Improving Outcomes From Those Tough Calls

As C. Robin Szabo, president of media collections professionals Szabo Associates Inc., points out: “Even with all the great technology available today, the telephone is by far the most effective tool in a collector’s arsenal when it’s used correctly.” So here are 10 recommendations for successful collection conversations.

The advent of email and other electronic communications means that the MFM and BCCA office phones rarely ring these days. I’m betting it’s the same where you are. The decision to turn to a keyboard to communicate has become so common that I’ve even heard of companies eliminating their voicemail systems; I hope that doesn’t become a widespread trend.

Still, there are times when nothing can beat old fashioned one-on-one communication. Closing a sale and collecting a past-due account are two examples that come to mind. While a face-to-face meeting would be preferable, the realities of today’s media industry, with consolidated business offices serving clients across the country, make the telephone the medium of choice.

As C. Robin Szabo, president of media collections professionals Szabo Associates Inc., points out: “Even with all the great technology available today, the telephone is by far the most effective tool in a collector’s arsenal when it’s used correctly.”

The same approach and preparation that will ensure an effective collections call can be used to make a sales call more effective. That’s why I’d like to share some tips Szabo, who currently serves on the MFM and BCCA Board, included in a recent “Where Credit is Due” column for the July/August issue of our member magazine, TFM –The Financial Manager. Frankly, I wish I would have read this article before I made my first sales call or tried to defend that new capital item in my proposed budget back in the day. I know I would have been more successful.

His tips, as he says, “can be summed up quickly but require both skill and resolve: stay positive and stay in control.” Simple, but as he goes on to observe, “A positive attitude is hard to find, difficult to keep and impossible to teach.” Keep your focus on two things — staying positive and maintaining control.

Preparation is key here. You cannot expect to be successful if you, as one of my former colleagues described it, “show up and throw up.” Szabo’s recommendations for unlocking a successful collection conversation include:


  • Research the account thoroughly — The more information you have before picking up the telephone, the more headway you’ll make when you have the conversation. Saying, “I’ll have to check on that and call you back,” typically means you’ve lost control of the conversation.
  • Speak with the right person — It’s much more effective to ask for a specific person rather than “the person who handles your accounts payable.” Make sure you are speaking to the right person and that he or she knows who you are. “This step is simple but important. If you forget to make it, you are less likely to be effective,” Szabo advises.
  • State your intent — Once you have established your identity, immediately make a complete statement of your intent, demanding payment in full, even if you know that the debtor can come up with only a fraction of the money owed. “By asking for all of the monies owed, you will establish a position of control and the impression that you are firm in your resolve to collect the entire amount.”
  • Be specific and positive — “Saying something like ‘Will you mail a check for $10,000 today?’ leaves little room for misinterpretation.”
  • Listen — Let the debtor respond to your demand without further prompt or interruption. This allows you to accumulate more information on the debtor’s situation.
  • Show interest — Show a genuine interest in resolving the debtor’s problem while retaining your tone of objectivity. “By listening carefully and skillfully guiding the conversation, you should be able to determine what might motivate the debtor to pay and what would be a reasonable way of collecting the debt. If you’re lucky, you’ll have determined that the debtor has a cooperative attitude and intends to pay what is owed. If you’re not, you’ll have found yourself in the difficult position of having to motivate the debtor toward a change of attitude.”
  • Sell the solution — Appeal to the debtor’s sense of honesty and sense of pride with statements such as ‘I know your credit standing is important to you,’ or ‘We’re sorry if you misunderstood our payment terms,’ and we would appreciate payment in full today.’ Remember to leave the integrity of the debtor unchallenged while creating a sense of urgency in the matter.
  • Remain positive — Only as a last resort should you try to appeal to a debtor’s sense of fear regarding the debt. When the debtor has assets but you are unable to change a negative attitude by appealing to positive aspects of his or her character, the consequences of legal action may be the last remaining motivator.
  • Remain in control — When you recognize an opportunity to end the discussion, seize it with one last request for payment.
  • Follow up — Despite all your efforts up to this point, your efforts will be weakened if you don’t employ a prompt and determined follow-up. “Allow sufficient time for the check to get through the mail, but don’t set a follow-up date so far in the future that the debtor senses that collection is not very important to you.”

Szabo’s suggestions to do the research first, to know the name of the decision maker, and to listen, show interest, remain positive and follow up will also result in more sales. Preparation and attitude will make all the difference.

As he concludes, there can still be circumstances when the best of efforts can fail and it will be necessary to enlist a third party for help in collecting the debt. For many stations, that deadline may be when the account becomes 120 days past due.

This “Where Credit is Due” article from the recent issue of TFM (an electronic copy of which is available to non-member on our website for a limited time), is one of many examples of the educational services available to members of MFM and our BCCA subsidiary, the media industry’s credit association. Another example is the upcoming BCCA Media Credit Seminar; it’s scheduled for Oct. 8 in New York City.

In addition to providing timely updates on issues such as adapting credit and collections practices to meet the latest media buying trends, the seminar will provide a forum for industry’s credit professionals to share their experiences in successfully addressing these challenges. One of those discussion will involve Media Whys, BCCA’s newest credit report offering.

Szabo notes that research is essential to helping companies decide whether or not to extend credit and also to determining why a client isn’t meeting the terms of that credit agreement. Media Whys helps to fill that void by providing media-specific data along with trade data from Experian or D&B, allowing users to examine a potential client’s payment behavior with other media providers before making a credit decision.

With everyone in the industry examining ways to improve financial performance through seizing new business opportunities and optimizing current business practices, there are many financial challenges we can help your organization address.

As Robin Szabo’s tips on improving telephone collections demonstrate, many of the topics covered by our educational programs and services can benefit additional aspects of your business. Just think how his telephone tips might help you in your next conversation about an item you want to keep in the 2016 budget.

Mary M. Collins is president and CEO of the Media Financial Management Association and its BCCA subsidiary. She can be reached at [email protected]. Her column appears in TVNewsCheck every other week. You can read her earlier columns here.

Comments (1)

Leave a Reply

Joe Jaime says:

August 28, 2015 at 9:38 am

Good Article…Instead of ” Will you send a check today” we told the client that we’d send a person over to pick up the check….much better chance of getting paid.