Collections (and I don’t mean coins)

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Most people cringe at the term “collections.” It conjures thoughts of never ending phone calls at dinner, mean letters and a fear of coming out of the house in the morning to find the car gone being loaded on a flatbed by a some aloof jerk who won’t let you get your stuff out.

When I worked at a Credit Union in my early 20’s I didn’t have anything more than a secured line of credit but I felt the same way about collections. Yuck.

One of my jobs was to file copies of collection letters in the mortgage file vault. (It sounds horrible and tedious, but as a true introvert I loved being alone with the files for long chunks of time.)

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See, doesn’t that look appealing? Tell me they’re alphabetized and I’m a happy girl.

Most of the time I just stuffed and moved on my way but sometimes I read the letters. Sometimes I opened the file and read ALL the letters.

I saw patterns. Sometimes I saw a basic letter reminding of a missed payment and I could see that the same letter went out about once a year and that normally they paid. I saw accounts that were constantly in a behind state. In each stack of letters to file I saw the reminder/request/demand to pay what they had agreed to pay.

It changed my perspective. Instead of “yuck” collectors that won’t leave you alone, I saw “yuck” mortgage holders that weren’t holding up their end of the bargain.

Either way it was true. Collections can be a cold and miserable process that no one likes.

The lightbulb

I distinctly remember the day I tried to shoot the breeze with someone from collections. “Hey, that’s some job you have there. It must be terrible to call and try to collect money from these people all day long.”

His head jerked up in surprise and an interesting look appeared on his face. “Actually it’s not bad. A lot of these people fall on hard times and they just need someone to understand and help them through it. They don’t not want to pay. They just need someone to help them work through it so they can.”

You know what that look on his face was? It was pity. But I now know it wasn’t really pity for the people he was calling. It was pity for me. I had taken a cold approach to finances and if I didn’t change I would be miserable.

I remember being taken aback. This guy was in collections but in that one statement he registered to me as one of the nicest men I had ever known.

Fast forward 10 years

Guess who does collections work now? Yep. Me. One of the main components of my job is to contact our customers who are behind in paying. It’s almost surreal.

I now see both sides. There are days when I feel like I’m beating my head against a wall. I get snippy and feel rude and will only be happy if we agree to never work with this customer again. With those customers I see the form letters and the constantly ringing phone line. Who would ever want to do this work?

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Then there are the people I would BEND OVER BACKWARD to help. I will waive fees without a moment’s hesitation and speak up for them to my superiors so that their debt can go on longer without more serious ramifications. These days I see the people. I understand what that guy so many years ago said. I really just want to help.

No, I’m not bi-polar or a split personality or even just overtired/well slept. I will tell you the secret.

It’s huge.

If you know nothing else about collections, you should know this:

It all depends on the customer just being visible as a person.

I can attest. There are most likely some awesome people that are working on your account. Most of the time they do not want to do anything but help you out. But you have, and I mean HAVE to communicate with them. You can’t be a void at the end of an email request or a ringing phone line. It doesn’t matter too much what you really say. You just have to be visible.

If I have someone tell me, plainly, “I can’t get it today but I should be able to next Wednesday” you can guarantee that I’m sleeping soundly until next Wednesday. If, instead, I don’t get a response I’m either emailing or looking at the account with a furrowed brow daily until I hear from them.

The WORST thing you can do is not respond to a collector. It leaves you as just another number. Just another account that did not care to keep up your end of the bargain.

No guy! Don't throw out your overdue bills because you don't think you can face them right now!

No guy! Don’t throw out your overdue bills because you don’t think you can face them right now!

And so, conversely, the best thing you can do is talk to them. They are REAL people. Just because their job is to get you to pay doesn’t mean that you can only answer the phone if you have your routing number ready to go to pay right then.

I did this myself just now.

I talked to someone whose job it was to collect on MY account. (Take a moment to pick your jaw up off the floor.… Hey, I make mistakes too.)

You see, we use a rewards credit card. We love it and use it as often as we can (because, you know, rewards!) I had a problem with the automatic payment. I thought it was supposed to pull the full balance but instead it pulled the statement balance. When we replaced our roof this summer the big charge got us into a dangerous place, too close to the limit.

So I took off the automatic payment, intending to do the payments myself.

Bad idea.

I goofed, several ways. I was late with a payment and then I made a payment and somehow it put the payment date as the next statement date instead of the current date. I clicked through it all and just plain screwed it up. For weeks I looked at the late fee and finance charge on my account in horror and shame and then today, I went on to discover that the payment I had made hadn’t posted and so my account was STILL overdue!

So I called them. I was ashamed and I let her know it. It was all my fault and I let her know that too. I was apparently not grown up enough to handle a credit card and online payment by myself and I even let her know that.

She laughed. She commiserated. She made sure to put a note on the account that as soon as the payment cleared she would reverse the finance charge and interest fees.

Now this is very interesting. Very interesting when you consider all the details.

This is a major credit card which is paying out decent rewards. I use their card all the time and they handle everything with the retailers and they pay me rewards and they have NEVER even had the chance to charge me for any of it. In their CEO’s eyes I would be a bad customer. They don’t make any money off me. In fact, they lose money on my account! Yet, the one time they have the right to legitimately charge me for their services and patience for something that was fully my doing, they happily reversed off the charges. With a smile.

THIS is collections. It is real people. The worst thing you can do is hide. The best thing you can do is talk to someone who truly understands that it’s a rough financial world out there. These people hear it all. They’re not there to judge. They’re just there to help.

So pay your bills people. On time every time if you can. If you can’t, you have the wonderful opportunity to meet someone new that you can connect with and be honest with your financial situation with.

Don’t be like 20-year-old me and think that collections is cold and heartless. It’s only that way if you make it that way.

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/80634066@N00/3669785198″>file drawer</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>(license)</a&gt;

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/28451957@N06/2805759881″>Set 1 Latepaymentnotices 1</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>(license)</a&gt;

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/10787737@N02/14458595168″>May 20, 2014</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>(license)</a&gt;

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