Until a few years ago, the personal qualities of collections professional could have been shared with those of bad supervisors or hard coaches, according to executives currently in the field.  

For many years the dominant overall industry model, these executives explained, tended to see people delinquent on loans as potential deadbeats and often favored impatience, intimidation, meanness and even threats in an attempt to make debtors pay what they owed.

Times have changed since then, and the traits of a good collections professional now owe more to the fields of psychology, sales and financial education than they do to boxing, bookmaking or loan sharking. 

But old stereotypes often die hard, so here’s a look at five qualities some established professionals in the field say are needed to succeed in the challenging field of modern collections.

Salesmanship  

“I think a collections professional needs to be good at sales because essentially that’s what they are doing,” explained Karin Brown, vice president for collections at Lending Solutions Inc. in Elgin, Ill.

“They are selling the member on the need to pay the credit union first.  A member who is late on a credit union loan usually doesn’t just have that one loan or that one call on their limited resources,” Brown said. “We need them to buy into the idea that it’s in their best interest to maintain their payments on their credit union loan.”

Confidence and Trustworthiness 

The ability to sell the notion that members need to pay their credit union first dovetails with two leading qualities for good collections professionals offered by Dona Svehla, senior vice president for retail lending and loss prevention at the 156,000-member, $1.8 billion Grow Financial Federal Credit Union in Tampa, Fla.  

Svehla said good collectors will project a sense of confidence and enthusiasm about what they are doing and will, in turn, seek to build trust with a debtor.

“It is essential that the debtor trusts that the collection agent both knows how to help them and will follow through on what they say they will do,” Svehla said. “The last thing you want is a collection agent who is having to say ‘I don’t know’ or, “let me find out’ to a member who is trying to work out a plan for how they are going to pay us.  Those answers make the member feel like they need to talk to whomever the collection agent is talking to.”

Interviewing and Listening Skills

Many people might suppose that having strong interviewing and listening skills would be the same thing, but Brown and Svehla agreed that they are both different and essential to finding success as a collections professional.

Interviewing skills involves having a sense of what questions to ask and the best way to ask them, Brown explained, while having good listening skills will enable the collections professional to have a sense of when to follow up on a line of questions and when it would be better to stop.

“Remember, as I tell collection seminars, we might have to date these members, but we don’t want to marry them,” meaning the goal is to help the member in one or two or three calls and not have to keep contacting the member month after month. 

“Our goal is to get to the big picture so we can put together something that will really help this member address the big picture,” Brown said. “Knowing when to ask the right questions and which questions to ask can be a big part of getting to that picture.”

Svehla also said that a strong sense of curiosity is essential to being a good interviewer and part of being a good collections professional. 

“I want a collector who has a curiosity about things,” Svehla said. “I want a collector who, you know, asks why someone did something a certain way or why they paid that bill and not this one” in an effort to get to this big picture even if, sometimes, that means being a tad manipulative.

“I know being manipulative person is not a good human quality,” Svehla said, ‘but sometimes there are bad human qualities that can be deployed in collections to help members make objectively better decisions.”

Good Instincts

One of Jeff Wieczorek’s top qualities for collections professionals, having good instincts, also dovetails with good interviewing and listening skills. Wieczorek is chief information officer for the 68,000-member, $586 million member Member One Credit Union in Roanoke, Va., where he manages nine collections professionals.

For Wieczorek, having good instincts, or what he calls “collector street smarts,” is having a sense of which members with delinquent loans are sincerely interested in working with the credit union to resolve the debt and which are not. 

“Probably eight out of 10 members are people who are really trying to do the right thing,” Wieczorek said. “But a collector has to be able to recognize when he or she runs across one of those two people who might be interested in just blaming it on the economy and letting the credit union take the loss.”  

For those members, he said, it may be appropriate to move to the next steps in collection or loss recovery.

Optimism

All the collection professionals agreed that a collections professional who is good at the tasks will have a strong sense of optimism.  

Collections professionals are most often calling people after something bad has happened to knock them off their payment schedule on a loan, the professional said.  

The member with the delinquent loan may feel like their circumstances are overwhelming them.  A good collections professional can help them see past that.

“We don’t call our collections department ‘collections.’ We call it the ‘member solutions’ department,” Wieczorek said, in part because the credit union is trying to help people see past their problems with a delinquent loan to a  path forward out of their fears about the delinquency and to a solution. 

“Optimism is how collection professionals demonstrate a path forward and away from the problem,” Brown added.