Case Study: Debt Collector - Suzanne

What do you do?

I make contact with debtors on behalf of our clients. Debts we deal with here could be student loans, credit cards, mobile phone bills, that type of thing. We work on debts from a few hundred pounds to mortgage shortfalls of around £60,000, for example.

Letters go out to debtors. We will then follow it up with a telephone call three days later. The letters and phone calls continue on a regular basis until contact has been made.

The main objective is to get a payment in full from them, but that's not always (and actually quite often) not possible. It's a case of negotiating repayments, then. We try to maximise cash flow.

Alternatively, sometimes we will just gather information for our clients, to get a background of the debtor - their lifestyle and so on. We take it back to the clients so that they can decide upon the next course of action.

Other types of contact can be visiting the debtor and really then litigation is the only other method of collection but they are both further down the line and that's not something that I would do personally.

What is your background?

It wasn't something I wanted to do when I left school! I don't really know how I stumbled into it.

I worked for the Magistrates' Court for 15 years, arresting people who hadn't paid their fines. I did other jobs for two years that were boring - there was no buzz from them.

I saw this job advertised and I was surprised when I got it, having not had an interview for 17 years.

I've recently taken the Credit Services Association (CSA) Diploma. They work alongside City & Guilds, so it's a recognised qualification. It's a four-month intensive course with an exam at the end.

It's helped me unbelievably; a lot of this job is just experience and you get to have gut feelings which are normally right. But the background that the course provides is great. Things like Office of Fair Trading guidelines, CSA guidelines, all the compliance side, data protection and so on.

It's so important in our job these days. The general public have picked up on that a lot. So just knowing what you can and can't do is invaluable.

What characteristics do you need to be successful in your job?

You definitely need to be someone who's tenacious, assertive, positive, determined and confident. You need to be assertive rather than aggressive - if you become aggressive you'll just make people angry and it will turn them against you.

But if you're submissive, they'll walk all over you. You can't be the type of person who bursts into tears the first time you're shouted at, because you won't get anywhere.

So you have to get that balance, basically.

I think you need to be someone who can prioritise and organise your workload and you need to have good communication skills. You have to be able to keep the conversation going. They will come back to you with a string of excuses. You have to be a good listener as well because they may also, dare I say it, lie. They won't remember that lie two conversations down the road, so it's important to listen to what they say and record it.

I think you can always improve these skills, and that comes with experience. You can always learn from the day-to-day situations that you come across.

I had no IT skills when I came here, but I guess that I did pick it up quite quickly. In our job, we've got a special debt collection computer system. Each company will have their own specific software but you'll also need a basic knowledge of email and maybe spreadsheets. Provided you can get around a computer, you'll be able learn the systems.

We use a calculator, so you'll only need basic number skills - you don't need to be brilliant at maths.

What other jobs could you do using the skills from this job?

There's the tracing side that people could go on to - a lot of debtors will abscond [go away suddenly and secretly] to avoid paying. A lot will return mail saying that they've gone away when they haven't. Tracing departments use all sorts of tools to try to find that person - depending on how much they owe.

They might want to become a doorstep or field agent, going out and visiting debtors.

Compliance is another area - making sure that the business is compliant with all the correct guidelines.

You could also go on to the client services side of the business.

What changes will there be in the future?

I think the main thing is that this industry is definitely growing. It's almost become more socially acceptable to be in debt. There's not the same stigma attached to being bankrupt these days. We can threaten people with that and they'll just say "OK, go ahead and do it."

In some ways it's made our job harder because people just aren't scared of things like that any more. If bailiffs turned up, people would be embarrassed about it, but a lot of people aren't now.

Years ago, people used to save up for things, whereas now they'll just go out and borrow money to buy them, and they don't see it as their responsibility to have to pay it back.

What are the biggest challenges in your job?

OK, I would say the most difficult thing first of all when you've got a debtor on the phone is distinguishing 'what type of debtor are they?' Because you'll get the 'will-pays, but they don't', you'll get the 'won't-pays, but they could do', or then you can get the 'can't pays, but they want to'. And that third category can be the most frustrating, difficult, whichever way you want to put it.

And they will take up a lot of a collector's time; they want to pay but they really are in financial difficulties. They've probably gone to a debt management company for help and they really genuinely haven't got the money to pay even though they want to. They're going to be upset by it and they're going to take a lot of your time. Whereas you can perhaps spend two minutes on a call, five minutes on a call, they're probably going to take 25-30 minutes on the call.

Are there many opportunities to enter this career?

I think that because the industry has grown, there are more opportunities as more people borrow money and don't repay it. There's the Credit Today magazine which advertises vacancies in debt collection agencies.

Then, once you're in the company, there are opportunities to progress from a collector to a senior collector to a manager. We've had people here who have then side-stepped into IT or finance.

What do you like about your job?

You get a buzz when you've spent time negotiating repayments and achieved a result whereby you've got a lump sum payment that's within your client's guidelines. Also when the debtor's happy because they've had a percentage of the debt knocked off. So you've got a win-win situation. And you're going to earn commission.

What do you dislike about your job?

You have to be prepared for boredom at certain times. There can be times when you just don't seem to be able to make contact with debtors and you're either leaving messages with family or on answer machines. That's frustrating but there's nothing you can do about it.

In any collections job, there are peaks and troughs, highs and lows and you have to be prepared for that.

What are your ambitions?

I personally would like to either go into the trace side or compliance. I love collections but I am also interested in all the legislation such as data protection.

What advice would you give to someone interested in your career?

You certainly have to go in with an open mind. Remember that no two days will be the same and no two debtors will be the same either. Some might come in screaming and shouting - it won't be at you.

They can either be angry because they've been found when they were trying to hide from it. Or just upset and frustrated because they can't pay it back. But you must also not become emotional.

You can't be hard but it's coming back to having empathy with them, so you have to understand. But you can't become sympathetic or soft, basically. They did borrow the money, they do still owe it. You can be understanding if their circumstances have changed, whether it is due to unemployment, relationship breakdown - all those sorts of things can attribute to it. But there are still those that just took out the credit without any intention of paying it back.

A day in the life

8:00 am - 9:00 am

Work on the negotiating desk, on cases where we have already made contact with debtors who are arranging to make payments, and some follow-up action is required. Record details on the computer system and email client services so they can update the clients.

Send letters out to debtors and deal with any incoming mail.

9:00 am - 10:30 am

Work on the 'promise' desk, where debtors have agreed that they will pay something today. Try to get their credit card details so that we can take secure payments from them.

10:30 am - 12:30 pm

Use the automatic dialling system to make phone calls to debtors.

12:30 pm - 1:30 pm

Lunch.

1:30 pm - 4:30 pm

Continue to use the automatic dialling system to make phone calls to debtors.

We take it in turns to work a later shift - from 12 noon until 8 pm, as some people are not available by phone until the evening. We also take turns to work on Saturday morning from 8 am until 12.30 pm.

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