Monday, February 24, 1997
Calling collect-ors
Credit agents in big demand
around Ohio

BY PERRY BROTHERS
The Cincinnati Enquirer

He dreaded making the first call.

Who wants to pick up a phone and ask a stranger for money?

Mark Powell made that call and thousands like it and today, after almost a decade as collection agent, he coaches other collectors through that first call.

Demand is high for people willing to collect debts. The Ohio Bureau of Employment Services (OBES) projects that industry employment will grow from 11,470 in 1994 to 14,660 in 2005. That's a 2.5 percent growth rate, compared with an overall statewide growth of 1.2 percent.

OBES anticipates 400 annual collections job openings for the next nine years, but some Tristate recruiters say finding career collectors to fill the growing number of jobs is a tough task.

The stereotypical mean-and-nasty image of collectors block many from considering such positions.

When an employment-services agency placed him at a collection agency, Mr. Powell - now a unit manager for Cincinnati's General Revenue Corporation (GRC) collection agency - admits that he was apprehensive. But he said he quickly learned that the job was about problem solving, not becoming a problem.

''There is an image that credit agents are out to ruin your lives,'' Mr. Powell said. ''The key is finding the avenues that can help these people find a way to get it (the debt) paid.''

Collectors who try to intimidate or threaten debtors do a disservice to the customer and the industry, he said, noting that the good collector will work as a negotiator.

An increasing number of Americans need help negotiating their debts.

U.S. consumer debt hit $1.18 trillion and more than 1 million individual bankruptcies were filed in 1996.

Small Business Administration projections anticipate a 68.4 percent credit-reporting and collections industry growth rate between 1994 and 2005. Employment in the field is expected to grow from 1.7 million to 2.9 million during that period, making it the nation's fourth fastest-growing small-business-dominated industry in retail trade and services. Medical and dental services, residential care and individual and family services ranked first, second and third, respectively.

Deborah Mattson, a spokeswoman for the Minneapolis-based American Collectors Association, said the ease of getting credit is the primary reason for the industry's growth.

''I have cousins who are 11th-graders in high school, and they are getting credit card applications,'' she said.

Other growth-prompting factors include the trend of outsourcing collections by businesses that used to handle their own collections; the fact that more businesses are less likely to write off debts as the number of credit accounts surges; and a wave of technological advancements, like automated dialing systems, that make hiring independent collection agencies more efficient for some companies.

Despite the stigma attached to a career in the field, Ms. Mattson said, more people are becoming agents because the jobs are recession-proof and flexible.

Most agencies require only a high school diploma or its equivalent, she said, and because many agencies call debtors in the evening, the hours are flexible.

''It's a training ground for any customer service position,'' she said, adding that the jobs develop organizational, problem-solving skills.

Also, she said, there is a lot of opportunity to move up in the rapidly growing industry.

Like Mr. Powell, Randall Dunn started out as a collection agent and worked his way up to a managerial position.

Mr. Dunn is now general manager of one of Greater Cincinnati's largest agencies, ACB American Inc. in Covington. He said a career in collections offers upward mobility both in postion and in pay.

Some companies like ACB pay collectors a base salary in the middle to low teens, plus commission.

''Some (employees) are making well into the 50s,'' he said.

Other companies like GRC pay hourly wages - starting at $8.65 an hour for entry level - or salaries plus incentive bonuses.

Whatever pay method a company uses, the industry offers many people without a college degree or previous experience the opportunity to make a professional-level income.

But moving up in the field requires certain skills.

''A lot of people just can't do it,'' Mr. Dunn said. ''They can't call somebody and say, 'Pay your bills.'''

Collectors have to deal with rejection and often, both Mr. Powell and Mr. Dunn said, abuse.

''You can't take anything personally,'' Mr. Powell said. ''Being threatened is one of the perils of the position.''

Also, collectors are required to learn and obey the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA), which was passed in 1977, he said. The act details the boundaries a collector is not allowed to cross. For example, debtors should be called only between 8 a.m. and 9 p.m.

Any company that has a large number of consumer complaints can be investigated by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and sued.

The largest FTC settlement, $550,000, from an agency since the FDCPA became law was against the Baltimore-based National Financial Services, said David Medine, the FTC's associate director for credit practices.

Mr. Dunn said ACB records collection-related telephone calls to make sure that the FDCPA rules are followed. GRC does the same, Kathy O'Brien, GRC's human resources director, said.

But Ms. O'Brien said the employees are extensively trained at GRC before they make the first call.

This is a point she emphasizes when she recruits collectors at high schools, colleges and job fairs - where she has to confront the stereotypes to attract potential employees.

''It isn't easy getting people into these positions,'' Ms. O'Brien said - ''but I stress the opportunities. You can learn skills that you can expand on.''