A Day In the Life of a Debt Collector

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We've regularly chronicled the chilling effect of debt collection practices on U.S. consumer (for examples check here and here). In doing so, consumers have a long list of complaints about scams, aggressive calls, illegal threats, and nasty encounters. But life is a two-way street and debt collections have stories of their own to tell – and here’s where they get their chance.

To begin, we need some perspective. True, on the list of issues you’ll face today, getting a call from a bill collector ranks somewhere between root canal and getting sued after your latest appearance on the Jerry Springer show.

According to a recent study by Scripps Howard, 40% of respondents said they had been threatened by a collections agent or had experienced enough calls from collections agent that they deemed it “harassment.”

But collections agents point out that trying to pry money out of late-paying consumers is no picnic, either. Data from the Association of Credit and Collections Professionals says that collections agents don’t last long – more than half don’t make it past five years before they switch vocations.

Beneath the surface, there’s a lot more to the day-to-day job than meets the eye. Most bill collectors don’t spend all their time on the phone hectoring consumers over their debts. Many write letters, send bills, and conduct "skip tracing" exercises to locate a hard-to-find consumer’s current address. Collection agents usually work in concert with creditors to establish payment terms for clients they’ve reached, and often work with lawyers to go after bigger fish that haven’t paid their bills, and with banks to garnish wages of late payers.

By and large, though, collection professionals spend their days at call centers, headsets attached, hunting down debtors in a pressure cooker of a workplace environment. Collection agents are expected to reach performance “quotas” and can lose their jobs if they don’t meet their debt recovery standards. Most also work at night and on weekends, when consumers are usually at home.

When they get to work, collections agent more or less follow the following schedule (courtesy of American Credit and Collections Blog):

  • Review their “tickler file” or listing of accounts that need to be followed up with or contacted on that particular day.
  • Return all calls left on answering service by debtors & clients.
  • Go through postal mail for payments, post them to accounts, send out thank you for your payment letters and deposit checks.
  • Start making collection calls.
  • Process any dunning (collection) letters that need to be sent out that day.
  • Deal with answering the phone and questions from clients and debtors.

No doubt, there is no shortage of collections agents who give the industry a black eye. They threaten, they harass, they personalize the call in a negative way, and they don’t always have their facts straight.

But far more collection professionals are just like the rest of the workforce – trying to make a buck and put food on the table for their families. Maybe we can keep that in mind the next time the phone rings from a collection agent – and a human being is on the other end of the line.

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