Presents: Rola Pyper's 10 Commandments for successful collection conversations.
These collection tips will help create positive conversations to get people to do what you want.
By “positive conversations,” I mean conversations that help you get the best out of people. This only happens when you get them talking. I mean really talking. Not the pulling-teeth type of talking we all dread, but a real conversation. To have a real conversation, we must be on the same page. It’s not just about being on the same call. It is about agreeing on common goals.
If you keep saying:
“Yeah, well, you still gotta pay,” and the account holder (the debtor) keeps saying:
“Yeah, well, I am just not gonna do that.”, you are not on the same page.
You can keep calling and emailing all you like, but you will likely never get a different response. So, as a receivables/credit/recovery professional, the page we want to be on is the one where you and your debtor (from now on referred to as ‘account holder’) both agree that they should pay.
“Getting people to do what you want” might sound like manipulation, deception, etc. But that’s not who I am or who you are. Who I am is someone who is focused on the mission—the common goal of getting to a resolution and winning together.
These vest-pocket collection tips apply no matter what you do- collections, sales, working with team members. If you work with humans, you need the same skills. So here they are- my top 10 collection "commandments."
1. Assume positive intent
I have been doing this for a long time, and I still believe most people do not set out to default on their financial obligations. I do not consider myself to be naïve. I have found in most cases, the reason there is a delinquent balance is a result of bad decisions or dire circumstances.
One of the biggest collection tips I’ve learned is to assume positive intent. Positive intent must come through in your communication. I’ve started many conversations by saying something like:
“I know it was never your intention to put our client in this position. As a successful business owner yourself, I know you already understand what the potential business and credit impact of continued non-payment can be” or
“I know there must be something going on because I can see that you are a financially responsible person who addresses their obligations.”
“There’s NO WAY something like this could have happened! Why don't you tell me what really happened?”
Nobody is going to disagree with those statements. Nobody is going to say: “hmmm, actually, no, I am not a successful business owner I don’t understand how anything works - I just kinda bumble along.” Just like no one will ever say: “No, I am not a financially responsible person. It just looks that way.”
Sometimes saying something like this is the first step towards breaking the ice and making that “initial connection”.
2. Tact, Tone, Timing
I am referring to the choice of words, the underlying emotion, and when you choose to say them.
Tone: We cannot project the idea of “assume positive intent” if we do not sound positive. Check your tone. Do you sound annoyed? Stressed? Already irritated with your account holder, and you haven’t even spoken to them yet? Think they are untruthful? Trust me. All these things will likely come across in both your written and verbal communication, whether you realize it or not.
Also, never, ever send an email when you are angry. Go ahead and type it up. Save it in your drafts. Go away for a while. Come back and re-read it. Even better, have your coworker or mentor read it. You might surprise yourself.
Pro Tip: You may want to save the draft without the recipient's email address. Nothing quite like accidentally sending the draft before you were ready. That’s a bitter lesson I learned just once.
Timing: is everything. Don’t call a restaurant during the lunch hour rush. Don’t call an auto-body shop right at 5:00 pm. Don’t call a daycare first thing in the morning. Think about giving your spouse that piece of feedback when they aren’t fuming. Think about your account holder and the best time to have that conversation for them.
Tact: Choose your words wisely.
Something as simple as adding “If I may ask” or “Forgive me for asking” goes a long way towards letting the other person know that you understand it’s uncomfortable, but you have to ask the question nonetheless. Often, I say, “Sorry, I just gotta ask this. I know you understand...”.
This collection tip takes practice and self-awareness. Be patient with yourself in finding the right balance for you.
Soften your approach when seeking information. I am not saying don’t be assertive. But sometimes subtle woks. We all know what it’s like when someone asks us a question we would prefer not to answer.
3. Telling People What to Do
Have you ever opened a letter and after the first sentence, wanted to roll your eyes and throw it in the garbage? (Or say some other colourful language)?
I always stay away from using the phrase “you need to XXXX.” No one likes to be told what they need to do. It makes us wrinkle our noses. The hairs on the back of our necks stand up. In fact, you may have felt something like this as you read this.
As soon as someone tells me ‘what I need to do,’ I suddenly need to not do what they said, even if it is the right thing! It reminds me of being a kid and feeling bossed around by my mom. So, I’ll say something like:
“Ok, I am going to be honest with you because you are honest with me. This situation is not going away. If it were me, knowing what I know about business and credit, I would...”
Sidenote: When you use ‘I’ statements, you take ownership of your feelings instead of blaming them.
I also try to avoid too many “you” statements. This is not just a collection tip, but applies to many crucial conversations. It can make people feel overwhelmed. Often the word “we” can be inserted instead without losing context. You want to make sure that the account holder recognizes their responsibilities, but a subtle word change can create a less accusatory tone. “We” statements have a subtle partnering” effect.
Examples of “we” statements:
Could we discuss solutions together?
We have a situation that I think we need to look at...
We have a problem I would like to talk to you about…
4. Acknowledge, and then ask questions:
If you want to get past the excuse and understand the real reason for non-payment, develop a sense of curiosity and a safe space for them to share.
People are more likely to do what you want when they feel they have ownership over it. Like it was their idea. By asking the right questions, we can extract what they already know, like a magnet, rather than trying to put our ideologies into them. These types of questions often re-frame the issue in the account holder’s mind.
Before I ask a question, I’ll always acknowledge their pain. You can do this in a few words, with a genuine and calm tone:
“That does sound awful.”
“It sounds like a frustrating experience.”
“I’m sorry that happened to you.”
Then, and only then, can you ask your question. Some examples of questions I ask:
Instead of “You need to pay this, and if you don’t, there are credit and possible legal consequences.” Try
“Are you open to some advice?”
I’ve also learned to ask: “Let me ask you, did you intend to pay for XXXX at the time of your purchase?”.
Whatever the service or product, the answer is pretty much always “Yes.”
Once they’ve acknowledged their responsibility, the opportunity to ask, “What’s changed since ?” has now been created.
This is where I often find I can identify the actual cause of non-payment. No one has ever said “no, I was never going to pay. I planned to rip them off because I am a bad person”. Getting the debtor/account holder back to that moment when they intended to pay can help get their commitment to pay now. We now have to re-create that intent and get a commitment.
Some of my other favourite questions:
“Do you agree that it makes sense to pay this off more quickly to avoid more interest accumulating?”
“Am I right in assuming that credit is important to you?”
“Would you agree my client provided the XXXX as promised?”
“What would you do if the roles were reversed, and you were owed this money?” I have never had anyone say, “Well, I am a super-nice person, and I would just understand and walk away. After all, it’s only money.”
Similarly, I have asked, “So, if I could ask you to put yourself in my place for a moment, can you see how going back to my client with this feedback would be extremely difficult and awkward for me to explain?”
5. Seek to Understand Before Being Understood
People really don’t listen.
In "The Significance Principle," authors Les Carter and Jim Underwood teach that we should listen past where the other person has finished. We should even pause before answering. Let them get their point, their story, and even their criticism out. Completely.
While they are talking, don’t interrupt. You will not get answers if you are doing all the talking. You will only alienate the party you are calling by making them feel unheard.
If you’re genuinely listening, you’re also not trying to think of a clever response while they are speaking.
"Tell me more about that” or
"Help me understand a little better."
These questions can be non-threatening conversation starters. Also, I find that question is helpful when you think the person you are speaking with is not truthful. Say you know someone is untruthful. How do you get past the lie? I find if I say something like:
“I was hoping you could help me understand something. You mentioned XXXX, but when I review the documentation from my client, I don’t see the same thing. This is what I am seeing, and I am a bit confused?”
Let's break that down a bit.
The account holder knows I am calling them out. By giving them space to speak, they now have a chance to save face but, they know I am on to them. Often it is the dialogue when the truth comes out.
Stephen Covey defines this as the fifth habit in his bestselling book, “7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” It's critical: Seek first to understand, then, and ONLY then, to be understood.
Seeking understanding affirms and acknowledges the other person. That's what they want. That's what we all want — to be understood, valued and affirmed.
While Listening- Silence is Golden
Another reason to talk less/listen more (Silence is Golden) is the fact that silence usually comes when a question is creating some sort of discomfort. There are lots of reasons for this discomfort, and they are not all negative – people may have something to hide, they are embarrassed to state the truth, the truth does not work for them, they are surprised by your question, it’s possible they simply don’t know the answer, or they are panicking because they have been caught off guard.
It is human nature to consider silence to be awkward. It took me a while to get over my instinct to fix the awkwardness by talking first. This did not work out well for me because I would end up answering the account holder’s question for them and I was not really getting much out of the conversation.
"We would like to see at least $500 paid on this account by the 15th. Is this something you can commit to?"
"Do need more time to see what you can do?"
You have now let them off the hook. They're thinking:
Whew! dodged that bullet. I will have to remember that phone number.
“Let’s get set you up on a payment plan. Can you do $500 a month?”
“Is that too much? Can you do $400?”
Remember, sometimes people are silent because they are simply processing. Maybe they were thinking “ouch” or “how can I make this happen?" or “hmmm, what can I juggle around?” The problem here is that they never actually got to the part where they said $500 was too much.
If you are having an impactful conversation, you will have given them something to think about, and sometimes that means silence. It’s a good idea to give them a minute to digest, think about options, etc.
6. Lead with Empathy
Chris Voss defines tactical empathy as the deliberate influencing of your negotiating counterpart's emotions for the ultimate purpose of building trust-based influence. Trust-based influence leads to securing payment. The ways you employ your voice, labels, mirrors, and dynamic silence contribute to tactical empathy.
Understand that often when an account holder is hostile or acting irritated, the underlying emotion is embarrassment. Be respectful. Being contacted for defaulting on your financial obligations is awkward, especially in the corporate world. Most business owners and managers pride themselves on their business savvy. A collections conversation is awkward at best.
This is Kindergarten 101. Before I send anything in writing or leave a voicemail, I always ask myself what my initial response would be if I got this email? Does the tone sound impatient? Indifferent? Scripted? Generic?
And make sure it is clear- don’t make folks re-read or interpret your sentences. Nothing quite beats the feeling you get when you read a colleague’s email and think, “Hmmm, I work here, and I don’t even understand what they said.”
Empathy saves time
By employing empathy, you are not soft or vague. We are not hugging and commiserating together. It is not sympathy. By employing empathy, you are saving time by getting to the heart of the issue faster, and therefore getting to a resolution faster.
7. Negotiate as Your Real Self, Not Your Business Self (Or someone else)
The common denominator in every negotiation is that it’s between two human beings. Being genuine, transparent or even a bit vulnerable can be a quick way to connect with the human on the other end of the phone. And yes, I do this while still staying firm to my negotiation needs and convictions.
Further, to effectively work a negotiation, you need to be confident. You can’t be confident if you are trying to be someone else. The problem with trying to be someone else is that your words and thoughts will not come naturally. You’ll be distracted by trying to stay in the role.
You are most effective when you are authentically you. People can smell inauthenticity from a mile away, and it reeks.
8. Be Cautious of the Friend-Zone
I’ve learned to be mindful of the difference between being respectful and being nice.
Sometimes, when confronted with a difficult conversation, we turn to being overly pleasant in order to get what we want. Society tells us that being agreeable and exaggerating a display of niceness is a social courtesy.
Being likeable can have some serious payoffs in negotiation, but being too nice can come across as inauthentic and likely lead to subpar deals.
Being respectful might help get you what you want—being nice might too. The difference is it is a lot easier to remain in control and keep boundaries when you are honest and respectful. Being too nice can unwittingly set you up for the friend role. Nobody ever wants to collect money from a friend.
While language is important, what usually leads to the friend zone is an overly-energized, “smiley” tone.
9. Get On Their Side
Don’t condescend. I always tell folks, “That is an excellent question. I can certainly understand why you would ask that”. This can help reduce some of their natural anxiety when they are not very well informed or fearful.
Sometimes I say something along the lines below.
“I am concerned this is going to impact your credit” or
“I am concerned this will hurt you down the line” or
“My concern for you is….”
“Hmmm, that’s too bad. I see right now you have excellent credit, but...”
“I know you probably have thought of this already, but I gotta ask, have you considered XXXX?”
Sometimes I use an indirect story to get them thinking:
“Ahhh I see now. I knew a business in this situation once, and after they (did the thing I want this account holder to do) they were able to (achieve outcome account holder desires)” or similarly
“I knew someone this happened to, and after this happened to them, it was tough to find a supplier. I don’t want that to happen to you.”
10. Ego Obstructs Effective Negotiations
One thing I learned the hard way is that it is not always necessary to be right about everything. It is so easy to get stuck in this rut. I always ask myself if it is necessary to challenge a point to get paid, or can I let it slide?
How do you decipher if it’s necessary to challenge a point or not?
This is about validation – can it be quantified? Or is it a feeling? Or an inconsequential point that is more venting than anything else? If it’s venting, that is ok. I give them the time to vent without interrupting. Then I say something like, “that does sound like quite the ordeal.” Then I am moving on. They pretty much know already I can’t quantify “the receptionist was rude to me” or “no-one ever returned my call” or “the lettuce was always wilted.” They just want to be heard. So I listen first.
This is where this collection tip really comes into action. Interestingly, somewhere in the venting session, they’ll often give me a “gold nugget.”
I recently had a file where the account holder was LIVID because the collection file was impacting his credit. The file had been in our office for almost a year. He spoke at length about all the things our client did wrong, and at the very end, he insisted this be removed from his credit.
What did I get out of that? That his credit was essential to him... suddenly important. BINGO! There’s our leverage. We now knew this particular account holder would likely be motivated by credit reporting and that he may be actively seeking financing right now.
My Bonus Collection Tip: Say Thank-You
And finally, I remind myself that “Thank- You’s” are free. Yes, we know that it is the account holder's responsibility to pay. But a thank-you for following through along with an updated statement balance is like a pat on the back, and it can help keep interactions become more positive. I will often summarize for them how far they’ve come:
Thanks for the payment. So far, you have paid $2500. Great progress! We are now down to $1,500.00 (only three more months).
I look forward to your next payment of $500.00 on May 15/21. I have attached an updated statement for your reference.
When I first started this line of work, I jumped in like the proverbial bull in a china shop (Surprise! I am a Taurus). And, well, let’s just say it wasn’t pretty. I had mistakenly thought being TOUGH would get me what I wanted. That rough and tough spirit spilled into my personal life, which I was completely unaware of until this comment from my mom:
“I love you, I always will, but you have CHANGED. And I’m not sure I like you very much anymore.”
Yeah. My thoughts exactly.
It was an eye-opener! I hope you know that you do not have to become this person to be an effective negotiator. You CAN have a spirit of joy and peace and still close some major accounts! I hope that there are some takeaways here that you will appreciate. It sure would have helped If I had had something like this early in my career.
Thanks, everyone, for taking the time to read my blog. This article was inspired by the video below: Things I wished I would have known as a collection manager, now that I work for a collection agency. If you enjoyed this, you might enjoy watching my first episode of Pay the Pyper.
Please let me know if you have any other ideas – I would love to add them to my “toolbox”!
And without further ado... Episode 1 of Pay the Pyper! I go through the top few things I wish I would have known as a Credit Manager, now that I've come to the "Dark Side."
- Missing legal opportunities
- Skip Tracing
- Tools and resources to help me collect