With baseball back in full swing here in 2017, there has to be an article devoted to my Cubbies’ World Series victory and the debt collection world.
By way of background, I am a lifelong Chicagoan: born and raised. For nearly as long, I have been a devout Cubs fan. In fact, I distinctly recall taking the local bus to the ”L” train which stopped a block from Wrigley field… at age 10! For reasons I can’t fathom, my wife did not allow my daughters to make the same trip. This love of the Cubs carried over into adulthood where my first law office was walking distance from Wrigley and I purchased season tickets way before my firm was making enough money to really afford them.
Last season was truly amazing. To a certain extent, I am still surprised they actually won despite having traveled to Cleveland and being a witness to history. I know you’re asking, “what does this have to do with collections?” Well, to my mind, there are lots of similarities between my Cubbies and the collection world of today.
The biggest similarity was the recognition that there was a need for a total makeover of the Cubs. As one of his first actions, General Manager Theo Epstein created a blueprint that set forth the plan by which the new Cubs would operate. Epstein created a document called The Cubs Way in an effort to change the culture in Chicago from what had been done in the past – going for the big free agent splash, putting off rebuilding from the ground-up in favor of another stop gap measure. This was not going to happen anymore. And it was not simply a makeover of the stadium for cosmetic reasons, this was change from the ground up – in attitude, in strategy and in environment.
Does that sound familiar? Look at the world of collections today and recall what our policies and procedures looked like five or 10 years ago? The Cubs made the decision themselves to remake their team whereas the impetus for the collections world was negative forces from without – Dodd-Frank, the CFPB and a massive regulatory scheme imposed on our clients and by extension, ourselves.
But as a Cubs fan, I am an optimist. That means you can look at the troubles of today and see hope for the future. In today’s environment, the time may be right for Epstein’s total make over to take place. In my mind, the first place to start is the four-decades-old FDCPA. Created in a time where there was limited regulation and even more limited technology, it simply is out of date regarding the methodology of collections, means of communication and does not reflect the professionalism that is so prevalent in our industry.
The main problem Epstein saw was that the Cubs were in a desperate need for a cultural overhaul. Specifically, they needed players with the winning mindset. They needed to shed “the loveable loser” mantra and become something new. For our part, in many ways, I see that same change is needed in collections. Collections was never glamorous, but in recent years, thanks to the political environment, we have become almost vilified. Regulators and judges only know what they read and see in the media, which almost always paints an unfair picture based on the actions of a single bad actor. They do not account for the amount of care we take to get things right to protect consumers.
Yet, despite knowing what we do and how many of us do it right, hundreds of times a day, every day, I not only still find many people who have this old school mindset about debt collections who have a bunker mentality, and let that mentality control their decision making. To be clear, I’m certainly not saying we’re perfect, but the changes our industry has made over the past five years has been extraordinary and do us credit.
The Cubs created a plan and took risks, for example, trading their best prospect for Aroldis Chapman despite knowing he would only be a “rent a player” in order to win now! Likewise, we cannot be afraid to make decisions to move the business forward. We need to take advantage of this favorable political atmosphere to move regulation and legislation forward to reflect the real world of collections. We may not get all we want, but a dialogue has to begin.
Thus far, it has been a one-sided monologue of consent decrees and admonishments. It is time to get a conversation going. Look at your business – what good things are you doing? Are you advertising that to the clients or are you in bunker mentality? Do you have a state creditor’s bar association? If not, why not? If you do, what is that association doing to be an agent of change in your state legislature? Are you involved in NARCA? Are you watching from the sidelines or connecting with your Congressperson or Senator to help NARCA’s efforts to change the FDCPA. We have always been professionals and now we have the data to prove it thanks to all these audits. I am confident we are well ahead of Joe Maddon’s advice for the 2016 Cubs – “Just try not to suck.” Let’s do what the Cubs did and show the world how good we are.
Fred N. Blitt, Esq., is a partner with Blitt and Gaines, PC in Illinois and Couch, Conville and Blitt in Louisiana. He is past president of NARCA.