Today I had an excellent conversation with someone regarding office culture, morale, and approach to working with others. This is something I have been meaning to write about since the Receivables Management Association conference in November, where Berta Banks gave an excellent discussion about hiring, training, and promoting staff.
I am looking at this from a collection manager's position. I believe, for my own part, I can be a hard manager to work with. Compliments are dearly earned, I keep myself at arm’s length to the staff, and I set my standards fairly high. I have been told that my high energy level sometimes intimidates staff. However, I try to balance that out – I believe that all staff members deserve dignity, the ability to manage themselves if they can prove capable of doing so, and should be recognized and rewarded for hard work. I would never ask a staff member to do something I would not. I believe in leading by example, and making an effort to communicate with my team on a regular basis, so they feel included, and can measure their efforts against the greater whole.
I have had the pleasure of working with some excellent collection teams. These teams were not built over night. They were an extended effort in hiring, training and promotion from within. This first article will address hiring, and the kind of people I would want to work with, and the environment I would want to create that staff would want to work within.
What Does This Have To Do With Credit or Collections?
Well, a fair amount, as the agency you send the files to sinks or swims based on the quality and efforts of their staff. It’s certainly nice to have cutting edge technology, but collecting is a business that is driven by the people. And let’s face it, nobody goes to Bill Collector School for their Bill Collector Diploma.
People matter. If you are a reasonably large client, and you are assigning in the neighbourhood of 300 files a month, your accounts are being worked by one collector. If you are a national client, your team assigned to your files may only be five to ten collectors. Who these people are matters to your bottom line. Their daily efforts impact a client's liquidation. These same people fall into this role, unexpectedly. Some dally a little while, and move on to other fields, while others gain knowledge and skill, and perhaps a passion for this industry, and stay and thrive.
Personally, I wasn’t supposed to end up managing a collection agency. I was going to be an English high school teacher. But one of my first jobs out of high school was an office administrator for a newspaper. I was doing some bookkeeping for the office, and discovered that they had $500,000 in receivables, that they weren’t doing anything with! So I asked the branch manager if I could pursue them, and within six months I had collected over $300,000, and assigned the balance to a collection agency (who in turn, collected $100,000 of it). And I had found something I could be passionate about – the infectious thing about collections is that you know if you are having a good or bad day, simply by the recoveries. You have a sense of accomplishment every time a courier shows up at your office with a payment. Your productivity is measurable, and if you have the right personality and makeup, you can actually find the job interesting and rewarding. I’ve been in this industry for 23 years, and enjoyed most of my experiences.
But still, you might ask, what does this have to do with collections? Let me explain:
A Collection Agent Skill Set
Being a good collection agent requires a motley assortment of skills, a golf bag filled with weird and eclectic tools. Most collectors don’t have every skill necessary, but they will have at least one or two, and some of the better collectors have maybe five or six of the skills needed.
· Language Skills: An excellent collector can communicate eloquently, and deliver a clear message that will be received and accepted. Sometimes, quality of voice or diction can enter into this, but I have seen collection agents excel, in spite of having a broad vocabulary or formal manner, simply by being able to communicate clearly.
· Attention to Detail: Collection is about the details, on information provided on an application, on what a consumer says (or doesn’t say) when you are speaking to them, about scheduling follow-up calls and balancing a portfolio of up to 1000 files with timely calls, and concisely noting very conversation or action taken. If you aren’t organized, you are not going to collect everything you should.
· Energy: You have to have some life in you, the ability to work with effort, speak with feeling, and get the job done. If you want to talk about the Friends’ episode last night, or take your fifth coffee break this morning, or you sound half-asleep when you leave an “urgent message to have John Smith return your call”, you aren’t going to get the work done, and your numbers will suffer.
· Quick Thinking: Every call is different, and you don’t know what circumstances, reasons, excuses, or objections a consumer is going to throw at you regarding their outstanding account. You have to be able to keep the conversation on track, and deal with obstacles to payment in a quick, confident manner.
· Patience and Tolerance: A collection agent will make 100-200 calls a day, of which they may speak to only 20-40 consumers directly. Some of those consumers will refuse to pay, others will be abusive or belligerent. Answering machine messages will be left, and people will hide or avoid contact, thinking it will keep the debt from “catching up with them”. Sometimes, people will promise to resolve their account, and these promises are empty platitudes. This can wear on a collection agent, unless they can not obsess over individual files or phone calls, and keep there eye on the big picture, all while keeping their patience.
· Obsessive/Compulsive Nature: A lot of people would loathe doing the same activity, over and over again. In many ways, collections is like that – you speak to a consumer, attempt to arrange payment, and repeat and repeat as necessary. Someone who has an obsessive personality can see the differences in every call, or each day, and focus on statistics, numbers, trends, small changes in language or behaviour, or develop a small repetitive habit that gets them through the day (I used to build rubber band balls while making my calls).
· A Head For Numbers: How many calls have you made today. How much have you collected this week? What is a 70% settlement on John Smith’s credit card account? What is our current liquidation for the top client? Collections is a practical application of numbers. If you can’t add, remember numbers, or do math on the fly, you have a pretty big handicap in this business.
· People Skills: You may be shocked to think that a collection agent needs people skills, but they do need to be able to quickly read mood, find specific ways to approach different people, and the ability to communicate with others. You may be in a position of authority when you collect, but you still need to relate to people, and connect with them on some level. A little empathy, a little humor, and the ability to throttle back the authority or urgency when it isn’t necessary goes a long way.
· A Sense of Humor: Really, collections can be a stressful job, and if you can’t enjoy the good moments, and keep a positive outlook, you won’t last in this job. Or at least, not in an environment I condone. There are agencies where aggressive behaviour brings collectors satisfaction, but I won’t tolerate that in my staff. So being able to look at ridiculous situations, outrageous insults, or abusive consumer behaviour with a bit of a sense of humour will get you through your day, and if you work with similar people, your stressful work environment might actually be an entertaining and pleasant workspace.
So, if you have some or all of these skills, you may be a good collector. And if you are happy working in a collection environment, that’s good for you and your employer. But what if you aren’t the most amazing collection agent to walk this earth? This could be your first office job, or you could have worked in another collection agency before, and who knows what sort of training (or lack thereof) you may have.
Hiring The Right Staff
So, to excel, it's important that a credit or collection manager picks the people who can collect effectively, and work well within a team environment. So the first thing to look at is the hiring process.
I have a series of hoops I put an interviewee through when I am hiring. I verbally test their ability to switch subjects, or keep on track. I listen to their voice, and their ability to communicate. I am very blunt about expectations, and the unique challenges of this industry. I am quite clear that not everyone has the mental makeup to be a good collection agent, let alone take satisfaction from their role.
Some people leave the interview, thanking me for their time, and tell me this isn’t the job they are looking for. And that’s a good thing, because I’d rather work with people who want to work with me, and are going to excel at their job.
Experience isn't always the pass/fail decision for hiring. I am often reluctant to hire experienced third party collection agents. Because often, they have been left to their own devices, with little training, or poor training, and come from an unprofessional environment. I do not relish the idea of deprogramming someone from years of bad habits, to build a good employee.
I have hired semi-retired people, young kids just out of high school, mothers looking to get back into the workplace, former construction workers, military people, telemarketers, university graduates, people newly arrived to Canada, paralegals, insurance salesmen, and so on. People from every walk of life.
And their background has no bearing on whether they might be a good collection agent.
At the RMA Conference, the speaker Berta Banks talked about the composition of a staff member being like a person riding a bicycle. The rear wheel are hard skills: experience, technical know-how, the ability to drive forward. The front wheel is soft skills: problem solving, negotiation, finesse, the ability to work around problems. The rider themselves is the personality, work ethic, belief system that is the personality and makeup of who they are, and how they will work with you. I’ll take someone with soft skills and personality – hard skills can be learned.
Where Do I Work?
This is where we are going with this first article. Hiring the best staff means nothing without a productive atmosphere to work in. I am sad to say, many collection agencies are completely in the dark on hiring, training, and promoting staff internally. At the national conference I was at, I spoke to no less than four different companies, who were either having issues hiring or retaining the right people, or creating a positive work environment. And these were not small companies. I shared with them my hiring screening questions, my aptitude test I use to measure problem solving, and my collection test I use bi-annually to keep my collectors sharp on collection laws.
So, out there are still a number of “sweat shops”, or collection agencies where the managers pound on the desk, demand more money to somehow appear, and don’t analyze their staff’s skills, and try to help them in the areas they fall short in. Some companies hire a collector, sit them next to an “experienced staff member” for half a day, and then throw them to the wolves. Or they put them in four weeks of intensive training on the FDCPA, but never actually give them a copy of the actual law to read themselves.
Some agencies don’t lay out the limits of the law, and the collectors run amok, violating the collection laws. Others are overly cautious, and limit their staff greatly, for fear they might go too far and break the law. Some collectors aren’t familiar with specific provincial or state laws, and work without the knowledge they need to respect the consumer and the client.
At some agencies, staff are given limited washroom breaks, or are told they can’t leave their desks. They don’t know what liquidation targets the client expects, and what their work means to the client. I briefly worked at one company where I was reprimanded for not raising my voice during the course of the day. I worked in another where the manager would come to my desk each morning and ask what new revenue did I expect to generate that day – really, is that effective? Is that an environment where people will enjoy coming to work, and stay?
So what kind of an environment do you build? What kind of staff do you have working with you? What framework have you given them? How do you recognize your staff for the good work they have done? If you are a manager, you have the power and responsibility to shape your environment into something positive.
A Positive Work Environment
While I could go on for pages about work environment, here are a few key points about where I work, and what I do to encourage staff, in various places I have worked over the years, and I strongly believe should be brought to any workplace.
· Clear Expectations: I clearly lay out what I expect of my staff, as far as recoveries or liquidation goes. New staff are set gradually increasing goals for their first few months, and I communicate with them to ensure they know if they are meeting my milestones for their first few months.
If, for whatever reason, a staff member is not meeting their expectations, it’s important to calmly and rationally lay out where they stand with you, and do everything you can to help them meet expectations. If they continue to not meet minimum levels of attendance, performance, or working with others, it’s important the staff member knows how this affects the company, and their position in it.
· Constant Feedback: All staff receive a monthly review, or “report card”. It’s not just if they hit their monthly target, but if they went above and beyond their job description, whether there were issues that needed to be addressed, and all of this is measured into a score, that tells the staff member in concrete terms whether they met our expectations or fell shy, and by how much.
· Staff Meetings: Whether it’s one on one, or in a team environment, it’s very helpful to bring back communication from the client and share it. If we are the top agency for a client, the staff deserve to know it, and be congratulated. If we are in second place, I want to be able to share with the staff exactly how far behind first place we are, and brainstorm with them to figure out how we will cover the shortfall.
· Delegation and Responsibility: Everybody comes to work to get paid. They are not acolytes worshipping at the altar of my company. If you give that person a raise, they will appreciate it. But if you give that same person a project to head up, or a specific duty to entrust them in, it makes them feel appreciated and makes them invested in the company’s success or failure. Some people will struggle with responsibility, others will soar with it – but you won’t know who your future supervisors or managers are unless you entrust them with a task and see how they do.
· Sharing the Rewards: If the client gives you a bonus, share it with the staff. If a vendor gives the company swag, share it with the staff. If the office has a record month, share it with the staff. It can be a small thing, like taking them out to dinner, or it can be a big thing, like planning a Christmas bonus. But really, if your staff contribute to the company’s success, you need to find a way to contribute to the staff.
· Saying Thanks: If I see a staff member having a stellar day, or doing something above and beyond their job description, it’s important to recognize it, and thank them. Make sure that your staff know that good things are noticed and recognized. A good manager will find something positive to say to someone every day
Every environment is different, and is often a reflection of the management there -- my perfect environment may not be yours, but it bears thinking on, and deciding how you want to lay out your expectations, and communicate to staff regarding their positive or negative impact on the company.
I highly encourage discussion on this subject, which I will be addressing over the next few blog articles. If you have any comments or questions to share with the collection community, post an anonymous question or statement on the blog below.
If you are a credit or collection manager, and would like a copy of my aptitude test or interview screening sheet, feel free to call me or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you are in the Cambridge or Kitchener-Waterloo area, and you would like to meet and discuss work environments, I would be happy to spend some time at my office or yours, sharing what I believe in.
Kingston Data and Credit