Bill Bartmann, a debt collection agency CEO, has recently been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. The agency, Consumer Financial Support (CFS2), is winning top awards and growing fast—and it is based on a very different model than most.
As any other debt collector, CFS2 buys peoples’ debts from banks and then works to make sure the money gets paid back. But instead of purely focusing on the money, it focuses on being nice to those people in debt—”to strive to improve the life of each of our customers,” explained Bartmann via email.
After three years of the new approach, Bartmann is able to say that “Our collection results are in excess of 200 percent of our industry peers. Yes, there is a bit of additional cost to provide these services, but that cost is minimal in relation to the excess collections they produce.”
Bartmann and his wife, Kathy, were seriously in debt in the eighties. They experienced firsthand the aggressive tactics debt collectors use.
People have reported debt collectors to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for harassing and threatening; demanding more money than legally allowed; failing to verify disputed debts; and violating privacy laws by informing employers, co-workers, family members, and friends about the debt.
The FTC receives more complaints about debt collection than any other industry in the United States.
The Bartmann family vowed to change the game. Instead of making people afraid, the Bartmanns wanted to “focus on the pleasure principle,” said Bartmann. They wanted to use pleasure instead of fear as a motivator, to work with people instead of fight with them.
He didn’t know how to put this into practice initially. Bartmann started by asking his employees how they could “befriend” the customer, he told the Harvard Business Review.
CFS2 gives people in debt the helping hand they need. It goes beyond even advising an unemployed person in debt on how to get a job, for example; it will match the person’s resume with job openings, help him fill out job applications, schedule interviews, coach him via Skype before the interview to practice answering questions, provide business attire, and even a wake-up call on the morning of the interview.
It does the “heavy lifting for them, since they’re so beat down they have no get-up-and-go left,” Bartmann said.
CFS2 also negotiates with creditors to get a discounted settlement or a more suitable payment plan. It helps people connect with the government assistance programs they qualify for. And there is more.
A CFS2 employee thought to ask customers their needs, and came up with a list of other areas the agency can provide assistance: providing food or childcare, fixing a leaky roof, et cetera.
A typical customer relationship manager is selected on his or her capacity to “empathize (not sympathize)” with people, Bartmann said. “We do not hire employees with collection experience. Instead, we are looking for employees with social worker experience.”
“The daily tasks are dramatically different,” Bartmann said. “In the old days we did what most collection companies currently do—we focused on determining what resources the customer had with which to pay us, and then endeavored to get as much as possible. The new approach is to not even ask for payment but instead to ask, ‘how we can help?’ Once we have truly delivered value (as recognized by the customer) we can then get around to discussing our debt.”
CFS2 looks to the person’s longterm well-being. The customer relationship managers, backed by a supporting team, get to know the person and determine whether an organization exists to provide support for him or her. If someone is facing a particular issue, CFS2 will connect that person with an organization that helps people with that issue.
The story of Scott (last name withheld) illustrates the agency’s impact. Scott depended financially on his mother-in-law’s help and needed food, utility assistance, and money to take his daughter to the dentist. A CFS2 consultant helped him fill out a food stamp application online, gave him an address for a free dental clinic, and helped him get a job that pays better than any he has had in years.
Bartmann is spreading the new paradigm. He has taught classes on his methodology to students from 27 countries. He will teach a group of some 400 bankers and debt collectors in November in the UK how to emulate CFS2’s process.
When asked what advice he could give to aspiring friendly debt collectors, Bartmann said: “Quickly make the change, as regulatory agencies will soon put out of business any collector who follows the old ‘beat ‘em into the ground approach.’”
Banks are also becoming concerned about their reputations when choosing a collection agency. They don’t want their names sullied by harsh and harrassing collectors, and are selective about the agencies they will sell delinquent loans to.
Regulatory agencies are also holding banks liable for the actions of collectors, even if the bank sold the assets to the collector.
At CFS2, one consultant can help several hundred customers per month, Bartmann said, and the company has worked with over 4.5 million families in the last three years.