Paralegals, collectors, and lawyers often receive disturbing phone calls from debtors, ranging from the weird to the downright tragic. However, when representing a creditor, giving legal advice to debtors would be a conflict of interest – no matter how troubled they are. Here are a few tips, based on my years of experience, for handling upsetting calls while remaining within legal boundaries.
The Fibber a/k/a The Country Singer – The caller maintains that the “check is in the mail” upon every phone call, or provides a litany of excuses: lost job, lost wife, lost dog, and a broken-down truck. I take callers’ words with a grain of salt and remind them of the legal ramifications of being “in default.”
The Meany – The caller gets angry, interrupts, shouts, curses, name-calls, and throws everything at you but the kitchen sink. As hard as it seems, the best thing to do is remain calm and not retaliate. Do not give them ammo for reporting you; simply direct the caller to a supervisor. As a manager, I have explained to mean callers that their behavior towards me and my employees is not tolerated. Until they can speak calmly and appropriately, the current communication is terminated. After a high-tension call, I grab a snack from the office kitchen to put my mind in a happier place.
The Frightener – The caller threatens with bodily harm, bombs, destruction, or even a “watch your back – you’re going to be sorry.” I always end the call immediately, tell superiors, and then notify the proper authorities. This is not a game; your safety and the safety of those around you could be at stake. Treat every threat as if it’s the real thing, even if it means having to evacuate the building for the hundredth time.
The Crier – The caller is audibly upset, wails, or can barely speak through the tears. This is when I find gentle assertiveness to be affective. If I take the sharpness of my tone down a notch and spend an extra moment outlining the caller’s options, the caller usually becomes calmer and easier to reason with. If not, I politely ask them to call me back once they have collected themselves.
The Heart-Wrencher – The caller relays personal circumstances that make you feel like the Grinch on Christmas. As a paralegal, I filed garnishments on seriously defaulted cases and often froze bank accounts in December. In response, I received heart-wrenching calls from parents without money to buy Christmas presents for their kids. What helped to ease the conversation was when I stated that I did not personally freeze their accounts; I only filed the paperwork the creditor requires in such situations. I then employed gentle assertiveness again when outlining the caller’s options.
The Devastator – The caller has tragic circumstances. I once received a call from a debtor whom had spent the last 6 months in the hospital due to cancer. During that time, bank garnishments wiped out his entire savings and he had no money to pay his mounting bills or to buy food. And to jab an ice pick through my heart, he sent over a copy of his doctor’s paperwork stating he may only have a year to live. In these types of situations, I tell the debtor to stay close to their phone, and then I contact the creditor immediately – it’s in their hands. After a devastating call, I always take a walk to clear my head. Otherwise, I’d be of very little use the rest of the day.