The art of screaming, deceiving and negotiating a difficult debt

Phone call after phone call, Joana has only one objective: “Getting money from people.” In the beginning, it’s difficult to hear the stories of people drowning in debt. But she was able to overcome that. After four years, Joana admits: “I’ve lost all sensitivity”. The company she works to multiplied the number of employees in the last four years and is about to expand abroad.

João de Almeida Dias

Translation by Paulo Montes

June 2014

Joana picked up the phone and dialed the number of a pensioner of about 60-years-old and waited for her to pick up. The reason for the call is always the same: “Getting money from people.” In that particular case, it was a debt of six thousand euros the pensioner borrowed to cover a bank loan. When she heard “Hello?” on the other side of the line, Joana never imagined that would be the longest conversation of her career as debt manager.

They talked for two hours.

“She became nervous as soon as I told her the bank had asked our company to manage her debt. She panicked and thought she could sidetrack me, if she changed the subject. She told story after story, and they were all about her misfortunes. She told me she couldn’t have children, and that made her very sad. Then she told me that as a child her mother despised her and that all the love went to her brother. And she told me time and time again that her lawyer had drugged and raped her.”

The “client” repeated each of the stories, adding more and more details. Impatient, Joana tried to cut her off before she started telling them all over again. “All right, I’ve heard that, but I’m calling to speak about your debt, don’t change the subject.” Nothing. “Madam, shut up.” The opposite effect: the “client” – as they call debtors – began to speak up, using a strident and uneasy tone. “Shut up!”, Joana repeated, this time in a higher tone of voice, not wanting to be left behind. The pensioner continued to speak, while over her speech the debt manager started saying “Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!” in a frantic pace, as if repeating ad nauseam an outdated tongue twister. “You can’t talk to me like that, you’ll give me a heart attack! I’m already bleeding from my nose because of you!”. Desperate, Joana reached her limit and yelled into the microphone of her headset, “SHUT UP!”. At that moment, the 60 colleagues working in the same room paused their telephone debt collecting. They were flabbergasted, but realized what was going on: it was the first time Joana lost her temper with a client. More than surprising, it was normal, and they smiled at her as if to say: “You’re one after our own heart”.

After she calmed down, Joana managed to get to the point. After assessing the client’s situation, she negotiated a form of debt repayment. The pensioner accepted to repay the 6000 euros she owed the bank, after some effort and under threat of legal action. Even today, without failing, she pays the monthly 100 euros.

Four years ago, when she started working as a debt manager, Joana did not even know what her job entailed. She was 22-years-old and was unemployed after being fired from a communication company, where she graduated. She had several outstanding wages and therefore decided to turn her back on them. After that, she began opening the newspapers directly on the classified page, where she underlined any relevant job offer. So when she saw that a company was looking for “debt managers”, she didn’t think twice and sent her CV. Days later, she was called to a job interview.

“I had no idea what any of it was. They asked me if I had experience in banking, if I had any knowledge of law and if I had experience working over the telephone. Well, I had never worked in a bank and the only contact I had with law was a class I attended in college, which was the only one I failed. I said no to the first two questions. And I had never worked over the telephone or in a call center, or anything like that, but as I talk on the phone, like anyone else… I said yes to that one, just to end on a positive note.”

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When she was still in the dark, not knowing what job she had applied to, she heard in detail the modus operandi of the company – one of the largest in the difficult debt collections market, working for some of the most relevant banks and credit companies.

The rules were simple. Initially, the debtors are contacted via “[mobile] message campaigns”, and even by letter. The client is always informed, in a dry, direct and non-personalized tone that the management of their debt with a particular entity was transferred to the company and that soon they will get a telephone call to work out a payment solution. Then, during the phone call, everything varies according to the collector’s style. There are those who aspire to total debt repayment, intimidating the client without other criteria besides persistence, and those who are more diplomatic and try to find a middle ground, in which the debtor pays only a slice of the cake. In any case, it is important not to offend or pressure them with call after call. Those who do that – and there are quite a few of them – take the chance that the client submits a complaint to the regulatory authority of this activity, the Bank of Portugal. It is important not to offend the debtor. In extreme cases, Joana explained, insults should not exceed epithets like “deadbeat”.

They told her she would be integrated in one of the company’s several teams. They all have the ultimate goal of ensuring that debts are collected. Her base salary would be 650 euros, plus €0.02 for every euro she collected. On top of that, she could still earn a bonus of 150 euros if all members of her team were able to successfully treat at least 75% of the attributed client portfolios.

Other people’s suffering

After a training program that included simulated cases, tests made by the senior executives in the company and a 15 days trial, Joana signed her first three-month contract.

The first few days with a headset in her head were not easy. “We’re there for eight hours every day, listening to people talk about their lives… These are some unbelievable stories. And then we come home and we cannot forget the conversations we had.” She remembers the time she called a number and the client’s mother picked up. “My daughter is not here and I haven’t seen her for years, she fled to Brazil, and left me with her debts. I have asked you not to call me again!” In another occasion, Joana was surprised when, on the other side of the line, the daughter of the debtor picked up the phone: “Look, I am ten years old, and you know what? My mother abandoned me when I was little. Because of that, I never met her, she never wished me a Merry Christmas and I never got a kiss for my birthday. And you’re always calling us asking for money that we don’t have.” Joana, unable to move and in a state of panic, could only mutter: “Pass the phone to your grandmother, please.” The child refused and hung up on her. After four years, Joana still thinks about this case. At the time, she wasn’t able to let go and would think about it all night long. “In the beginning, we are not able to forget about these stories, it’s too many things at once, our heads become full.”

From the 12 people who joined the company along with Joana, only three continue there. The other nine quit in the first few weeks – mostly for lack of vocation, others for nervous breakdown.

Nowadays, Joana has a permanent position within the company. When she started, she was one of the youngest and most inexperienced people in the team, but she stood out. At first, she was shy when calling debtors, but she soon began to show results. She is currently earning between 1000 and 2000 euros at the end of each month. “You know you’re there to do a job and you forget about everything else. You’re there to collect money. You become desensitized to people’s excuses, they even begin to annoy you. At this stage, we have answers for everything. If people say they have no money, we tell them to go ask a friend or family. If they say it’s because of the crisis, we say the crisis affects us all. Then there are those who ask us if we want them to steal to pay for their debts. We usually say: “Do you think the bank stole the money they loaned you?” We get real upset with people. Sometimes, they are just plain foolish. Why buy an Audi with full extras if they can’t afford it? That irritates us. So it becomes easy to forget about everything else and think only about getting our salary at the end of the month. And for that we have to do two things: get money from people and achieve our goal.”

Joana integrates a team of nine collectors. Wages within the group vary, oscillating between 650 and 3000 euros per month. Sitting around a rectangular table, with the team leader at the head, it’s common for team members to tease one another. “In your face! I already have more money than you! Look at you, you sit around doing nothing…” The obsession is such that they rarely talk about anything else asides money. Not even during lunch break. From the routine lunch, where they reheat the previous night’s dinner leftovers in a Tupperware in the office pantry to the monthly dinner party, held at a restaurant, money is not taboo. It’s a backdrop. In these conversations, they each assess one another, trying to achieve the perfect balance between competition and cooperation.

However, competition is even greater when it comes to other teams in the office. “My team is ruthless, we don’t allow anyone to get into our backyard.” For this group, it would be a tragedy if any other team would learn the tricks they perfected in the art of collecting debts at all costs.

“To break a client”

One of Joana’s colleagues, known for being ruthless with clients, has a preferred collecting technique. Pedro alerts his colleagues whenever he’s going “to break a client”. That’s exactly what he did when he saw that he had to call a client over 70 that lived in the countryside, and owed nine thousand euros to a bank. He chose to deliberately lie to the debtor, inventing a plot that was as false as it was effective. “He lied to her and told her he was calling from a repo company. He said he was just calling to confirm her address, because they had orders to go there the next day to get her stuff because of a debt that she and her husband had in the bank. This was just to scare her. She immediately began to cry, begging him not to take anything,” Joana recalls, having heard this conversation first hand. “The next day, they called my colleague from the bank of the hometown where the lady lived. They called to say they were very pleased and also surprised. They said: ‘I don’t know what you told her, but she came here with her husband, the two of them crying, but they paid the nine thousand euros immediately!’”

Joana also recalls the time she had a client who was a footballer in a team that is usually at the bottom of Liga Zon Sagres. Since she didn’t have the football player’s phone number, Joana called the training center during working hours and asked to speak to him.

Joana – “Hello, do you know who this is?”

Football player – “No…”

Joana – “I’m the girl that is always watching you practice.”

Football player – “Who?”

Joana – “The blonde one. I’m always in the stands, I come over just to see you… I’m calling because I wanted to know if you’d give me your phone number.”

Football player – “Why?”

Joana – “Because I’d like to get to know you better. I find you cute and an excellent player. Can I get your number?”

Football player – “Sure, it’s 9…”

Shortly after, the athlete received a call to talk about his debts.

“Aren’t you ashamed of what you do for a living?”

But the portfolio of debtors that Joana and her company have is not all made up of football players that aspire to an affluent life style. The list is diverse: businessmen, recipients of welfare subsidies, unemployed people, pensioners, families living with one or two minimum wages etc. “There are cases where things go really bad. Companies that went bankrupt all of a sudden, people who lost their jobs, others that only have a debt and that, for some reason or other, can no longer afford to pay it…” Joana starts by saying this, but then she counters: “But then there are also people who have debts everywhere, they are real deadbeats. Some have debts in every company we work with [there are at least seven of them].”

Since the crisis began, Joana’s company hasn’t stopped growing. When she was hired, the agency had about 50 to 60 employees and it operated from a medium-sized office. Four years later, when the economies of many deteriorated as unemployment and the crisis raged, this company is in counter cycle with the rest of the country. They now employ 400 people and moved to one of the most sought after business centers in Lisbon – and there is already a plan for expansion to Spain, Angola and Brazil.

Gone are the days when Joana came home after a day’s work feeling guilty. Now, she emphasizes: “After all this time, I have lost all sensitivity.” Sometimes, her grandmother scolds her: “I don’t know how you are able to do this to people. Aren’t you ashamed of what you do for a living? It’s inhuman”. “People borrow money and then they don’t pay it back, grandmother. Many of them are deadbeats of the worst kind,” is the answer she hears from her granddaughter.

Now at the age of 26, she lives alone and is financially independent. At the end of the day, she fears only one thing: being forced to borrow money. “I know how this works and I stress about it. I know I have a permanent contract with my company, but I also know that things can change in a second. I find myself often thinking: ‘What would I do? Would I borrow money from my parents?’ I wouldn’t like to get a phone call like the ones I make.”

The names used in this piece are fictitious.