Wow! Did I actually say that out loud and in public? Yes, I guess I did, but the truly scary thing about that statement is that I mean it! I will try to clarify this statement before I elaborate on why being a bill collector has been so important to my life and too many others just like me. (Yes, there are more like me–and you may be one of them!)

All of the skills I have found to be essential to live a productive life, I learned or refined when I was a bill collector. That sounds like an even odder statement the second time I say it, and maybe it’s an over generalization, but nonetheless true. The life skills I am referring to are those necessary to be productive in both your personal and professional life, including communication, time management, and problem solving skills.

If you give some thought to these three life skills, you will see they apply to many of the major milestones a person passes through on their way to leading a productive life or accomplishing any important task: purchasing an automobile, getting an education, buying a house, raising children, planning a vacation, or dealing with the estate of a lost loved one. I could go on and on, but I think you get the picture. Most hard-to-obtain things in life require you to utilize good communication, strong time management, and some form of problem solving to ensure all alternatives are explored.

“All of the skills I have found to be essential to live a productive life, I learned or refined when I was a bill collector. That sounds like an even odder statement the second time I say it, and maybe it’s an over generalization, but nonetheless true.”

I think, however, prior to talking about these three life skills, it is essential for me to explain what it means to be an effective bill collector. In order for a bill collector to facilitate collections, the following tasks may need to be completed:

  • The borrower will need to be located.
  • The borrower will need to be contacted.
  • A communication rapport must be established.
  • Financial counseling must take place.
  • Negotiations must be executed.
  • Deadlines must be established.
  • Follow-up must be completed on a timely basis to ensure all parts of the agreement are completed.

Wow! I’m not sure I realized I would need to manage all of these things successfully when I agreed to take my first collection job at the age of 22. And I have neglected to discuss all the requirements necessary to comply with applicable state, federal, bankruptcy, communication, and banking regulations. Whew! I would be lying if I didn’t tell you how many times I thought about quitting in my first six months of employment, while I was still learning these new life skills. Yes, I almost gave up on my career before it ever started!

Life Skill #1: Communication
I believe that of the three skills I listed in the preceding paragraphs, communication is the most obvious skill needed to be an effective collector–but I also think it is the most misunderstood. Webster’s abbreviated definition of communication reads, “The act of conveying or imparting information or a message by any means.” In order to really understand what it means to have communication skills, it is important to utilize a working definition of effective communication. A good working definition would consist of five segments:

  1. A clear and concise message must be sent by a speaker.
  2. The message must attract the intended listener’s attention.
  3. It must be interpreted correctly by the listener.
  4. Some form of feedback must be sent from the listener to the speaker (so that the speaker understands that their message was interpreted correctly).
  5. The whole communication needs to happen within the appropriate context.

While everything I outlined regarding communication is well and good, it does not capture the true essence of the communication skills necessary to being an effective collector. The essence I am talking about is communicating to motivate and influence another’s behavior. This is the true skill I learned being a bill collector, and may be the most influential life skill I learned for both my professional and personal life. After all, what could require more motivational skills than convincing someone to give up their money, when others have failed before you?

Now, I could go on forever talking about the correct way to utilize open-ended questions versus close-ended questions to obtain information or gain agreement. Maybe even talk about the effective utilization of the psychological pause–but then I would be writing a book instead of a newsletter article. The important aspect to understand is that this skill I learned to become an effective collector is the same skill needed for all of the major life events I spoke of earlier, whether it is using communication to express your understanding of the importance of the Declaration of Independence to a history teacher, convincing your loved one that you are the one they should agree to spend the rest of their life with in marriage, or convincing your children to practice the Golden Rule.

Life Skill #2: Time Management
The second life skill is time management. To skip to the chase on time management, I will simply define it as “the act of controlling tasks either by direction or persuasion to ensure they are completed within a specified time and/or sequence.”

Time management is essential in bill collecting for two reasons:

  1. When communicating with a borrower to gain leverage in negotiation, you play your cards too soon or in the wrong order, all leverage will be lost.
  2. When performing portfolio management to ensure all aspects of an agreement or potential agreement are completed on a timely basis, failing to manage all negotiations or accounts for Minimal Account Resolution Standards (MARS) can be detrimental to successful collections. This can be a bigger task than imagined, since a collector may be required to manage a portfolio of 100 to 3,000 accounts, depending on the age and type of accounts.

It is important to remember that timing is one of the most important and influential tasks within negotiation. These same time management skills are necessary to be successful and productive in your personal life as well. This is demonstrated everyday by a single parent raising a child and pursuing a career, or by all the “what ifs” we think about when second guessing the stock market. Wouldn’t we all like to have bought Microsoft or IBM low and sold it high?

Life Skill #3: Problem Solving Ability
The third primary life skill I learned as a professional bill collector was the ability to solve problems. This may be the most self-evident of the three skills discussed in this article. If you do not have the ability to determine an alternative to overcoming an objection or obstacle in life, you may be stuck in the same rut forever. In collections, problem solving can mean finding alternative resources to obtain financial funds, or overcoming objections from borrowers who are having difficulty resolving their obligations. In life, this skill is utilized thousands of times a day.

My best analogy to problem solving is based on the meaning of “no,” which is defined by Webster’s dictionary as “a denial, refusal, or dissent.” To me “no” just means I need to find another way to convince you that my proposed solution or direction is the best solution for you to resolve any potential issue. Many of you who have worked in sales and/or marketing have been taught or learned the same thing.

I would be remiss not to reiterate that these are not the only skills I learned as a bill collector, or the only place that I have learned them, but in my experience I certainly refined them as a collector. I think I would also be doing you an injustice if I didn’t discuss at least a couple of the personal characteristics necessary to be successful in whatever you do in your career or personal life.

In addition to the three life skills briefly detailed in this article, I found it necessary to learn the three “P’s” of collections or life: Perseverance, Patience, and Persistence. Without any of these three personal characteristics, I never would’ve let my career get off the ground!

Today, 13 years after I started my career as a bill collector, I wouldn’t change a thing. I am sure many of you may already feel the same way, but if you don’t, maybe this article has helped you to think differently about your career as a collector.