Financial challenges during any unprecedented time will land at the office of where the unpaid receivables live: the collections department. Call it any other name—accounts receivable office, the office of student accounts, business office, or customer service—the function is the same; we need to talk with the customer about their unpaid bills. During times of financial difficulty or in this case a pandemic, the well-defined strategy should include all areas of the organization for a full understanding of the need to keep the receivables paid.
The image of every organization is important, and the brand should reflect that in both strategy and communication. The immediate instinctual reaction to a situation by senior leadership might be to place a hold on any outbound collection messages including billing statements, calls, and other activities. As collection professionals, we are often brought in for our professional advice during these circumstances. Our advice: look at the big picture.
Turner (2019) describes situational awareness as an individual’s ability to be cognizant of their surroundings and the effect on their safety. What issues are of concern to those customers and what threats are they facing now? Weather, fire, riots, civil unrest and wars occur, which are beyond the control of the company and the customers they serve. However, well thought-out strategies can enable a company to communicate with customers during these unprecedented times as well as preserve its brand and its liquidity. The leadership of the company needs to realize that we are working within the constraints of both consumer behavior and communication.
Collection strategies and collection analytics are much like those of marketing firms; we know the best times and strategies to talk with the customer. Collection strategies look at the areas where we are calling and have both the emotional intelligence and situational awareness to know that if you are calling an area that is under a hurricane warning, the customers are not worried about their student loan payment or cable bill. Consider the theory presented by Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as discussed in Hopper (2020); the need for physical safety is the baseline of human needs beyond food and shelter. In these situations, collection calls and active collection campaigns should be suspended.
Harvard theorist Howard Gardner, discussed in Akers and Porter (2020), stated that emotional intelligence (EQ) is the “level of your ability to understand other people, what motivates them and how to work cooperatively with them.” Akers and Porter further examine the five major categories of emotional intelligence skills recognized by researchers: self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skills. Overlaying those abilities, the position of a debt collector must develop these skill sets to effectively understand both the needs of the consumer and those of the company. Collectors occupy the position on that edge between the company and customer, a role that is both challenging and exciting.
Enter the reality of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, where the world is forced to be at home 24/7 and people are equally concerned about their physical and financial well-being. In this case however, we have groups of people working in a different modality, reduced hours, or unemployed. Regardless of the situation, your collection strategy must validate the current situation for the customer, document the file, and determine their ability and willingness to pay.
Faced with these challenges, leadership should develop a corporate-wide communication strategy that demonstrates care and concern for their customers, which will preserve the relationship. Customer conversations should be consultative and designed to build a rapport rather than a focused concern for payment on the account. This approach allows the collection agent to build the relationship and supports an on-brand experience during a difficult conversation. Until this pandemic is over, corporate leadership needs to demonstrate two superpowers: patience and grace.
Akers M., and Porter, G. (2020). What is emotional intelligence (EQ)?
Retrieved from: https://psychcentral.com/lib/what-is-emotional-intelligence-eq/
Hopper, E. (2020). Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Explained. Thought Co.
Retrieved from: https://www.thoughtco.com/maslows-hierarchy-of-needs-4582571
Turner, J. (2019). The Importance of Situational Awareness in Risk Management. Retrieved from: https://www.worldaware.com/resources/blog/importance-situational-awareness-risk-management