When you call someone about an overdue account, more often than not, you get a promise to pay.

This article is about some of the things we can do on the phone to get people to keep their promises. Here are five ways, many of them very simple, to help customers remember what they have promised to do.

1. Repeat, repeat, repeat.

Repeating the key message a number of times is a good thing. Some of the most effective collectors will often repeat the agreement to the debtor – “pay $50.00 next Friday, then $70.00 a week for the next three weeks” – half a dozen times in different ways.

2. Many people forget things, we need to help them remember.

It is always good to get the debtor to write the agreement down i.e. perhaps on the outstanding invoice, on a calendar, or in a diary if they have one. Many people are unreliable and their initial commitment is never strong and so they don’t worry about breaking it.

3. Get the debtor to recap for you.

“So that we are both clear on the arrangement, could you just summarise what is going to be done here”. When a debtor repeats something back to you, he or she is more likely to remember than if he or she just agrees with your suggestion. It makes the debtor think more deeply about the arrangement and it is more likely to stick in his or her mind.

4. Spell out the payment method.

Ask “How will you be paying that?” Make the debtor think through the practical details i.e. if the debtor wishes to pay by automatic payment, direct debit or by credit card.

5. Confirmation letters.

In some cases, you’ll get a benefit from sending a confirmation letter. Most sophisticated credit operations do this.

You wouldn’t do it for an agreement to pay the day after tomorrow but you would for an agreement to pay $50.00 next Friday then $70.00 a week for the next three weeks.

So that’s fine for the debtors who simply are not organised enough to remember what they have promised.

What about those who are simply not very committed? One relatively sophisticated way of influencing them is by using attribution’ to change their behaviour. You may not know it but your beliefs about people influence their payment behaviour. For example, a creditor expects a debtor to react angrily to a request for money. To gather courage to make the call, the creditor assumes a tough attitude than he/she usually would. To the debtor, this attitude appears to be bullying, so the debtor responds with anger, thus confirming the creditor’s view that the debtor is aggressive.

In credit, if you can give the impression of expecting that the debtor intends to pay, you make it more likely that they will pay.

Here are some of the sorts of phrases that may be useful when dealing with debtors:

  • I can tell from your record that you’re the sort of person who pays their bills;
  • I’m not really supposed to do this but I can tell that you’re the sort of person who won’t let me down; and
  • I know you’re a good payer – you’ve never missed one before.

Nothing in collection is guaranteed to work every time. This is a relatively subtle approach and won’t always work, but its use makes it more likely that people will keep their promises to pay.

Of course there are some people who are so bad at paying that they will not believe you if you use any of the phrases above.

However, you might be surprised. People want to believe good things about themselves and we all tend to have a good opinion of ourselves, sometimes despite stacks of evidence to the contrary.