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Need to Collect a Debt? Persuasion Can Help!

When people think of influence and persuasion they immediately gravitate to sales and leadership. That makes sense because at its core selling is about persuading prospects and clients regarding the merits of your product or service. Leadership conjures up thoughts of influencing people, moving the masses, to forge ahead with goals.

I’ve noticed that rarely do people think about influence in the following contexts:

  • Settling an insurance claim
  • Getting people to adhere to their appointments
  • Working in collections

The reality is, each of those is a persuasive conversation because the influencer is attempting to change someone’s behavior.

U.K. Tax Collections

When Steve Martin, CMCT, head of INFLUENCE AT WORK in the U.K., worked with officials from the U.K. tax office he demonstrated just how powerful a tool persuasion can be when it comes to something as difficult as collecting back taxes.

U.K. residents that don’t pay their taxes on time are sent a standard collection letter in an effort to get any monies owed the government. Usually collection letters use some implied threat of legal recourse to gain compliance. In response to the standard letter 67% of U.K. residents who were behind on tax payments sent in the money they owed. Not bad but the question is: could the do better?

Another group who were delinquent on their taxes received a different letter. This letter incorporated the fact that most citizens paid their taxes on time. The response rate went up 7.5% (67% to 73%) in response to this approach. While that wasn’t a huge jump, it was a very good return for doing nothing more than changing the words on a letter they’d already planned to send.

With a third group the response rate jumped 23.8% (67% to 83%)! That letter let people know that the vast majority of people in their town, people just like them, paid their taxes on time. Scale that increase across an entire county and you’re talking about millions of pounds (British currency) collected each year with no extra effort. Small change, BIG difference! For more details check out The Small Big (Martin, Goldstein, Cialdini).

Ohio Debt Collection

I shared the U.K. findings with a debt collection firm and they were amazed at the results. The firm wanted to see if changes to their collection letters might produce similar result so we started working together.

This particular firm is entrusted with collecting debt (back taxes, liens, etc.) owed to the state of Ohio. The original letters sent to people who owed money relied primarily on coercion: pay or else we will pursue a legal remedy.

We decided to change the standard letters by incorporating a little persuasive psychology. The small changes led to BIG differences for the firm. Below are a few changes in key metrics:

Overall response rate from people who called in or responded by mail jumped 52.5%. Whereas only a quarter (23.5%) of people responded to the original letter, more than a third (35.9%) of people who got the revised letters proactively reached out to the firm. This was significant because making contact is the most difficult part of the collection process.

In response to the new letters, phone calls from debtors increased by 84.6%. Under the old letters only 13.2% of people responded but with the revised letters 24.4% called in. This was especially significant because once the firm has someone on the phone they stand a much better chance of collecting whatever was owed. Even if they were not able to settle the debt in full, quite often they were able to gather enough information to set up a collection timetable.

Finally, the number of people from whom debt was collected increased 89.6%! Using their original letters, the firm only collected debt from one out of every six people (16.9%). However, with the modified letters that incorporated a little influence, one third (32.1%) of people paid off their debt or some portion of it.

When you put dollars to the collections, depending on the size of the firm, it results in tens of thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands of additional monies collected. This significant increase is only a result of changing letters. The opportunity to change how debt collectors interact with people can increase the numbers even more.

Conclusion

Don’t fall prey to thinking influence is only for salespeople and business leaders. Any role in an organization where success depends on getting others to do something different can benefit from understanding how to ethically influence people.

Brian Ahearn, CMCT®, is the Chief Influence Officer at Influence PEOPLE, LLC. An author, TEDx speaker, international trainer, coach and consultant, he’s one of only 20 people in the world personally trained by Robert Cialdini, Ph.D., the most cited living social psychologist on the planet on the science of ethical influence.

Brian’s book, Influence PEOPLE: Powerful Everyday Opportunities to Persuade that are Lasting and Ethical, was name one of the 100 Best Influence Books of All Time by Book Authority. His LinkedIn Learning courses on sales and coaching have been viewed by more than 100,000 people around the world.