers every month, and I was so valuable to the company that when I left, my boss asked me if I would consider working from home, making my own hours, part time, anything to keep me in the business. And I did it with customer service– really!

Collections has a bad reputation- most of us have either experienced the horror stories (threats to call the local police or publish newspaper lists of deadbeats) or heard about them through “exposed!” news stories that highlight the worst, most fly -by- night of the shops. But it was in collections that I learned many of the skills that I use today as a customer service expert in call centers.

Number 1: Listen about twice as much as you talk.

Irate customers (and all collections customers– we called them “debtors” or “payers”, for a rather queasy- making window into the super- alpha world of collectors– are irate) have a story they feel has not been heard and acknowledged. Sometimes it’s legit, most of the time it’s misunderstanding layered with personal delusions, but….see Number 2.

Number 2: You live in a place called ‘Customer World’. And it’s kind of scary.

The customers don’t have any idea what happened, how it got this way, what a payment schedule is, what the actual law is, or what penalties can be charged. But by God, they certainly think they do! Generally speaking, the customer is….how to say this nicely…not the best source of information about their own case. Take what they say with a grain of salt. Usually, if they were on top of things, they wouldn’t be getting calls from a collection agency.

Getting the customer to manage their expectations and get on the same page as you, the rep, is about 95% of the battle. “Okay, so you were under the impression that there was no interest on this note. Alright, I can see how that happened. Well, bad news is that actually there was. [Pause to let this sink in]. So given that situation, what can we work out?”

Number 3: Argue by asking questions, like a lawyer.

If you must point things out to the customer, it’s best to come at them sideways, leaning over, like Vincent D’nofrio questioning a “person of interest” in Law & Order Criminal Intent. “So, if your son took out the loan, Mrs. Samuel, how did he get your SSI number again– I just want to make sure I get all the facts here.”

Number 4: It’s ALL about how you say it.

This means the words you choose and your tone, emphasis, enunciation, phrasing, and intonation. The ability to make snap decisions about what tone to use with which customer is a skill that’s built up over time, but one of the most powerful tools in your toolkit is the ability to “play with your voice” as masterfully as a Royal Shakespeare Company actor.

A few key points:

Use collaborative language and qualifiers as much as possible:

“We want to see this get worked out”
“Just a quick call to see if that payment pushed through.”
“Let’s see what we can work out for ya, real quick, okay?”

Gain agreement by asking permission and setting expectations:

“Okay, so I’m going to get you over to verification and they’ll run you through a quick statement about your payments and then you’ll be done, cool?”
“Alright, so what I’m going to do is give you a reminder call a few days before this payment goes through every month so that you have time to go to the bank and put some money on the WalMart card, okay hon?”

Your vocabulary and usage should match or be *below* the level of the person you’re speaking to.

No one, I repeat NO ONE, likes feeling talked down to. You won’t bedazzle them with words. I actually won a few hearts over by explaining jargon and processes in layman’s terms, making the scary world of post dated checks, legal disclaimers, and “pending civil cases” more accessible and less threatening (after I had scared the poo out of them by using carefully selected big words on my initial message. See Number 4 headliner).

Talking to a lawyer? You’re a nanny. Talking to a construction worker? You’re a high school drop out. Talking to a sometimes- employed scatterbrain? You’re a caseworker who cares.

Number 5: Play with your scripts, your tone, everything, until you find things that fit, and then use them until you’re sick to death of them. Rinse and repeat.

Once you reach a certain level of collections performance you’re given better “paper” (i.e. debts) to collect. The most desirable paper is called “bouncers”– people who had been paying up until the most recent payment and then their payment didn’t push through or didn’t come in. These were actually easy to collect on, because they were proven payers. I loved NSF’s.(Insufficient Funds).

In order to get these guys to pay, you had to use a certain tone and certain words, and I found one that worked like magic: “Let’s find out what happened and where the gerbil fell off the wheel here, okay?”

Something about the collaborative, easy going, slightly goofy language made people’s defenses come down and I almost always got paid on NSF’s.

Number 6: Once you get paid, it seems to work like a magnet to attract more payments throughout the day.

You can use this law of inertia with your reps (if you’re a trainer) or with your customers (if you’re a sales person or sales coach). When your rep makes that first sale, jump on it, make a little bit of a fuss, and get that dopamine flowing. The high energy, confidence, and excitement will show on the next few calls and will most likely result in another sale or “maybe”, keeping the energy up and self perpetuating. Soon your reps will be addicted to this feeling (insert evil mustache twirling here) and you’ll have very effective reps.

Number 7: Red money is not green money.

Red money is money that hasn’t cleared yet– payments scheduled but not processed. Green money is money in hand / in the bank. Guess which kind you want?

When dealing with customers in sales, retention, or collections, drill your reps into:

A) Managing their expectations and excitement when it comes to promises, maybes and possibles.

It’s so hard to gently pop the balloon of excitement when your newbie comes rushing up to you with a Promise to Pay, but after you make a fuss, nicely remind them “Let’s save the real celebration for the green money, okay? But great work.”

B) Taking the bird in the hand vs. the two in the bush.

Sure, selling a Mega Blow Out Super Stud package on your first day to a confused Little Old Lady is a ego boost….until her son sees the charges and screams bloody murder and processes a chargeback! Go for the 12$ a month insurance, the 5$ a month extra channel upgrade….until the training wheels are off and you know what big game smells like and acts like.

I was the rare person who liked collections and would happily spend a Saturday night drinking Jack and Coke’s and talking shop with other “collectors” (I lived in an area so heavily dominated by the industry we had our own bank that exclusively served collectors!), but I know it’s not for everyone.

That doesn’t mean you can’t take some lessons from collections back to your own sales, retention, and up selling customer service and tech teams! So do we have a deal?

Naomi Kelsey
Naomi Kelsey has 10+ years of progressive responsibilities in the customer service industry, and 3 in the BPO training field, with an Instructional Design focus. She specializes in creating custom-tailored training programs in Language, Customer Service, and US Culture for both internal and external call center clients. Her vision is to bring "supernaturally human" customer service to all customers through innovative training methods and materials, great coaching tips, and true expert advice.


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