SINGAPORE: Christabel Sia has no qualms about walking away from clients who insist on intimidation tactics to recover their debts, even if it means forgoing a hefty commission for her agency.
One client wanted Sia’s agency, Rocket Debt Collection, to stalk and kidnap the debtor’s child to coerce the debtor into repaying the S$500,000 debt. His contract was terminated.
Another, a potential client, wanted the agency to visit the debtor specifically during the Chinese New Year reunion dinner — and offered a 50 per cent commission on a debt of almost a million dollars, instead of the typical 20 per cent.
“I said, I’m sorry, I won’t do that,” recounts Sia, the agency’s 41-year-old director and founder.
Others whom she turned down had said the agency’s plain shirts with a small company logo were “too friendly”. They wanted the shirts to state “O$P$”.
“Every agency has its ways of collecting, and every client has their preferred way of how they want you to collect. If those two factors don’t match, then unfortunately, it wouldn’t be a working relationship,” she says.
She started Rocket Debt Collection less than a year ago, after being a client of another agency and realising there was a “better way” to run a business in this industry than “trying to squeeze blood from a stone”.
It seems idealistic, but she is not alone in thinking that it is only realistic to have a heart in this job.
Especially with the COVID-19 pandemic, many debtors are unable to work or have lost their jobs, cites Winston Chin, the founder and director of KX-Unit.
This means his debt collection agency, which has been around for five years, has been developing closer relationships with debtors to reach a compromise.
“If you’re not an essential worker, or if you don't have an income, I don’t think it’s appropriate to ask you for money. Our clients also won’t want us to do that. Everyone’s taking a hit during this time,” says the 36-year-old.
“If they have income and they want to make partial payment, it’s fair. But if they don’t have income at all and want to defer until Phase One before resuming their instalment plan, that’s also fair.”
COVID-19 has changed things for debt collectors, who are still not allowed to be out and about, operating as normal, during Singapore’s first phase of reopening.
READ: Transition to a 'new normal' after circuit breaker: How will measures be lifted beyond Phase 1?
But for Rocket Debt Collection and KX-Unit, what they are certain is not going to change despite all the challenges is the role of empathy in retrieving debts.
ADAPTING TO NEW REALITIES
During the recent “circuit breaker”, KX-Unit saw more debtors defaulting on their loan repayments than the usual 10 to 20 per cent of cases.
But when debtors hang up on the agency or block its number, the inability to visit the debtor’s home or office means the important “follow-up” in the debt collection process is missing, says Chin.
WATCH: Stereotypes of debt collectors debunked (Dur 4:21)
These follow-ups are usually timed “close” to each other to make payment evasion harder, with “consistent and immediate follow-ups” the best way to negotiate with those who are likely to lapse on their instalments.
Still, some debtors have taken the initiative, for example, to update KX-Unit on their application for the Temporary Relief Fund before they can pay the money owed.
“We also have a woman who makes payments for her husband, who’s the debtor, because he’s hospitalised due to an ongoing medical condition,” shares John Lim, the 26-year-old operations controller of KX-Unit.
“Even during April and May, she made consistent payments, and she was prompt in contacting us.”
This relationship with debtors is something Rocket Debt Collection has tried to keep up so that the collection process can be easier once site visits can resume.
“Sometimes we joke with debtors, like we say, ‘You break my heart, you know? Why didn't you answer my call?’” says Jason Pang, the agency’s 35-year-old operations manager.
His boss, Sia, counts her blessings that she has understanding clients who even ask if her team “needs masks or any errands run”.
On the flip side, there are difficult debtors who have used the COVID-19 situation to skirt payment, even before the circuit breaker.
For instance, in March, Lim and Chin visited a debtor’s home after suspecting her of faking three consecutive five-day Stay-Home Notices.
Previously she had tried to gain sympathy for her situation and buy time. But every time a payment deadline came, she broke her promise.
When the two debt collectors arrived at her place, what they did not expect was the debtor coughing on them to shoo them away.
“When somebody wants to chase you away, they can do it directly, like tell you to get lost. Or they can do it indirectly … like her,” says Lim.
“We maintained a firm response, as unpleasant as it was, and kept a 1.5-metre distance. We persisted until she decided to talk to us.”
She agreed on another payment date, but then came the circuit breaker and, now, the phased reopening.
For Lim, these past few months have been instructive. “Just because a debtor is contactable doesn’t mean (he or she is) cooperative. And just because they’re cooperative doesn’t mean they have the means to repay the debt,” he says.
AN APPROACH THAT WORKS
KX-Unit exercises empathy with debtors as long as they are “genuine” and “keep to their word”. And its debt collectors are encouraged to put themselves in a debtor’s shoes to settle a debt.
“Anybody who’s decent enough to be part of a legal debt collection business will feel a sense of unpleasantness when dealing with debtors,” says Lim.
"But we try to (help them see) that renegotiation can work to their advantage, so they’re more motivated to pay up."
His team’s strategy of mediation boasts a success rate of about 60 to 70 per cent, which includes full payment, fulfilled instalment plans as well as partial settlement agreed by all parties and collected in full.
Similarly, Rocket Debt Collection has a success rate of about 70 to 80 per cent, comprising debtors who have made full payment and those who are on instalment plans.
Those figures are partly due to certain characteristics both agencies look for in their debt collectors.
KX-Unit enforces strict rules on three V’s — no vulgarities, no vandalism and no violence. Any such breach on the ground results in termination, while speaking vulgarities in the office leads to a S$10 penalty.
“The older generation might have had bad experiences with debt collectors in the past and formed the impression that they’re from secret societies. But we’re moving into a new era,” says Lim.
In this era of professionalism, someone like Pang, who sports full sleeve tattoos on both arms, disarms debtors with his gentle demeanour and street smarts, according to Sia.
His “common sense” enables him to discern whether a debtor is trying to pull a fast one or truly has difficulty repaying the debt.
“It doesn’t mean that the more tattoos you have or the bigger (your) size ... (the) better (the) results. I don’t deliberately employ big guys because they’re already intimidating,” says Sia, who fired a previous collector for his temper.
If you push a debtor too hard, they can choose to disappear or not to pay, which is what we don’t want. We’d rather work out a realistic payment plan that they can commit to.
Occasionally, even debtors’ neighbours help out upon realising that Pang and the licensed debt collectors he manages are non-threatening.
Neighbours once tipped them off about a debtor’s son who had just got married and how many guests attended the wedding banquet. This gave Pang’s team a better indication of the debtor’s financial status.
“(Another debtor’s neighbour) advised that I should come back at 9pm because (this debtor) would return home then,” recalls Pang.
Rocket Debt Collection could earn more money, admits Sia, if she were not so resolute that her debt collectors “stick to ethics” instead of threatening debtors with brute force.
But she would “rather earn less than not be able to sleep at night”.
So her agency’s fees depend on various other factors, such as the age of the debt and how much information the client can provide. Old debts might take longer to recover, while scant information means spending money researching a debtor.
Commissions can dip to as low as eight per cent if the debt collected is exorbitant, say, a couple of million dollars.
DOUBLING DOWN ON DECENCY
Not only is Sia quick to debunk the stereotype of debt collectors as bullies, she also describes how the boot is on the other foot sometimes.
For example, she has been harassed by debtors who do not want to pay up, so much so that she moved house to protect her family.
“I also see the amount of vulgarities and abuse that get screamed in my team’s faces through the pinhole cameras that they wear,” she says.
“Much of the verbal abuse comes from the upper class, (as if) they think we’re beneath them and don’t have the right to breathe the same air, when they’re the ones who owe money.”
These debtors do not deny owing money, she adds, yet “they’re the ones calling the police” and sending her staff on “another trip to the police station”.
“There are some who accuse us of destroying their property, like breaking their things, but we’re always able to show that we haven’t done anything wrong through our pinhole camera.”
The more enraged debtors get, says Pang, the more civil he gets. He believes they would calm down if they feel that their behaviour is “too much”.
If anything, COVID-19 has made it more apparent to both agencies that staying on the right side of the law beats resorting to underhand or strong-arm tactics like spray-painting a debtor’s walls.
While unscrupulous competitors might secretly begin operating now, Chin from KX-Unit shows his clients an email from Enterprise Singapore to clarify that debt collection services are not yet permitted to resume.
“Whether you want to choose another agency to (help you) during this COVID period ... is your own choice,” he says.
Although the pandemic and economic fallout are showing up “a lot of lines that haven’t been defined” for the debt collection industry, Lim is confident that his team will “continue to look for debtors” to repay their debt going forward.
“Even if they can get away once, it might be because there are other cases. But this is for a short period. Eventually, we’ll come back for them. We’ll still talk about renegotiation,” he says.
Meanwhile, with productivity taking a hit from face-to-face interaction grinding to a halt, the team at Rocket Debt Collection are giving vent to their feelings during their weekly online meetings. They are “frustrated and angry”, says Sia.
They have also offered to take a 50 per cent pay cut, since there has not been much revenue in the past two months and probably not much change during Phase One.
But Sia refused — in the same way she does not kowtow to some requests from clients nor budge on her belief that showing a little empathy for debtors goes a long way.
She is not losing any sleep over her approach either. Since the start of Phase One on June 2, Rocket Debt Collection has closed six cases, with debtors making full payments voluntarily, including those who defaulted before the circuit breaker.