THE BILL COLLECTOR
In some ways the jobs of the bill collector and the flight attendant are similar. Each represents an opposite pole of emotional labor. In a work-a-day sense, each job expands and contracts in response to economic conditions, though inversely: when times are bad the flight attendant has fewer passengers to cope with, but the bill collector has more debtors to pursue. Furthermore, in each job the worker must be attuned to the economic status of the customer. The flight attendant is asked to pay special attention to those who bring in the most money—businessmen whose companies carry contracts for first-class travel with the airline. The bill collector deals, of necessity, with those who bring in the least: “We can tell by the addresses that our debtors live in lower – income areas; they are poorer and younger” (Delta billing department chief).
One striking difference between the two jobs lies in the area of training. Flight attendants are carefully recruited and given two to five weeks of intensive training (Delta requires four). In the particular collection agency I visited, the training was as follows: a young man with no experience was handed four albums of recorded “model” collection calls, briefed on the company’s system of recording information, asked to fill out a form to receive a state license, handed his job card to punch in, and seated with a bundle of accounts at a telephone—all in the space of an hour. Since little effort was made, through training or otherwise, to retain workers, the turnover was high. Those who had stayed with the work had probably learned skills in escalating aggression much earlier in life. And they had come to understand their own preferences. As one collector said, “I’d rather do eight hours of collecting than four hours of telephone sales. In telephone sales you’ve got to be nice no matter what, and lots of times I don’t feel like being nice. To act enthusiastic is hard work for me.”
The project of the flight attendant is to enhance the customer’s status, to heighten his or her importance. “The passenger may not always be right, but he’s never wrong.” Every act of service is an advertisement. In contrast, the final stages of bill collecting typically deflate the customer’s status, as the collector works at wearing down the customer’s presumed resistance to paying. The collector may choose to expand the act of nonpayment into evidence of the humiliating status of debtor by hinting that the customer is lazy and of low moral character. Conversations with bill collectors are notorious for such status deflation, which is why they often provoke hostility — usually legal on one side and often physical on the other.
In the collection business, the stage setting and the relations between actors are depersonalized and guarded from the very start. In contrast to flight attendants, who are generally required to wear name tags on their uniforms, the collectors in the agency I studied were not allowed to use their real names. As one of them explained, “The agency worries that some of these debtors are hot-headed. They don’t want them finding you.” Unlike the passenger on board a plane, the debtor cannot — in the case of telephone collecting—see the collector’s stage. Of course, the collector cannot see the debtor’s stage either. As one collector noted wryly: “A woman might say, ‘My husband handles these matters and he’s at work.’ He might be sitting right there on the couch drinking a beer. How do I know? I wish they’d get that tele – thing [visual phone]. But that would be just one more thing to collect on.”
Debtors who came to the office I studied—to deliver payment checks by hand or to pick up personal belongings from secretly repossessed cars —found it guarded by two Great Danes, one tied by a chain downstairs and one in the office itself. (“When I first went to work,” said one collector, “I asked if the dog bites. They said, ‘Yeah, but you don’t have to worry —it’s just black people it bites.’”) Offstage, and visible only to the collectors, was a sign in the window, a prompting card that read: “Catch your customer off guard. Control the conversation.”
Often the collector’s first task is to trap the debtor into acknowledging his or her identity. The collector, who may give a false name, assumes that the debtor may try to avoid offering any name at all. By using the debtor’s name in the opening sentence, especially in early morning calls when people may be off guard, the debtor may be trapped into admitting who he or she is*
This sours the encounter from the beginning, for the debtor quickly realizes the ground he has lost. “Occasionally the guy will just be nasty right from the start. He’s just mad that he has acknowledged who he is before he knows who you are.” It is easier if the collector talks fast. As one collector explained: “You identify the person, then identify yourself to them. Then you get right to the point, and make it real fast, like you’ve got to have the money tomorrow. Then you pause for a second. You try to catch them off guard. If you’re too nice, believe me, they give you a hard time.”
* One woman collector said, “This works especially well for me because they don’t expect a woman to be a bill collector.” A male collector reported a dilemma: “The boss tells us we have to make long-distance calls collect. Now why is someone going to accept a collect call from someone they don’t know? When the phone bill comes up, I’ll probably get fired.”
The collector’s next task is to adjust the degree of threat to the debtor’s resistance. He or she learns how to do this largely by observing how others do it. For one collector, the other person was his employer: “He came out and screamed at the top of his lungs, ‘I don’t care if it’s Christmas or what goddamn holiday! You tell those people to get that money in!”’ Although this employer favored a rapid escalation of the threat to get a smaller amount of money sooner and move on to new accounts, his workers generally preferred the “soft collect.” By taking more time to get to the point, they felt they could offer the debtor an opening gift—the benefit of the doubt, and a hint that matters of time and amount might be negotiable —in return for which the debtor could offer compliance in good faith. At this stage, and especially with new debtors, the collector often spoke in the collaborative we, as in “Let’s see how we can clear this up.” Sometimes the agency collector verbally set himself apart from the company seeking payment, as in “Look, let’s see what we can settle now. Otherwise they will be writing you again in a week.”
Like the flight attendant, the bill collector observes feeling rules. For the flight attendant, trust must not give way too easily to suspicion, and so she is encouraged to think of passengers as guests or as children. The collector, on the other hand, must not let suspicion give way too easily to trust, and so signs of truth-telling, small clues to veracity, become important. One experienced collector said, “I come down faster [on debtors] than a rookie would because I see the signs faster.” He continued:
Now a guy who takes time to write letters to the company is probably telling you the truth. But the guy who doesn’t ever say anything until I finally find him and then all of a sudden he starts bitching about the merchandise —him I wonder about. Or he says, “I lost my money order receipt.” That’s always a good one. Or “I didn’t keep my canceled check.”
Another sign of truth-telling is the debtor’s outright admission of a debt owed:
I give a lot of people a break. People tell you right out, “I haven’t been working. I don’t have the money. What do you want me to do?” And I say, “Okay, here’s what I’ll do for you.” Say they owe five hundred dollars. I say, “Okay, send it in twenties and that will give you some time. If you don’t send in anything, they’re going to send you a letter in a week.”
Sometimes in the course of deciding whether to trust the debtor, the bill collector may develop doubt about the truth of the creditor’s claims. Thus a person who tried to collect money for ABC Diapers reported:
ABC would say they got back a load that was forty-four diapers short, so they’d charge the customer 75 cents per missing diaper. But all the customers say they didn’t keep any diapers. The world would be filled with diapers if they could find all those missing ones. ABC must have got people thinking that they’re counting out the diapers. But they don’t deliver the right number to start with. When every account with ABC Diapers has a problem, I side with the customers. But I don’t dare say that to the boss.
The bill collector, unlike the flight attendant, is not asked to believe the claims of the agency or the corporate client on whose behalf money is collected, even though such belief makes the work easier. One woman recalled:
I worked for one of those matchbook schools—you know, the schools advertised on the back of matchbooks. It was called Career Academy. They had eleven schools throughout the United States, but they were on their way down the tubes and for that reason took me with no experience and made me assistant manager [a job that included billing]. They taught things like how to run a charge card through a machine, and gave degrees for it. They said they were going to make famous radio broadcasters out of guys from the boondocks that stuttered…. It was mainly poor blacks who borrowed money to take the course.
The delinquency rate [among borrowers] was 50 percent. No one who graduated from the school could get a job in radio broadcasting. So how’s a guy going to pay his debt?
This collector was not asked to “believe in the company.” Her task was to maintain a cynical distance from it while still working on its behalf.
Even if a collector trusts the debtor, there remains the question of how sympathetic to be. In the training of flight attendants, the analogies to guest and child are used to amplify feelings of empathy and sympathy. In the work of bill collectors, the analogies to “loafer” and “cheat” are invoked to curtail those feelings when they would interfere with collecting. As one collector confessed: “It’s mostly poor people we go after. In this business I believe most people are honest, and unless they have a serious complaint about the service or something, they’ll try and pay. Now if my boss heard me say that, he’d fire me for sure because I’m supposed to assume that all these people are out to get us!’
If payment is not securely arranged after two or three calls, the collector may get rough. The debtor’s “excuse for not paying” may now be called “a lie,” a deception that the collector had known about all along but had pretended not to see out of politeness. As one collector described the process:
You look at the card on this guy. You see that he’s promised things and promised things, and once said he lost your address when you know it’s right in the phone book. So you say, “This is So and So with the Collection Center, Mr. Smith,” and maybe he’ll start off real nice. So you say, “Well, what about this?” And he’ll say, “You mean you haven’t gotten that yet? I can’t understand it. Maybe my wife didn’t mail it — I gave it to her to mail.” Then you start getting tough. You say, “Well, it’s getting just a little bit tiresome to keep hearing this stuff I don’t want you to take a chance with these risky mails anymore. I want you in this office today with the money.” Then he’ll really let you have it.
Whereas a flight attendant is encouraged to elevate the passenger’s status by lowering her own, a bill collector is given permission to puff himself up, to take the upper hand and exercise a certain license in dealing with others. One collector who disavowed such posturing himself claimed that it was common in other agencies he had worked for: “A lot of these collectors just yell at people like they’re taking something out on them. A lot of them get to feel like they’re big shots.”
Some California bill collectors complained bitterly that they are forbidden by the State Civil Code to swear at debtors (Article 2, sec. 1788.11). As one put it, “I can hang up. I just can’t swear. It’s hard sometimes when they’re calling you every name in the book.” Yet they spoke of finding other effective ways to insult and coerce debtors.
The debtors, on the other hand, sometimes reacted by defensively withholding their names from the collector in order to protect at least their names from indignity:
Collector: Your name is what?
Debtor: V. Miller.
Collector: How do you spell that first name?
Debtor: Just V. You may call me V.
Efforts like this may incite the collector to work even harder at downgrading the debtor’s status.
A bill collector may accuse the debtor of being a liar, a cheat, or a “welfare burrt.” When he does, the debtor may become upset and agitated and may vigorously assert his or her own dignity. But such a defense, in the midst of what is after all a commerical and not a personal transaction, may be discounted, as it was by this collector:
Yesterday I had a good case; some people owe Kahn’s Piano Rental $370. The woman says the company delivered the piano but forgot to deliver the stool. [She withheld full payment because of this.] The second time I called I got the woman. The first thing she insists is, “I’ll have you know I’m a schoolteacher and a principal.” These are black people. I don’t really care. I care about the piano, and the stool…. She tells me, “We’re renting the piano for our daughter who takes piano lessons.” And I said, “Well then, I imagine you’d need a piano.” She got herself all worked up and I couldn’t get in. She tells me, “We paid $60 to get a custom-made stool.” [Looking at my records] I said, “What’s the name of this attorney of yours? I’ll call him.” She says, “Most of our friends are attorneys.” So she really read me the riot act, and I said I’d better hang up. She said, “You started with me, you finish this with me.” I said, “I started with your husband,” and she said, “You’re going to start it and end it with me.” I said, “Lady, this is an absolutely ridiculous conversation. You have your husband call. Good day!” And I just slammed the phone down on the hook.
Beneath the argument over what was owed to Kahn’s Piano Rental, another dialogue was going on. The debtor was asking, in effect: “Will you accept my version of myself as an honest and generally middle-class sort of person, the sort of person who heads a school, has lawyer friends, and offers her daughter cultural advantages like piano lessons? Accepting that, won’t you listen to and believe my story instead of Kahn’s?” What maddens the debtor, when the answer to these implied questions is No, is the assumption that she has lied and also the rejection of her class and family credentials for being a truthful and well-intentioned customer who has been treated unfairly. By sticking to the piano and the stool but ignoring the social story, and thus withholding empathy, the collector forces the debtor to pay not only in cash but in moral standing.
Even collectors who avoid rudeness or aggression know that such behavior is approved of in others. Indeed, what would be a dreaded “onion letter” for the flight attendant wins a congratulatory slap on the back in many collection agencies. As the collector in the piano rental case remarked: “So today I came in and the boss was laughing and said, ‘We had a complaint on you today.’ I guess that woman called the piano company and screamed about me for twenty minutes. That’s what’s nice about this business. They’ll just laugh and pat me on the back. Now in what other business would I have it like that?”
The rule in this agency was to be aggressive. One novice said: “My boss comes into my office and says, ‘Can’t you get madder than that? ‘Create alarm!’—that’s what my boss says.” Like an army sergeant, the boss sometimes said his employees were “not men” unless they mustered up a proper degree of open outrage: “My boss, he hollers at me. He says, ‘Can’t you be a man?’ Today I told him, ‘Can’t you give me some credit for just being a human being?”
Debtors who are pushed hard by collectors who are under this sort of pressure sometimes threaten violence. The task of the collectors then becomes distinguishing genuine threat from bluff As one of them recalled: “They say they’re going to come down here and blow your head off. I don’t think that kind of threat is real. It’s just that they’re so angry. You know, these black men can get real angry. But I know one woman who went outside to talk to some guy; he had a friend with him and they roughed her up. She wasn’t hurt, just scared.” Agencies vary in how much aggression on anyone’s part they tolerate. More reputable agencies focus on helping the debtor “clear up” a situation and characterize abusive collectors as simply “overaggressive.” In the agency I studied, however, open aggression was the official policy for wringing money out of debtors.
Both flight attendants and bill collectors are probably attracted to their jobs because they already have the personal qualities required to do the job. Among flight attendants the presence of these qualities is largely assured by careful company screening, and among bill collectors it is assured by the high turnover rate—those who dislike the work soon quit. In both jobs, workers often speak of having to curb their feelings in order to perform. In both, supervisors enforce and monitor that curbing, and the curbing is often a personal strain.
Like the flight attendant, the bill collector handles customers but from a totally different viewpoint, for a different purpose, and with a very different form of display and emotional labor. The flight attendant sells and delivers a service, enhances the customer’s status, and induces liking and trust in the customer, who is seen as a guest in a home. Here, at the toe of the corporate system, sincere warmth is the product, and surliness and indifference are the problem. At the heel, however, money is owing, and it must be extracted even if the customer must be wrung dry of self-respect. In the later stages of the collection game, sincere suspicion is appropriate, and warmth and friendliness are the problem. Misfits in each job might do magnificently in the other. In each case the display is backed up by emotional labor, which is supported by imaginary stories—of guests in a personal living room or of lazy imposters lounging amid stolen goods.
Workers in both jobs are vulnerable to a company speedup. The boss who wants more collections per hour makes it harder for the bill collector to slip behind the occupational front lines and work out a private deal on good faith. When he presses the principle that “time is money,” he robs the collector of the only thing he or she can offer in return for cooperation—time. He reduces opportunities for choosing between the “hard” and the “soft” approach. For both the flight attendant and the bill collector, a speed-up makes it harder to handle people personally.