Al Nishimoto once conformed to the stereotype of a bank debt collector -- a pushy, aggressive little man concerned only with squeezing out outstanding loan payments for his employer. Today, Nishimoto, a corporate loan officer for the Los Angeles-based United California Bank (USC), still tries to retrieve delinquent payments, but now he does it with a smile and even a touch of understanding.
What has transformed Nishimoto, and other USC collectors, from an oppressive Mr. Hyde to a compassionate Dr. Jekyll is a program designed to reach debt collectors how to do their job without harassing and alienating their clients.
Since the training program began in late 1975, more than 800 collectors have completed the two-day course, which involves transactional analysis techniques, role playing and sensitivity training.
The new system, Nishimoto and his colleagues say, has made their job meaningful. "Today we feel like we're really trying to solve problems," said Nishimoto, who now trains other collectors. "Before it was just a grind. The whole job was to call people and get loan payments. Finesse didn't matter unless you finessed them out of the money."
The two-day seminar was designed at the behest of John Popovich, UBC's consumer affairs manager. Popovich said he received repeated reports about the bullying techniques of the bank's collectors and felt that a new approach was needed.
"Memos and directives were not going to solve the problem," Popovich said. "We had to change behavior through training and then show an alternative method."
Popovich suggested to bank officials that a more humane, understanding approach would bring the bank not only its money back, but also long-term friends -- thus assuring future deposits. Officials at UBC, the fifth largest bank in California with over $10 billion in assets, were at first skeptical. But now, Popovich says, the bank's hierarchy completely supports his efforts.
Part of the reason, Popovich says, is that the bank's debt deliquency rate has dropped since the program began. In addition, many former debtors have overcome their financial problems with new repayment schedules and have subsequently deposited large sums in the bank.
"I realized that in talking to people in the financial office that for some debtors it was a temporary situation. Because they were in tight straights at the moment didn't mean they would not be good customers in the future," Popovich said.
To design the new training program, Popovich turned to Rick Jete, a bank collector for over 16 years. Jete was dissatisfied with the old collection system because he felt the bank, the debtors and the collectors were all losing out.
Jete helped introduce transactional analysis into the program. T.A. as the system is called, was developed by Dr. Eric Berne in 1957. It stresses the role of attitudes in interpersonal communication. In the seminar, collectors learn to relate to debtors, in T.A. terms, as adult-to-adult, as opposed to parent-to-child, as was formerly the case.
"The bank's job is to show them the best way to pay. You know, 99 percent of the customers really want to pay you. So just treat them like human beings and that way you've made a damned good salesman for UCB," Jete said. He added that the number of complaints against collectors have dropped dramatically since the program began, from 10 complaints in 1975 to just two last year.
A recent instance in which the new policy towards debtors paid off comes from collector Elizabeth Evans, who works at UCB's 60-story headquarters in downtown Los Angeles. One customer, an unemployed married woman couldn't make her payments after losing her job, so Evans allowed her to reschedule the payments.
A few weeks later the woman's husband, an employee at Lockheed Aircraft, was killed in a motorcycle accident. The woman suddenly received a $200,000 check from his insurance policy and promptly deposited it at Evans UCB office.
"Now I know it's a strange story but in a way I feel good now," Evans said. "Before we pushed the customer, and, sure, we'd get the money but they resented us. Now they come back with deposits, big deposits."
Perhaps most important to the collectors is the sense that they are engaged in something socially worthwhile at training sessions new collectors are schooled in negotiating and dealing with delinquent payers in a problem-solving manner. Role playing methods are used to demonstrate to the collectors how it feels to be in the debtor's position.
At a recent seminar, Al Nishimoto portrayed a collector, while trainee Lynda Boone played the role of a businesswoman with a delinquent loan.
"I don't think I could have done it the old way," Boone said after the session. "And I know a lot of other people out in the branch offices feel the same.