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Are We Abiding by "Subjective Compliance"

  • Written by Nick Jarman

jarman nickWhat's left to say; question so many debt collectors are asking themselves these days. Far too often debt collectors are being told to stop saying certain words, using certain phrases, or watch how the tone of your voice is sounds. There is an ongoing trend of limitation of what debt collectors say that seems to be growing in momentum. I have always been a believer of if a debt collector is told they can’t do something, they must be given a couple things they can do. Nowadays that belief seems to be a distant memory as we try and determine what’s left to say.

Over the last decade we have seen a continuous constrictive trend in compliance for debt collectors during their conversations with consumers. Up until many years ago, what was said to the consumer was the norm as long as it stayed in compliance with the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act. Later on, in addition to FDCPA compliance, the compliance trend moved to ensuring debt collectors remained professional and respectful throughout the entirety of the conversation with the consumer even though many conversations become somewhat confrontational due to consumers being upset about their own financial hardship. Over the last couple years, a major emphasis was placed on the tone of voice collectors used when talking to a consumer and ultimately, remaining in line with a complete customer service approach. With all of that said, we are now seeing the manifestation of what I call “subjective compliance.”

For me, subjective compliance refers to an individual’s own perception or expectation of what may or may not be said. This has put debt collectors, their managers and agency owners in a very uncomfortable and compromising predicament. Debt collectors can be completely compliant with all federal and state laws, company policies and procedures, as well as use an appropriate tone of voice and approach each call with a customer service centric focus. However, now debt collectors may have every single word they use scrutinized by the subjective thought of the compliance individual listening, rather than an objective set of principles and clearly defined expectations.

The reality is no position in the debt collection industry has a more difficult and demanding job than the debt collector. This trend of “subjective compliance” has now made it even harder. Unfortunately, debt collectors have lost focus on their main purpose, which is to speak with consumers and work out a resolution to a difficult situation. Debt collectors are now trained more than ever on how to speak with a consumer while remaining compliant with all debt collection related laws. Their main focus these days is worrying about whether or not they are saying the right thing or speaking in the right tone of voice so they don’t lose their job. Some restrictions and even unspoken compliance expectations are so heavily placed on debt collectors they no longer worry about if they lose their job after a hard day’s work, they worry about whether they are going to lose their job after every phone call they make. That is simply not right and no way to run a business.

How an organization monitors and implements their compliance structure is completely up to them. But successful organizations and partnerships outline clear and objective expectations for debt collectors to be held accountable. Clear expectations have to be within reality as well. Some tend to forget that debt collectors are actually human. Therefore they set their expectations for robots who fail to think for themselves. The fact of the matter is even robots malfunction at some point. I personally think that until someone has actually spent time collecting a debt on the collection floor, especially in our current collection environment, they shouldn’t have a say in any compliance expectations.

Rather than focusing compliance objectives on everything debt collectors can say, the tendency is to focus on everything they can’t say. This route is chosen simply because even those within a compliance role are not sure what debt collectors can say anymore. They have relegated to the “subjective compliance” measure to try and proactively create a catch-all in order to cover themselves in case something ever comes about; not taking the time to take into consideration the unintended consequences. I get it, organizations are so afraid of getting a complaint or lawsuit filed against them they must make decisions they feel will protect their organization and fail to look at the decision in its entirety. We are collecting debt and from a compliance perspective we must always remember three things: 1) we are calling to speak with someone who is more than likely not expecting our call, 2) we are calling to speak with someone who has or is experiencing a financial hardship and is under difficult circumstances, and 3) we are most likely calling someone who does not want to speak to us.

Don’t get me wrong for a second, I believe on every single phone call a collector must be professional, respectful and remain compliant with all debt collection related laws, company policies and procedures. Further I believe there should be clear and realistic expectations set for debt collectors that if not followed have consequences. What I also believe is debt collectors have an extremely difficult job in which the complexity changes constantly based on the fluidity of regulatory opinions, legislative changes, court case decisions and compliance reviews. I think those who take the subjective compliance approach when determining compliance violations should reconsider and take a look at the big picture. It is very important organizations work together as partners in developing the objective expectations of compliance during the collection process and ensure those expectations do not change on a whim or are ever unclear.


Nick Jarman is the Senior Vice President of Diversified Consultants, Inc. Jarman served the last three years on the Board of Directors for ACA International and is the past President of the Missouri Collectors Association.