winning teams have coaches

By Vilis Ozols, MBA, CSP

 This article appeared in the California Collectors Association monthly magazine; Collectors Ink, in the Texas Collectors Association  monthly magazine and in the CRS News quarterly newsletter in 2005.(click here for information about reprinting these articles)

It can be argued that collections is a highly individualized endeavor. A single collector contacts a single debtor and a promise or payment is obtained. Yet, anyone in the collections field quickly recognizes that the end result of getting a single debtor on the phone with a single collector is the culmination of a multitude of efforts from a group of people working together as a team. From sales, to customer service, to skip tracing, to supervisors, to IT staff, to management/ownership, down to the team (work group) of collectors – all have been involved at some point in the process of collecting from that debtor.

There is no doubt that the better the teamwork … the better the collections results. Or as stated in one of my favorite quotes, “Teams divide the task and multiply the success.” So, what makes for more effective teamwork in a collections environment? Well as a longtime consultant in this area and now seeing so many collections team environments, let me share some standards that you might measure your team against to see how your teamwork measures up.

Highly Evolved Communication Skills

As a former athletic coach, I used to preach to my teams a simple philosophy: If two athletically equal sports teams meet in a match, the team that communicates more effectively will win! And to be honest, a good portion of every practice would always include components of ongoing continuous communication. We often focus solely on collections skills for collectors when a wider focus with the goal of better communication skills within the team might yield more results. This would include communication between management, collectors, dialer strategies people, operations folks, sales people, and supervisors.

Let me give you a personal example. I remember several years ago I was back home after conducting a seminar earlier that day. I was in the kitchen getting dinner ready, and all of a sudden, my little boy, who was about three years old at the time, grabs me by the tie, pulls me down to his level, grabs me by the face and says, “Pappa, you’re not listening to me!”

Well, I felt about three feet tall. There I was – cooking dinner, watching TV, reliving my presentation from earlier in the day (I especially liked my section on “Listening Skills”), and my little boy had been talking to me, and I hadn’t heard a word that he said! How often do we as collections professionals think we’re listening … when really we’re not! You may think you’re listening, but believe me, your co-workers know you’re not! They probably wish they could grab your face … the problem is, they can’t.

So here’s the question to you as a collections person: Are you hearing the messages from your team that you need to hear? Whether you are a collector, owner, manager, or employee, ask youself, “How could your team communicate better?”

One of the simplest things that helps with communication is the practice of holding regular meetings. I am constantly surprised by how often organizations neglect using this tool to keep everyone informed. So, are you and your team holding regular meetings to share the operational information that you all need to be more effective in your jobs?

Help Others to be Right

There was an interesting study conducted at the University of Minnesota several years back that concluded that by the time an average child turns age 17 they have heard the words “No” or “Don’t do that!” from their parents on average 182,000 times. Subsequently, the same study revealed that for every positive comment a parent gives a child growing up, they will give approximately twenty-one corresponding negative comments. If you factor in the obvious, that we love those kids, it makes me wonder what that ratio is in a work environment from a manager to an employee in the collections setting. How many negative comments do we experience compared to the positive ones we give? I would be scared to hazard a guess, and you can let your own imagination extrapolate what that answer might be.

So here is my suggestion: For the next little while, see how often you catch a teammate doing something “good.” And see how often you catch yourself giving positive feedback versus negative feedback. Ken Blanchard, the author of The One Minute Manager, quantifies it this way: “For a manager to be perceived as a positive manager, they need a four to one positive to negative contact ratio.” Take that a step further, for a teammate to be perceived as positive teammate, they need the same ratio. Are you always catching people doing things wrong? Or are you catching them doing things right … more than just some of the time?

Recalibrate Your Sensitivity Levels

One of the more disturbing perspectives that I have consistently heard in my consulting endeavors is this: A majority of employees truly believe that their managers a) don’t know what they do and b) don’t care what they do. This is a harsh statement given the fact that you would assume that any manager would know and value their team members’ contributions. The foundation of this lesson is that perception is the key. While most managers know about and value what their employees do, the perception of most employees is that their managers don’t.

So here is the test: How often do you as a team member, manager, supervisor, or owner actually let your employees or team members tangibly know that a) you know what they do and b) that you value and appreciate what they do. And don’t forget that fine distinction: It’s not “Do you know?” but “Do your team members know you know?” I always liked the quote by Abraham Maslow: “If the only tool you have is a hammer, you treat everything like a nail.” One of the most powerful coaching motivational tools is recognition and validation. Is it in your and your team’s repertoire?

Be Developmental, Not Punitive

An intrinsic collection industry characteristic is compliance. A collection agency must be in compliance with federal and state guidelines (such as FDCPA), with the work standards we promise our clients and the creditors, and at the collector level, with the agency procedures and work policies. The ugly reality of compliance is this: Wherever there is compliance, there will also be non-compliance. One of the most important team characteristics that will differentiate a great team from a non-performing team is how non-compliance or discipline is handled.

As a parent, one of the most challenging aspects of raising a child is dealing with discipline. As a manager or team leader, discipline is also one of the most difficult aspects of working with a team.

Noted child psychologist, Dr. Susan Baile, gives great parenting advice that I extrapolate to our collections environment. She says to measure your parental discipline efforts against this simple standard: Are you being punitive, or are you being developmental? Essentially, are you “punishing” or are you “making sure it doesn’t happen again?” This philosophy is a great standard for the collections environment when non-compliance is encountered. As a principle, it may not give you the words nor the specific strategy for dealing with non-compliance, but it will certainly give you the philosophy and perspective needed to work towards building a high performance collection team.

Sometimes we all need someone to grab our faces and tell us something that maybe we already think we’re doing. At school in my writing classes, my instructors used to say, “Avoid clichés like the plague.” Hopefully this final quote doesn’t transgress that rule, but even if it does, always remember: “None of us is ever as smart as all of us.”

Vilis Ozols, MBA, CSP, ( president of the Ozols Business Group in Albany, NY, is a motivational business speaker and leadership consultant. He is the author of 3 books, he’s a former pro beach volleyball player and he has spoken to businesses in all 50 U.S. states.