I was asked not so long ago how I go about engaging collections staff who spend their day making or receiving phone calls. Their main task, and in some cases their only task, is to collect the debt that is the focus of the call. The question was asked from the perspective of keeping these calls both professional and customer focused.

In reality, making call after call does lead to a very short term view of the world. The next customer on the list owes $100. The job at hand is to collect that $100 in the shortest time possible, within the confines of legislative and ethical guidelines and rules, and in alignment with the culture of the company. This is by no means an easy task, and is further complicated by the addition of the person making the call, their feelings, beliefs and persuasions. Have they just had a relationship break up? Have they run over the cat on the way to work?

As a leader, it is important to have a clear vision: a picture that the whole team can pick up and work towards. It is the translation of this vision to each role, each daily task, that is the difference between the success or failure of the vision.

When giving my answer I thought hard about how I translate my vision to the team and how well they understand how they impact on the success of that vision.

My vision is to make credit a competitive advantage for the company. It is easy to translate this to a role where retention of customers through problem solving their issues feeds back into a competitive advantage. This is what I would consider a direct influence on the pursuit.

However there are also indirect influences on the pursuit. As an example, the team member who's responsibility it is to pick up the phone and make the collection calls.

It is true that a leader's mind is in the future and a manager's mind is in the present. In the modern world people need less managing and more leading. To bring the collections role into the vision I first get the focus off the immediate call and onto the big picture. The call is not about collecting $100 today, but setting the customer up for good payment behaviour for the next six to twelve months. Yes, it is important to still work to getting the $100 in, but it is more important to work towards on time payments over the next twelve months.

Every collections call becomes a potential relationship building experience which keeps the mind focused on the future. The next call becomes easier, less stressful. The one call everyone gets a day that really gets under your skin becomes more than manageable; it becomes a challenge to work a potential protagonistic situation into an opportunity to win over a faithful and passionate customer, to create a loyal customer.

A success in this type of call becomes a direct influence on the pursuit towards competitive advantage of the credit function. It gives the team member a sense of value in the team and in their efforts, and where there is a perception of value, there is commitment and engagement.

My role as leader in the above situation is to keep the team's mind focused on the future, get out of their way and let them do their thing and provide an environment that is conducive to unlimited thinking. This involves not getting upset when things go wrong, and they do go wrong from time to time, but to be part of the solution by asking, in the immortal words of Bruce Sullivan, "What happened? How can I help?"

Given the emphasis on working towards the future, I do things today to ensure tomorrow is a successful day. The one tool I have found incredibly powerful for this is to say thank you to team members at the end of the day for a good days work. This does two things: it shakes off the negatives of the day just gone, and provides the basis for the next days' enthusiasm for the task at hand. Appreciation, it would seem, is a hidden secret to tap into unlimited potential. The real not so hidden secret is that I mean it.

I would be interested in hearing from anyone who has had similar experiences, or who employs the "What happened? How can I help?" method.

Paul Burgess is National Credit Manager at Steelforce Australia Pty Limited

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