“The last thing I say on phone calls is not ‘Goodbye’ but ‘Thank you'” – Marshall Goldsmith Executive coach
Corporate collections is all about building relationships with your customers. I’m continually surprised by the abject terror that accompanies any process which involves picking up the phone for new collectors. However, without a personal touch speaking to a customer, collections cannot excel.
Asking for money is stressful
There is no question that asking a stranger to make good on an invoice is a stressful conversation to have. Being a collector who has to do it twenty to thirty times per day is just not for some people. There are a number of practices which will make your life significantly easier and less stressful though.
Chasing with an email is deferring the inevitable
With modern technology and the prevalence of e-invoicing, it’s easy to assume that every payment will float into your bank account if you just provide a few email reminders at strategic points in the process. The sad truth is that most emails go unopened, many more go unread, and your chances of getting into the “read” pile are significantly lower if the person on the receiving end doesn’t recognize your email name.
Companies are bombarded with spam, marketing emails and updates every minute of every day, most do not even give out a checked email so they can ignore the debt collectors, so it’s vitally important to establish a relationship with your portfolio of customers early on in the process. Encourage them to add your email to their safe senders list so it’s not blocked by spam filters, and make sure the emails you send have everything they need to know in the first paragraph.
Everyone in your portfolio should feel familiar, try and talk
Every time I’ve visited an under-performing collections team, you can tell fast they’ve got performance issues by the noise level in the office and the energy of the people. Offices where all you can hear are the clicking of keys are typically a bad sign, and equally bad, offices where people are shouting down the phone. The first principle of any business, whether the sales team, the admin team or the collections team, is that you must “Know your customer”.
That’s not just knowing their name, but having had a civil conversation with that person to establish yourself as “their person” at your company. To do this, it’s important to establish the relationship early, when there are no issues or problems with payments, and you can simply introduce yourself and find out something about them (see A simple practice that will get customers to pay faster).
Practice emotional intelligence
It’s easy to forget that the person at the other end of the line is a human being, not just a dead beat not paying something they owe, so it’s important to treat them as a person. Always say hi, introduce yourself, and if possible, refer back to your last conversation with them, and ask them “how’re you doing today?”.
It’s a simple question, but if you’re about to start a tough conversation with a debtor, it’ll be a lot easier if you find out their dog died this morning, and they’re feeling a little emotional, than if you launch straight into discussing that overdue invoice.
Sometimes it’s important to play the long term investment in relationship, and show you respect them as a human ahead of short term cash targets. If you upset a customer personally, you win the battle, but you will lose the war when they take business elsewhere. Don’t be afraid to show some compassion and recognize if they seem in a bad place, and ask to arrange another time you can speak and make sure you follow up. A simple act of humanity will be remembered far more favorably when they are late next time than if you push them hard when they are down.
Your role is to remove blockers to payment – not force a payment
In my experience, the most effective collectors are those who focus on service rather than chase. Those collectors who take the time upfront to understand a customers concerns and issues early in the process, reap the rewards on subsequent work (usually because they’ve flipped the partner to direct debit), but in short term, they know they’ll get through to the right person and they will not get avoided.
Important steps to getting through all the time:
- Make sure the person your speaking to is the decision maker
- Try and get a direct dial number you can reach them on
- Be helpful and listen to questions, but make sure to keep on topic of invoices
- Where there is something you can’t address, be proactive and send an email to someone who can help with the customer in cc (even if it’s to a generic corporate email)
- Make a connection with the person that they’ll remember next time you speak, it takes away a lot of conflict when the person sees you as a human and not a collector
- Learn to take ownership and apologize for a mistake where appropriate.
People will pay their invoice when their questions are answered promptly, if they have any doubt, your invoice will be paid late. By building a relationship early on, they will be more likely to pay an invoice timely, even if they have a question later because they “know” you’re there to help them if needed.
Don’t forget Pareto
Prioritize your biggest accounts for best service. If a single partner makes up 30% of your portfolio, they should be the partner who gets an answer within a day to any question and when they need something to happen, you work hardest to make it happen immediately. Take the opportunity to check in periodically on a personal level, even if there are no issues you’re aware of, just to make sure if there is a problem, they have the chance to let you know in advance.
Within my teams, the smallest customers make up 80% of our volume and less than 10% of revenue, they are important to provide great service to, but the more you can automate and provide self service options to them, the happier they’ll be. Make sure they stick to standard path and you set clear expectations of what will happen if they deviate. You never know when one will takeoff and be that next 30% partner, so keep checking your data to see who needs your focus.
I was once sat down with a very experienced collections consultant (who later became a mentor) and after a long day of process mapping and policy drafting, I was tired and my filter turned off. I said “all these policies and detailed plans are just window dressing, all that matters is making sure collectors are on the phones speaking to partners”.
Not at all shocked, my mentor responded “Collections isn’t difficult, you just have to pick up the phone and speak”.