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Enforcement: A force for good

27 April 2023

Enforcement gets a bad rap in the media which is often undeserved, but as an industry we don’t help ourselves much either; we leave a vacuum when we don’t shout about the great things we do, which is inevitably filled by the naysayers.

In this blog, I want to take a look at how we got to this point, why we should care, and what we can do to inform people about all the good that the industry does.

 

The eye of the beholder

Perception is critical, so it’s no surprise that the mainstream media’s use of attention-grabbing phrases like ‘aggressive debt collectors’ results in the negative opinions surrounding our industry (especially given that many people don’t read further than these).



Real world case study: the facts behind the news

My wife made a comment on a news story about this very phrase (‘aggressive debt collectors’) the other night and what ensued was a half-hour monologue from me on the facts:

  • The customer would have had a high volume of attempted contacts before an enforcement agent/agency was issued a warrant/order by the court (“Oh, it goes to court first?”, she asked).
  • The enforcement agent is there to enforce the decision of the court, not collect debt (although debt collection is one of the possible outcomes).
  • The alternative, in this particular case, would have been to allow the person to incur more and more debt.
  • No other business would allow you to take their product and not pay for it; you’d get arrested if you did the same thing in a supermarket!
  • If your bank or credit card let you get further and further into debt in the same way, they would be fined by the FCA and possibly lose their right to trade.

“Oh well, fair play”, she muttered as I climbed off my soapbox.



This highlights that many people don’t understand (and why would they!) the reason a case reaches the enforcement stage, what the role of an agent is, and that often actions are undertaken with the customer’s best interests in mind. So, it’s our job to educate and change opinions.

 

Why should we care?

The lack of response from a customer to the multiple stages of contact prior to an enforcement visit can hide numerous scenarios, and the subsequent agent visit can often help to identify a potential vulnerability and enable someone to get access to necessary help and support. But that isn’t always the case!

The person in debt could be:

  • belligerently avoiding paying because they have some beef with the creditor,
  • waiting for the agent to turn up because they are using the debt as a form of high-cost, short-term credit,
  • overwhelmed by their debt or afraid of the consequences,
  • suffering from an illness that is a barrier to making contact,
  • going through something bigger that the debt (such as a relationship breakdown or a bereavement), and just doesn’t have the headspace to deal with it.

Of course, this is not an exhaustive list, but the point is that where we are unable to make contact with somebody in debt and the data doesn’t give us reason to believe that enforcement is not appropriate, having an agent at the scene can be a lifeline if the visit is professionally executed. Alternatively, it can be a lifeline to a struggling business that is owed money if people are taking advantage of the system.

 



Real world case study: how a case might reach enforcement

My neighbour and his three grown-up boys work hard, continually reinventing their business to follow the cash. They get by, but don’t have savings, aside from what they have squirrelled away in the sweetie jar (quite literally) for Christmas, birthdays and so on.

Occasionally, when they have an expense that need to pay to keep their business going, but can’t, they will knock another bill. A well-known enforcement agency is at their house every couple of months, they’re on first-name terms, the agent gets met with a smile and a handshake and they work out a plan and off they go.

I know this because I got their post by mistake one day and didn’t look at the name, I just opened it, before taking it over to them. We were sat in the garden having a beer one day and I asked him about it. He said, “Steve, I can’t get a loan and if I could, I wouldn’t wanna fill in all those forms and give away all my details. I reckon I pay the bailiff the same as I’d pay one of those payday loan companies so it’s just easier. The longer I ignore ‘em, the longer I got before I have to sort out repaying ‘em.”

“What would you do if the bailiff didn’t turn up?”, I ask him. With a gleam in his eye and a grin on his face, he took a long swig of beer and said, “That’s the beauty of it Steve; if they don’t collect, it pays the fees for the next few times we do it, don’t it?”


 

What can we do to change the perceptions of our industry?

Let’s not be coy about it, of course there are variable standards of conduct across the sector. If everything was perfect, the industry wouldn’t be funding the Enforcement Conduct Board (ECB) to ensure the fair treatment of people who are subject to enforcement action. That is a sign of a mature industry that wants to drive out rogue behaviour and guarantee as much as possible that a visit from an enforcement agent is an excellent customer experience, whether the person in debt doesn’t know where to turn for help, or they are just waiting as long as possible to settle up.

The ECB has published a short movie on the experiences of people who have been visited by enforcement agents and this got me thinking - nobody puts up videos of good enforcement visits on sites like YouTube.

I decided to rerun an experiment that I ran a few years ago: I put in the names of ten well known agencies and looked at the first ten videos that came up for each. Last time I did this, it was virtually all mobile phone footage with titles like ‘Bailiffs get owned’ or ‘Bailiff leaves empty-handed’.

Fast forward to now, and there are some more professional looking videos giving advice on how to get away with not paying. I also saw one or two firms have well-made corporate videos, but they are fighting against a relentless tide.

Given that this is a popular way for people to consume media these days, we as an industry, need to get on the front foot and tell our own story, otherwise the narrative of the naysayers will continue to define us.

At Just, we believe that you deserve to get paid, but not at any cost. We have already delivered ground-breaking innovation and continue to lead the way through our expertise in data and analytics. We strive to balance the best outcomes for both client and customer, and we are finding new ways to continuously improve our offering to the industry and the public.

If you’d like to speak to me about anything I’ve raised in this blog, I’d love to hear from you and please feel free to contact me directly.

Steve Coppard
Group Director of Debt Policy & Strategy
Just & Arum

About the author

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Steve has been in the debt industry since 2001. He spent most of his career working in government, where he started on the phones collecting VAT debt and ended up being responsible for prompting improvements to the management of over £40bn of public sector debt. He joined Just and Arum in May 2022 where he continues to shape the biggest conversations in the debt market, having been recognised as an Influencer on the Credit 500 list for a number of years. Credit Management Magazine recently called him one of the industry’s genuine thought leaders.