Debt Collectors Consider Trading "Knee-Breaking" Techniques for "Empathy Training"

Craig Cunningham of Dallas has an interesting way of dealing with debt collectors: He sues them, as documented in this week's paper version of Unfair Park. While only a small number of debtors file such lawsuits, the debt collection industry isn't waiting for such behavior to become popular. Which is why a new term is being tossed around in debt collection circles: "empathy" training.

ACA International is the largest trade group of professional creditors and collectors, and while they have yet to endorse any specific empathy training education materials, a spokesperson tells Unfair Park that more agencies are enhancing training courses to incorporate such techniques.

After this week's polarizing cover story appeared, ACA International recommended we speak with one member collector in St. Louis, Missouri, who has been an outspoken advocate of using empathy as a collection strategy for years.

"That's been one of the soap boxes that I've been on since the mid-'90s," says Roger Weiss, co-owner of CACI. "When you've got double-digit people calling you ... you're going to give it to a person that you want to work with."

Weiss aims to train his staff to "coach, mentor and counsel" debtors, rather than "try bludgeoning, knee-breaking and knuckle-bruising tactics," he says. The staff spends time reflecting on their personal experiences with debt collectors or that of someone they know. That way, says Weiss, "it's that much more real to them."

So, where is empathy training trending toward today?

"What we've discovered is that a lot of people are having to go, as I've tagged it, generationally deep," says Weiss. The staff under Weiss is increasingly suggesting that people who owe talk to their parents or grandparents about taking out a loan against their life insurance policies or reverse mortgage against their house.

It sounds selfish, but Weiss insists otherwise. "This is the weirdest economic time we've seen in a very long time, and our grandparents, especially, are very familiar with it from the Great Depression," he says. "What we're finding is a lot of people don't want this generation to feel that pain, so they will take a loan against the life insurance policy or retirement account."

"It's actually a very positive thing," says Weiss. "And it's a very good mechanism in that it doesn't crush anyone. I would much rather someone borrow against their life insurance than a 401(k) or a retirement plan because you're counting on that money to live on."

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