Collections, Customer Service, and Depeche Mode
by Brian Eggert
Client Service Lead
When people outside of my industry ask what I do for a living, I delay the words “collection agency” as long as possible, as the industry’s negative connotations tend to sour a first impression. I’ve made that mistake before, and in turn people assume that I’m a radical bill collector who barks in the phone and incites another exposé on the local news. However grossly exaggerated, that is the reputation that must be preempted and combated. And unless you’re somehow involved in accounts receivables, chances are you don’t see collection agencies as an economic necessity. Funny thing is, I’m not even a bill collector, but when I explain where I work is a collection agency, the preconceived notions take over.
“I work in customer service,” I explain instead, which is true. And it should be true for bill collectors too. In its most basic definition, my job in IC System’s Client Service department involves making sure clients—all manner of businesses ranging from doctor’s offices to major corporations, all with unresolved debts that need collecting—are happy. Calls and emails pour in, spreadsheets and statements with imminent deadlines flow out, leaks spring and we’re there with a crescent wrench. Not until later in the conversation, after explaining exactly what it is I do, will I reveal it’s all done at a collection agency.
It’s not embarrassment that forces this conversational workaround; it’s a proactive maneuver to avoid the reaction I received as a bill collector. When I first started at IC System, I was a part-time collector putting myself through college with sizable bonus checks and a flexible schedule. And when I explained to my fellow collegiate art historians and cinephiles how I paid my tuition without student loans, I received a most insincere “well that sounds interesting”. At any rate, I’d explain how the negative associations with collection agencies are, on the whole, propelled by those who’ve had bad experiences, and therefore, in my experience anyway, inflated.
Indeed, in those days my method of collecting was no different than my way of speaking to IC System’s clients now, in that there’s a basic level of human decency and understanding needed—a customer service sensibility to actively dispel any negative associations within our industry. When I transferred to Client Service a few years later, I was surprised to discover that our clients recognize how there’s a miasma floating over collection agencies; if only it could be easier to help everyone see through it. But, in my position, I can only hope to change one mind at a time by being, simply, courteous and polite and helpful.
I’ll go one further and suggest this outlook should be carried over into everyday life. Maybe I’m old fashioned, or maybe I’m a modernist trapped in a post-modern world, but I believe cordiality is not limited to a customer service department. Which brings to mind a Depeche Mode song that goes: “People are people, so why should it be, you and I should get along so aw-ful-ly.” In this awkwardly-rhymed lyric there’s a perspective all but lost on contemporary sensibilities, where human interaction is often reduced to staccato texts and informal emails. Consider instead employing a certain receptivity and expressed geniality. Listen. React in a natural way, if only to avoid earning comparisons to an automaton. Be nice. You’ll find people respond to it. I have.
Now try explaining this approach to someone whose standard way of relating to other people is by clicking the “Like” button.