Monday, May 18, 2009

What Does Your Credit-Card Company Know About You?

Via:  New York Times  In the world of bad debt collection, a soft voice and intimate knowledge of your life situation works better than threats.

Rudy Santana’s day began recently, as almost all his working days begin, with a name on a screen. The name that April morning belonged to a Massachusetts man in his mid-30s. He owed money on a credit card and a second mortgage, the screen told Santana, and was separated from his wife. He was behind in paying back $28,900.97 in debt. Which was why he was on Santana’s screen.

When Santana reached him by phone, the man quickly began talking about his ex-wife. “Listen,” the man said. “I called her about this debt, and a guy picked up — a guy I’ve never heard before — and when I asked for her, he hung up on me. Can you believe that? We used that money to renovate the kitchen! And now she won’t even talk to me! Who the hell was that guy who answered the phone?”

“So you’ve spoken to your wife?” Santana asked, his voice soft and gentle. “Were you able to have a good talk with her? Even when you’re angry, it’s important to talk. Did you talk about the debt?”

“Yeah, we talked about it,” the man replied. He paused and released a small sob. “You know, she told me we would be together until we died. I know I have to pay this. But I’m not going to pay her half. I won’t damn pay it.”

“I know,” Santana said. “This is difficult, and I’ll be honest — I think you’re doing a great job. You’re really strong. But the thing is, to the bank, they don’t make a distinction between you and your wife. To them, it’s just debt. They just want to get paid.

“I think I can do something for you, though,” Santana continued, glancing at his screen. It was filled with information about the man, including the fact that he had recently sold his home at a loss. Some of this information had been sent by the man’s bank to Santana’s employer, Sunrise Credit Services, which collects delinquent debts for companies like Citigroup, Bank of America and HSBC. Santana’s company had added notes, too, including helpful tips — he is easier to reach in the mornings, for example — and new ways to contact him.

“Look,” Santana said. “I know you’re angry at your wife. One step to ending that anger is putting this debt behind you. It will really help you find peace. You owe about $29,000. How much do you think you can pay?”

“Well, how much are you gonna help me?” the man shot back. “These banks got all this taxpayer money from the government, and they’re the ones who ruined the market for my house! I helped bail them out. I think the banks should be paying me, instead of trying to suck all the life out of us they can!”

It was the first of numerous blowups that Santana would confront that day. Bill collectors don’t tend to encounter many pleasantries, even in the best of times. And these are nowhere near the best of times, for borrowers or for the banking and credit-card industries that lend to them. After two decades of almost constant expansion and profitability, card companies today are in deep trouble. Monstrous losses — estimated to top $395 billion over the next five years — are growing as cardholders, brought low by the recession, walk away from their debts. And Congress and President Obama are pushing for legislation that would make it much harder for companies to hike up interest rates and charge many of the sneaky fees that have been an easy source of revenue for years.

So credit-card firms are changing their business plans. Gone are the days of handing out cards willy-nilly and hoping that the cardholders who dutifully pay up will offset the losses from those who default. Today companies are focusing on those customers most likely to honor their debts. And they are looking for ways to convince existing cardholders that if they only have enough money to pay one bill, it’s wiser to pay off their credit card than, say, the phone.

Put another way, credit-card companies are becoming much more interested in understanding their customers’ lives and psyches, because, the theory goes, knowing what makes cardholders tick will help firms determine who is a good bet and who should be shown the door as quickly as possible.

Luckily for the industry, small groups of executives at most of the large firms have spent the last decade studying cardholders from almost every angle, and collection agencies have developed more sophisticated dunning techniques. They have sought to draw psychological and behavioral lessons from the enormous amounts of data the credit-card companies collect every day. They’ve run thousands of tests and crunched the numbers on millions of accounts. One result of all that labor is the conversation between Santana — a former bouncer whose higher education consists solely of corporate-sponsored classes like “the Psychology of Collections” — and the man from Massachusetts. When Santana contacted the man last month, he was armed with detailed information about his life and trained in which psychological approaches were most likely to succeed.

Eventually, the man from Massachusetts called Santana back with a proposal. He had spoken to his ex-wife, he said. They wanted to wipe out their debt by paying just $10,000 — only 35 percent of what they owed.

Continue reading at New York Times

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