It’s a well known urban myth that debt collectors have broken noses and prowl about clutching baseball bats looking for their next poor unsuspecting defaulter (notice the non-use of the word debtor…. no derogatory terms here!!!) I’ve lost count of the times that ‘joke’ has been cracked when I’ve revealed my occupation to someone. But debt collection and legal collections have a lot more finesse than that.
Granted, 30 years ago, when I started, things were very different, but the sea change came in the nineties and has been rolling like a snowball down a mountain ever since. The premise of collections, at least in any collections team that I’ve been part of has always been about affordability even if we didn’t call it that then. We focussed on setting up something the customer willingly agreed to, something they were comfortable with, certainly there may have been an element of trying to squeeze a bit more out of them especially in the early days, in fact I once had a boss who insisted we told customers the computer wouldn’t accept their offer (computer says no) but would if it were increased by £2. It never caught on, the collectors know how far to go and were uncomfortable giving that extra little push, it just didn’t feel right to them. Clearly a good omen for the things to come.
The fact that most collection teams are office based can also surprise people. There is often an expectation that you are out knocking on doors as if that’s the only way there is to secure payment from the won’t pays. Programmes such as ‘Can’t Pay Won’t Pay’ (the TV programme not the play) show big burley men going to people’s properties to collect or take goods. But in reality this only happens after many many many attempts to reach an agreed payment plan often by several different sources, for most creditors going as far as Bailiffs or High Court Enforcement Officers is a final step preferably avoided, and I will say that they do treat each person with a huge amount of respect and politeness, aiding the fight to show debt collection in its true light and not the caricaturised way it is perceived.
We all know there is a mountain of debt out there, according to the Credit Services Association; consumer balances passed to Debt Collection Agencies topped £60billion in 2012. That’s a huge number and of that they managed to return £3 billion to the creditor. This is not all debt run up through frivolous living, no private jets to the Bahamas and the like, this is mainly debt run up to exist and lead a normal life without experiencing high levels of deprivation
Even when they know they can’t afford it people are taking on debt to meet basic living expenses, simply put they are struggling to have and to do what other people accept as normal. The Citizens Advice Bureau revealed last year that as much as 70% of people in debt suffer some form of impact on their mental health and a more recent survey by StepChange say 7 million people confirm they are kept awake by money worries. This cannot be right! Yes I know the sceptics out there will be rolling eyes and muttering about making beds and laying in them, but this could happen to any of us. Redundancy is now more likely than ever before, short term contracts, zero hour contracts, high levels of businesses becoming insolvent all factor into how financially secure an individual is and by extension his or her family.
This is why we have to put ourselves in the customers shoes when dealing with them whether face to face or through various media channels – we have to accept that the can’t pays simply can’t pay and that he won’t pays will show themselves in due course. Yes we have legal recourse to recover debts for our clients and we are very successful at this because we work hard to establish whether this is in fact the right course of action. We don’t shy away from asking the right questions to make sure we fully understand the customer’s circumstances and whether issuing proceedings is in fact the right or wrong thing to do.
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