Six Tips for Making Collection Calls that Get Results
Originally published: October 2012
Robert M. Tharnish, VP International and Corporate Quality, ABC-Amega Inc.
For most people, picking up the phone to call a customer and ask them for money isn’t the highlight of their day. In fact, in most over worked and under staffed credit departments, collection calls are placed dead last or fall off the "to-do list" altogether.
Why? Reasons vary. But basically, the truth is that making collection calls takes most people out of their comfort zone. They don’t feel confident with the process, so they fear embarrassment or failure.
If collection is part of your job responsibilities, here’s some good news. You can become more comfortable and more successful by following a few tips from the collection pros on our staff.
#1 Always Be Prepared – Generally and Specifically
NASCAR great Bobby Unser is credited as saying, "Success is where preparation and opportunity meet." We couldn't agree more. You can never be over prepared when it comes to tackling a collection call.
Be Ready to Handle Excuses
Before making your next collection call, take time to compile a list of common debtor excuses, matching them with effective rebuttals. Write them down on file cards or include them in your computer scripting. Group them by category and keep them handy. Exchange ideas with others in your department. Then, when the debtor tries to end the call by offering an excuse, you can take control by countering with a well-thought out reply and returning to the purpose of your call -- collecting the debt.
Here are some examples from our collection experts to get you started:
Customer: The check is in the mail.
Collector: Great! May I have the check number, amount and date it was mailed so I can ensure it is posted correctly?
Customer: I have a cash flow problem right now.
Collector: I understand that times are difficult. Can I set you up on a payment plan, or can you make at least a partial payment today?
Customer: I don't have a copy of the invoice.
Collector: I'll fax the invoice over right now. Will you be mailing the check today?
Arm Yourself with the Facts
Before you pick up the phone, It's critical that you have all the specifics of the debt you’re calling about. Having the facts in front of you keeps you in control. You don't want the conversation to get derailed by a question you can't answer. Many debtors know how to use this to their advantage. Suddenly they can't discuss payment on their account without details you don't have and they don't "have in front of them" either. So, the call is over.
If you hear yourself saying, "I'll have to get back to you on that," you've just given the debtor an extension without a commitment to pay – and you'll have to start from square one with him when you call back.
At minimum, be sure to have the following in front of you before you make the call:
- exact amount owed
- terms of sale
- products/services purchased
- payment due date
- other open invoices, even those not yet past due
Know Who You're Calling
It's also helpful to brief yourself on the customer's payment record with your company, as well as any other payment history you may have available to you. Do they usually pay on time? Are payments getting slower and slower? Is past-due payment uncharacteristic of this customer?
#2 Think Positively
Your mental state has a strong impact both on how you handle the debtor and how they respond to you. Treat each call as if it was your first call of a very good day. Put a smile on your face. If you were irritated on the previous call, take a few minutes to calm yourself and start afresh. The debtor will respond to your tone. Your upbeat mood will be contagious and you are likely to get a more positive response from the debtor.
#3 Speak Professionally and Authoritatively
Most of us take our speaking voices for granted. But the tone, pitch, inflection and even the speed at which you talk can have a powerful influence on your listener. Think about typical news anchors or radio commentators. They have voices that command attention. With a little effort, you can develop one too.
Try recording a general collection call opening and then listen to yourself. Make adjustments as needed, and try again. This will not only improve how you come across on the phone, it will also build confidence. It does take a little time and extra work, but remember, sucess is strongly linked to preparation.
Here are a few hints that might help:
- don't chew gum or drink when you're on the phone
- speak a bit slower and enunciate
- use a lower pitched voice
- pause more often
- make sure you pronounce the ending consonants of words and don't slur
- smile while you talk -- although the person on the end of the line can't see it, they will hear it; and everyone responds more openly to a smile than to a scowl
#4 Take Control and Don't Let Go
You can manage the call in such a way that you control the debtor's response. In addition to what we already mentioned about preparation and voice, here are some other tricks of the trade:
Address the debtor by name throughout the conversation. This shows respect on your part and commands their attention. Be careful not to over do it through, or it will start to sound contrived and annoying.
Make the debtor right, even when they are wrong. You may not agree with what they’re saying, but you can still validate it. After an objection or excuse, say, "I can understand why you feel that way." Or, "I can certainly see how something like that might happen." Validating what the debtor has to say maintains open lines of communication. Understanding their point of view, even as you share yours, will disarm the debtor's defensiveness.
Ask open-ended questions. Try to get the debtor to give you as much information as possible. For instance, bank information is critical, yet many debtors may not want to share it. Instead of coming straight out and asking, "Where is your account?" Try "Will you be sending a check or a money order?" He will usually say "a check." You respond, "That's fine. So we don't miss it, what bank will it be drawn on?"
Listen carefully and take notes. You will get clues to whether the debtor is serious about paying. You'll also have ammunition for your next call and will be ready to counter any excuses that may have been tried in the past.
Use silence. Count slowly to five before responding to a debtor statement, and wait several seconds after asking a question. Leaving blank spaces in the conversation compels the debtor to fill them in.
Stay focused. Some debtors will try to get you off track by complaining about service, or somehow shifting the blame for their delinquency to you. Be polite, even validate their opinion. But always bring them right back to the point of your call -- getting paid the money rightfully due your company.
Don't let the debtor manipulate you. A screaming debtor could be using anger as a ploy to get you upset and end the conversation. At the very least, you're not going to get anywhere with someone that’s angry.
If a debtor starts yelling or using abusive language, stay calm. Try reminding them that you cannot help resolve the situation if they are yelling.
If that doesn't work, say something like, "This obviously isn't a good time for you. When can I call you back?"
Or you could try a tactic one of ABC-Amega's collectors employs. Say, "Could you hang on a moment? I can't understand what you're saying." Put the phone down for several seconds, then pick it up again stating, "I'm back." That few seconds of silence will often calm the debtor down and you can get on with the discussion more reasonably.
#5 Nail Things Down
A call that doesn't result in a commitment from the debtor is a wasted call. If you can't get them to commit to payment in full, get a promise of something -- a partial payment or a call back with a payment date. Make sure you control the timing. Don't ask, "When can you get back to me on this?" Rather, ask "Will you be calling me by Wednesday?"
Don't hang up the phone without summarizing the results of the call: their commitment; your expectations; and, the consequences if your expectations are not met. Emphasize the urgency of the matter. It's easy for the customer to forget your call as soon as he puts down the receiver, especially if they don't think you were really concerned about the outcome.
Stress the importance that the debtor call you back on the date they promise payment -- to let you know the check has been sent. If they fail to call, the payment likely didn't happen. You won't waste time waiting for a check that was never mailed.
And finally, if the debtor doesn't follow through on their commitment, make sure you follow through on the consequences. If you don't, they will never take you seriously.
#6 Learn to be Flexible
Following the above advice will help improve the effectiveness of your collection calls – but there is no magic bullet in debt collection. Every debtor is different. What works really well with one, may get you nowhere with another. Listen carefully to the debtor and you will pick up clues to the best way to handle each situation.
Bob Tharnish began his career at ABC-Amega in 1978, and has previously held positions at the company that included Regional Manager, Director of International Operations, as well as Vice President roles overseeing Operations, Quality Management and Collection Services. He has presented numerous industry-related talks, including a series of lectures on “Credit and Collections in the U.S.” for the British Department of Trade & Industry. He holds a BBA in Management and is the current Council Chair of the Commercial Collection Agency Association (CCAA).