Understand and Develop Conversational Intelligence in Debt Collection

Understand and Develop Conversational Intelligence in Debt Collection

“Privacy works flexibly. It’s scalable. And it’s unique to every situation we’re in.” This is a quote from Leslie Bender, Senior Attorney of Health Privacy and Consumer Financial Privacy during her presentation at Collector Live, a yearly event hosted by Mike Gibb of AccountsRecovery.net.

The virtual conference for frontline and upper management debt collectors hosted several experts including debt collection industry professional Harry Strausser III. He spoke on maintaining a positive professional image–something that can be especially difficult in the collection industry.

The conference also included Speech Pathologist Liz Peterson, who taught the crowd to use their voices as tools of persuasion when collecting a debt.

Bender, known for her expertise in data security, focused her time at the event on a nuanced subject that doesn’t always get the attention it deserves – using conversational intelligence when speaking with consumers.

Conversational intelligence, defined as the ability to effectively communicate and navigate conversations in sensitive situations, plays a pivotal role in consumer interactions.

The first question Bender asked that debt collection agents need to consider is:

How much information is too much when you’re speaking to a consumer about a debt?

Conversational Intelligence Definition

According to organizational anthropologist Judith Glaser, it is the hardwired and learned ability to connect, engage, and navigate with others.

When we learn to communicate in ways that create a shared concept of reality, we can enhance our relationships, health, and overall well-being.

Apply Conversational Intelligence in Managing Consumer Privacy

As Bender discusses in the opening quote, there’s no set boundary for privacy. Guidelines for appropriate behavior can change from consumer to consumer, but they also vary based on setting.

This makes the job of operations manager or staff trainer especially difficult. The policies and procedures in your compliance management system are taught uniformly so every employee is on the same page. But there isn’t always one path to follow during your collection phone calls with consumers.

Bender says the first step to improving customer conversations when you don’t have a blueprint is to acknowledge basic truths of the debt collector role.

  • You are a problem solver - Collectors are first and foremost problem solvers. Every interaction you have with consumers revolves around learning their objections or barriers to resolving an account and finding a way to help overcome them.
  • You are a consumer advocate - Collectors may be the best advocates consumers have. You are knowledgeable about the billing and collections strategies of the creditors you represent. As a result, collectors are in a unique position to help consumers understand what alternatives exist to resolve debts.

Understanding your role as a debt collector is step one. After you know your responsibilities, it’s time to be keenly aware of your perspective about consumers.

Save time, save money, create a better consumer experience. Send debt collection communications through email.
PDCflow can help. Send documents, request esignatures and payments, and send payment reminders – all through email and SMS with Flow Technology.
👉  Learn More

Change Your Perspective: Customer Service Mindset

How you view a situation can have a drastic impact on its outcome. This is especially true of talking to consumers about owing a debt. Bender says there is one thought it is helpful to keep in your head during every collection conversation.
“This consumer wants to pay (or otherwise resolve) this bill.”
Leslie Bender

Remembering this perspective will set you up for more positive calls. And after you begin thinking this way, it’s time to fulfill your role to advocate for consumers and to find a way to help them resolve their accounts.

Not all accounts are resolved with payment. For example, if a customer alleges s/he has been the victim of identity theft, the role of the debt collector is to obtain key facts about when this fraud or identity theft occurred to assure the creditor is aware. In this instance, account resolution may include flagging the fraud associated with an account to avoid further collection activity on the account.


When you speak to consumers, you are acting as a representative of your creditor client as well as the industry. A bad experience during a call can reinforce the negative stereotypes consumers have about debt collection agencies. This negativity will act as a barrier to payment that may be hard to overcome.

Reasons a consumer may seem hostile:

  • Feeling shame about owing a debt
  • Feeling they are being scolded
  • Being overwhelmed, perhaps by an unexpected life event such as an illness, accident, loss of a loved one, or job layoff that is interfering with the consumer’s day-to-day activities
  • Simply having a bad day

It is your job as a collector to recognize and–if possible–change these perceptions about your role and the impressions you leave with consumers.

Active listening is important in finding a way to work with consumers so they may resolve their bills. Remember that we are all consumers and even something as simple as how you open a call may shape your success or failure in helping the person on the other end of the phone.

Once you’ve done this, you’re ready to practice conversational intelligence.

What is Conversational Intelligence?

Conversational intelligence relates to how open you are to learning during each conversation you have. Being willing to learn from the person with whom you have a conversation is key to building trust–and trust can lead to mutual success during a collection call.

While it is very important to respect the legal guardrails about how a call should proceed, it is arguably just as important to approach each collection call with an open mind. While you may have some ideas or biases before the call begins, recognizing them and recognizing how they could influence the information you take in during a call is super important.

Conversational intelligence is all about “the hardwired ability in all humans to connect, engage and navigate with others,” writes conversational intelligence expert Judith Glaser.

Five mistakes that lower our conversational intelligence and some examples of each (according to Glaser) are described in the following table:

Examples of Conversational Intelligence Mistakes



We ignore other peoples' perspectives.
The collector launches a collection call following the exact talking points provided and does not notice that the party answering the phone just stated s/he is at work is unable to take personal calls at work.
We are obsessed with "being right".
The customer believes s/he has paid the bill directly to the creditor and the collector informs the customer that the creditor wouldn't have placed the account for collections if the customer had paid.
We mistake more talking (and therefore sometimes less listening) for better communication.
The collector repeats expected talking points despite the customer trying to explain s/he does not remember the account and wants some basic information about it to jog his/her memory.
We don't notice that emotions can have an impact on listening.
The customer seems angry from the moment the call begins and the collector does not stop and acknowledge the customer's frustration and offer to help. The customer gets more upset as the call proceeds.
We forget to figure out whether or not the person we are talking with is engaged.
The collector works hard to share all required talking points and uses jargon likely known only to folks with collections backgrounds.

Conversational Intelligence Tools

Developing better conversational intelligence skills is key to establishing trust and working with consumers (who are, after all, your customers) to help them resolve past-due accounts.

How do you develop conversational intelligence skills?


Never underestimate the power of empathy. Understanding a consumer’s perspective can help you find the root of their reason for nonpayment.

Imagining yourself or a loved one in the consumer’s situation may help you understand their perspective. Once you have this insight, you will find connecting with consumers and offering help will make a world of difference.

Empathy Definition

Another way to practice empathic communication is to avoid thinking of your collections team as “we” and consumers as “them.”

Lawmakers and regulators who enforce consumer financial protection laws try to view situations from the perspectives of people receiving collections calls and letters. Collectors can get in the habit of doing this also.

What are some tips to keep in mind?

  • Don’t take calls personally - The first point to remember when practicing empathy: remove your own emotions from the equation. When consumers seem upset, you won’t know what they are upset about without active listening. The emotions people on the phone express may relate to their situation, not to you. Understand how your own emotions might bias how you react to an emotional person on the telephone.

You could be the exact person who can really hear what help a consumer needs, provide it and get the account resolved.

What if the consumer has complained repeatedly and all his or her prior detailed concerns have not yet been acted upon? That would be very frustrating for anybody–and you might have the chance on your call today to make a difference.

  • Be human - While you must remain professional in your calls, you should also remember that you, like the consumer you are calling, are human. Make consumers understand that you are an invested advocate, not just someone scolding or judging consumers for their unpaid debts.
  • Acknowledge feelings - It’s not enough to know you understand your consumer. Show consumers you call that you can tell they are frustrated and you want to help. This validates their feelings. Simply saying “I can hear you are feeling frustrated” or “Thank you for sharing” while offering to explain how you might be helpful can improve communication with consumers.
  • Be the “problem solver” - Once you’ve focused on the consumer’s concerns, heard them, and acknowledged how they may be feeling, it’s time to find a solution to fit the situation at hand. Use your expertise to tell the consumer what options exist to resolve an account.


Asking for too much information would make anybody uncomfortable. Similarly, offering too much information can also make another person uncomfortable.

In the credit and collections world, there may be lots of data available about the products, services or credit arrangements that led to the account you are looking at in your collections system.

Some of the information may be sensitive and lots of it may be non-public. Striking the right balance between asking for and sharing the “need to know” amount of information is an important skill for the conversationally intelligent collector.

Bender suggests a few guidelines to ensure you’re maintaining personal boundaries.

  • Understand the person and understand your role – Be empathetic and fulfill the role you have been given. You practice conversation intelligence when you try to understand what obstacles may have impeded the earlier resolution of a past-due bill.

You are also the person who knows exactly what options your creditor clients make available for getting unpaid bills resolved.

Listen to the consumer (and even imagine how you would see things if you were in the consumer’s spot) will help you understand their personal boundaries that shouldn’t be crossed.

  • Measure the information – Measure the information you’re sharing and requesting against your need to know. Even if a consumer feels comfortable, there is some information you may not need to ask for or share to help consumers resolve their debts.
  • Stick to the facts – Only request and share information relevant to a debt. Don’t ask for background information if it won’t help you continue your collection efforts. In addition, avoid editorializing. For example, if the customer tells you s/he was sure her/his health plan would cover a medical bill, it is a bad idea to offer an opinion like, “oh my, health plans these days are just awful, aren’t they?”

Once you understand these principles, practicing conversational intelligence will enhance customer interactions.

Subscribe for weekly updates or to our monthly newsletter for more actionable insights, tactics, and expert advice to improve the payment experience and create a better cash flow.

Sign Up:

Want to know more about PDCflow Software?

Press ▶️ to watch our explainer video

See how our Flow Technology can reduce risk for your agency and speed up your digital payment collections with secure email and text. Book a demo today.
Book Demo

Verify right party contact and keep all sensitive data secure. Eliminate the need for multiple software vendors. Send all your business transactions in one Flow smart request.
Explore Flow Technology
Share this post!
Hannah Huerta - PDCflow Marketing Specialist
Hannah Huerta, Marketing Specialist

Hannah Huerta is a Marketing Specialist at PDCflow. She creates content for the accounts receivable and payment industry.

LinkedIn - Hannah Huerta
Related Articles
3 Effective Communication Strategy Tips for Debt Collectors
Text and Email for Debt Collection: Reaching Consumers Where They Are