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How Agencies Should Respond When Someone Complains Online

There is no such thing as bad publicity, the old saying goes. But for collection agencies, they know that the saying is not always true. Individuals frequently take to the World Wide Web to air their grievances and complain about collection agencies. Those negative outbursts put agencies in an interesting situation. Should they respond? If they do, what should they say? It can be very tempting to fight fire with fire and respond back with all of the many ways that an agency has tried to get in touch with an individual and how it has followed the law in doing so. The temptation to paint the individual as the person who is evading his or her financial obligation can be incredibly powerful. But compliance experts and PR experts both say that agencies should refrain from engaging on such a level.

Yes, it may be a double standard not to respond in kind, but a kind response is what is called for instead.

Regardless of what information an individual posts online about his or her account, a collection agency is never allowed to share private information about the account or the individual, said Scott Wortman, a partner at the law firm of Warshaw Burstein in New York.

“People are not bound by the same rules that collectors are,” Wortman said. “People are not bound by the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act or by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. It may feel good in the moment to say something confrontational, but in the long run it will bite you and bite you hard.”

That being said, a response is called for in this type of situation. Because not responding is a response in and of itself, said Tim Collins, the chief ethics and compliance officer at Convergent Outsourcing.

“You don’t need to go into specifics about the debt,” Collins said. “But you have to respond in a way that makes that person feel special and different.”

A possible response, Collins said, is a special email address and phone number that is for that individual only. This kind of response serves a couple of purposes. On the one hand, it can make the individual feel like he or she is receiving special attention and may calm them down. On the other hand, it gives the collection agency a dedicated means of knowing when that individual makes contact. If the individual calls the general toll-free number or sends an email into a generic account, the agency may never know that the person tried to make contact. And that is a lost opportunity, Collins said.

“You want the consumer to vent to you, because if they do, it means they are not venting to a plaintiff’s attorney,” Collins said.

Much like any business, killing people with kindness, even those who are nasty and rude, is the best possible solution. The words you choose for that response matter, as does the tone in which the message is delivered, said Stacy Cornay, a communications expert and owner of Communication Concepts Public Relations & Advertising.

“If you take a tone that implies from the get-go that the person has done something wrong, it instantly causes a defensive reaction,” Cornay said. “You’ve changed the situation from a communication to something that is more primal. If you get defensive, the other person is going to get offensive. Now we have a conflict.”

The objective should be to avoid conflict in these types of situations, Cornay said. But remember that a response is not just directed at the individual who made the original comment. But anyone else who reads the original post will also likely read the response from the company.

“If you don’t respond, people will think you don’t care,” Cornay said. “If you get attacked, it’s important to have a private conversation and make it public that you are willing to do that.”

If the individual continues to be negative and make more comments online about the service, after you have extended an olive branch, then it’s ok to shut down the line of communication and let the person rant, Cornay said.

Collection agencies need to view negative comments for what they truly are — opportunities to showcase their professionalism and negotiating skills.

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