Corporate Social Responsibility: Atkins & Ogle in the Community

According to an article by Entrepreneur.com, companies that encourage community involvement distinguish themselves from their competitors and reap the benefits of loyal customers and happier employees. In 2013, Cone Communications and Echo Research reported a study in which they found that 82 percent of American consumers consider corporate social responsibility when deciding which products or services they want to buy.

At Atkins & Ogle Law Offices, LC, social responsibility is part of the fabric of our company not because of our business structure, but because of the type of employees the community provides. Our employees are top notch in their skills and responsibilities, but they are also dedicated to making the Putnam County and surrounding areas a better place.

In the past, Atkins & Ogle has financially supported many sports teams and extracurricular activities in Putnam County. These donations of both time and money include buying advertisements in team programs and yearbooks, sponsoring local t-ball teams and putting together a course on the collections’ process for the Law Explorers, a high school student group run by a local judge.

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Managing attorneys Jamie Atkins and Bree Ogle are both currently serving as baseball coaches in the community, and Atkins is the sitting president of the Putnam County Bar Association, which does a lot of behind-the-scenes work for the good of the county, including fundraising for ALS research.

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Atkins & Ogle also provides the opportunity for Putnam County seniors interested in a career in law to complete a work-based experience at the office for a credit toward graduation. Participants gain experiences attending court hearings, listening in on important phone calls and working in an office setting. AO also hires many high school students for part-time, after school positions.

By extension, our employees better the reputation of AO by being involved in other aspects of the community, such as local churches, Putnam County 4-H, career days, planning and executing charitable 5 and 10ks and serving as coaches for wrestling and cheerleading teams. In essence, our employees leave their 9 to 5 job and give of their additional time and resources to make their communities a better place.

While the resonance of community involvement is hard to measure, the second and third degree effects of corporate social responsibility are clear. Doing quality work for our clients while never losing sight of our community responsibilities consistently result in Atkins & Ogle attracting quality employees and upholding a positive reputation in and around the state of West Virginia.

Successful Debt Collectors: Born or Trained?

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Debt collectors operate in a very sensitive environment. Those that make collections calls must know how to talk to people who may be at one of the toughest points of their lives. People who are in significant debt may suffer from related social issues such as unemployment, failed marriage or foreclosure on their home or property as well as mental and emotional repercussions, including depression.

While placing and returning phone calls to consumers, debt collectors must strike a balance between being compassionate about the debtor’s financial situations while also being firm in the execution of their duties to ultimately find ways to collect the debt. Collectors often find themselves on the receiving end of anger, screaming and cursing, during which they must be patient and maintain control of their own emotions.

Because of these conditions, not everyone is cut out to be in the collections business. Collections firms must be intentional and specific when hiring by seeking out those who will make the best collectors.

A recent debate on LinkedIn discussed whether or not personality or proper training techniques were responsible for the success of a debt collector. In his article on Collection Advisor, Dean Kaplan compiled a list of debt collector job descriptions from different firms, and it was no surprise that many of the desired qualities overlapped.

  1. Perseverance/Tenacity
  2. Thick-skinned/Doesn’t take things personally
  3. Cool-headed
  4. Self-motivated/Independent
  5. Patient

Don’t misunderstand us, possessing all of the right qualities does not negate the need for comprehensive training in negotiations, salesmanship, customer service and the firm’s policies. However, without these five attributes, collectors could cause more harm than good for the firm and the consumers.

What do you think? Are successful collectors born or trained? Feel free to weigh in in our comments section.

In the News 02/03/2015

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While debt collection law differs greatly from say, criminal defense, there is one component that should be at the center of every firm’s agenda—attorney/client relationships.

Lawrence G. Almelda, a shareholder at Brinks Gilson & Lione in Chicago, outlines four approaches to enhance client service practices for the American Bar Association in the following article:

http://www.americanbar.org/publications/tyl/topics/professional-development/how-to-enhance-client-service-practices-four-tips-for-new-attorneys.html

Creating a personal and mutually beneficial attorney/client relationship has a multitude of benefits, including improving the bottom line. Almelda encourages exercising high responsiveness; making clients’ lives easier by providing a filtered-down version of legal information and summarizing when you can; following up often and—most importantly—making clients look great.

Top 5 Mistakes Debt Collectors Make

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A successful collections call takes a lot of training and practice.

There are several rules and guidelines collectors are required to follow. Following those guidelines will still not help them predict the circumstances they’ll encounter while making their collections calls. During the course of their calls they will speak to a variety of individuals, ranging from polite to the disgruntled, and hear an assortment of personal stories of challenging financial situations.

Debt collectors sometimes have a bad reputation with the general public, due in large part to unprofessional, unethical practices. The illegal tactics of debt collectors are one of the many reasons why the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act (FDCPA) is so important. Consumers filed 45,050 complaints in the first six months of 2009 to the Federal Trade Commission (up 19 percent from that same period in 2008), making it even more important that collections professionals use ethical and compassionate practices. Here we’ve listed five of the top mistakes collectors make when contacting debtors.

  1. Not disclosing identity. Collectors are required under the FDCPA to identify themselves, notify the consumer that the communication is from a debt collector, give the name and address of the original creditor, notify the consumer of their right to dispute the debt and provide a verification of the debt.
  1. Failure to cease communication upon request. If a consumer submits a written notice that they wish to receive no further contact about the alleged debt, communication efforts must be terminated immediately. Continuing to contact a consumer is considered “abusive and deceptive” under the FDCPA. Collectors should also cease contact with a consumer who is represented by an attorney.
  1. Failing to Mirandize. The FDCPA requires that debt collection calls include a mini Miranda statement, which lets the debtor know that any communication (written or verbal) is at attempt to collect a debt and any information obtained during the communication will be used for that purpose.
  1. Misrepresentation, deceit or harassment. Pretending to be law enforcement or an attorney, bullying or threatening and using profanities are all prohibited under the FDCPA. While it is not necessarily considered harassment, compassionate collections practices teach collectors to avoid a bad attitude. Losing your temper (even if the debtor yells, curses or threatens the collector), being impatient and getting caught up in a consumer’s personal stories are all ways to derail a collections call.
  1. Revealing information to a third party. Part of a collections call script should be confirmation that you are speaking to the correct person. Identify the consumer by asking for their social security number, address and phone number. Discussing a debt with someone other than a debtor’s attorney or spouse is prohibited.

At Atkins & Ogle Law Offices, LC, we thoroughly train our collectors in collection law, compassionate collection and professionalism. Experience and hard work are a hallmark to our success and make our firm the most time-tested and progressive debt collection law firm in the state of West Virginia. We are guided by our values of service, honesty, integrity and proficiency. While we work to serve our clients with compassion, we also extend those sentiments to debtors.

Best Business Practices, Part VIII

Information Security Policy

“Security is not a product, but a process.” –Bruce Schneier

Any business or company that deals in goods, services or information should have a thorough and well-documented information security policy. This policy should fundamentally explain and detail how data is obtained, stored and protected, limit or eliminate potential legal liability and preserve and protect confidential information.

Information security can encompass a variety of topics, including data restoration in the event of a disaster or emergency, computer data, telephone procedures (such as recording for quality assurance), data organization, third party risk management, confidentiality, visitor access, media, passwords, encryption, e-mail, Internet, software, audits, access and ethics.

As Bruce Schneier said, a good security policy is a process that will grow and change as your company grows and changes. With each new client, employee or update in software, you may have to make changes, additions and corrections to your security policy. In the area of debt collection, information security is essential, because collections deals in sensitive information such as addresses, phone numbers, social security numbers, income and banking information.

Like anything significant, developing an effective security policy takes time and tends to happen in stages. Development, enactment, enforcement, monitoring and maintenance are all crucial steps in making sure your information is guarded. Depending on the type of company, developing this procedure could be as simple as enforcing policy on cell phone and social media usage or as complex as obtaining offsite backups in the event of data loss or local disaster.

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An information security policy is primarily to manage potential exposure to loss or harm. It is vital that you communicate your policy to clients and train your employees.

This concludes our series on Better Business Practices. Stop by next week for brand new content!

 

Best Business Practices, Part VII

Continuing Training Policy

As the old saying goes, “Check, re-check and then check again.”

And so it goes in the seventh installment of our series on best practices in the legal debt collection industry. This week we discuss the need for a continuing training policy.

As with any job, an employee will have certain training at the outset of employment. We all too often leave the employee after that with only on-the-job experience.

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 But just like the machines that your business will use need tune-ups and computers need new software, your employees need reminded of their initial training and formally trained on new skills and techniques. Therefore, your continuing training policy should consider the following questions:

  1. In which areas of our business should our employees be trained periodically?

Certain jobs require no re-training—they are obvious. But there are other matters, typically the issues that arise in security, compliance or regulatory training, that require re-training, as a person is bound to forget the details of a policy or a procedure over time unless it is re-read or rehearsed.

Ask yourself this important question:  What policies exist in this business that if an employee were to forget it or forget the complete details of it, could cause my business or client harm?

For example, employees at Atkins & Ogle Law Offices, LC learn about a federal law known as the Fair Debt Collections Practices Act at the outset of their employment. It is essential knowledge in our industry, and failure to adhere to this act could prove damaging to a consumer, which could also prove costly to our clients and ultimately this firm. This is an example of something that we have chosen to periodically re-train.

  1. Can we categorize these areas of our business and train them together periodically?

Above, we mentioned as examples the likely categories of:

  1. Security: Physical Plant, Data
  2. Compliance: Cease & Desist, Out-of-Statute, Compliant Handling, etc.
  3. Regulatory: FDCPA, Bankruptcy, other federal, state and local laws

Consider whether you should keep as many subject matters together as possible (for continuity) or whether spreading your training out and testing more often and more consistently would be better for your staff.

  1. How should we train and what will be our standard for determining whether an employee passes or fails training?

What is the best method for training or re-training your material?  Should you design tests, have teaching sessions or try on-line training?

Assuming you have some method for evaluation, such as testing your employees on their knowledge, will you require your employees to receive a mere passing grade? A 90 percent? A perfect score? Consider the question raised above. Given the particular topic, what level of failure is acceptable to your customers and your business?

  1. Who is able to train, test and evaluate our employees, and should this change depending on the task?

Perhaps you have a person in your business solely responsible for all employee training. Or, perhaps this responsibility will always fall on the owner or managing partner.  Consider, however, that different tasks bring different challenges and there will naturally exist in your business various individuals or job titles better suited for those training duties.

The appropriate question to ask when assigning training duty is, if you truly need your employees to understand this information and you need to be ready to explain how you prepared this employee to have this information, then who is the best equipped or most logical person to be tasked with training?

Remember, whatever you decide, make sure it is always documented in a written policy.

Drop by next week for the final installment of Better Business Practices on information security policies.

“A man, though wise, should never be ashamed of learning more and must unbend his mind.” – Sophocles, Antigone

Best Business Practices, Part VI

Call Monitoring Procedure

In our best business practices series, we have discussed general business practices as the well as the more collection industry-specific area of the skip trace waterfall. If the purpose of the skip trace is to get your collectors in touch with the correct person, this week’s discussion is on how to make sure your trained collectors are continuing to communicate with consumers in a meaningful, professional and legally compliant manner. This is accomplished by call monitoring.

Call monitoring is the process by which a supervisor listens to a collector’s call with a consumer without interference, scores the call (as discussed below) and then reviews the call with the collector for potential improvement.

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Generally, the law allows you to monitor the calls made by employees for quality assurance (laws vary by state).  If you can afford it, the best method is to utilize technology that will record 100 percent of your telephone conversations so a supervisor can listen to any call at any time.

Side-by-side call monitoring is also commonly utilized by supervisors looking to give immediate feedback to their collectors. To design and implement a quality call monitoring procedure, you must have the following:

  1. A written procedure detailing the purpose, methodology and steps of your monitoring
  1. A written score sheet detailing your expectations of your collectors.

Generally, the score sheets will fall into the following categories:

  • Consumer Identification, Disclosures, Mini-Miranda statements
  • Professionalism
  • Meaningful dialogue, i.e. moving toward resolution and/or information
  • Handling of complaints or “red flags”
  • Compliance with federal and state law
  1. A schedule of monitoring, strictly kept by the supervisor
  1. And finally, a log recording the score sheets on each call.  These may be categorized by collector, by client, by month, or by any combination of the three.

A consistent and robust call monitoring program will aid your collectors in continuous training for a better bottom line, but it will also save you from unwanted violations.

Drop by next week for Better Business Practices, Part VII on continuing training policy.

 

Best Business Practices, Part VI

Internal Audit Procedure

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If you’ll think back to the beginning of our discussion on best business practices, you’ll remember that we summarized the two key elements as great effort and a successful formula.

Just as a business develops a formula and expends great effort on serving its clients, top businesses also develop a formula and expend great effort to constantly improve internally. An internal audit is a key element in this equation.

While continuously updating your methods for collecting data (or in our case, collecting money from debtors), you need a way to make sure these methods are working effectively and efficiently. By auditing your company annually, you can ensure your processes and procedures are operating as such.

In the same way a disaster recovery plan is necessary in planning for outside forces, an internal auditing plan is necessary to accurately and comprehensively assess all internal forces. Nobody knows your business processes better than you, so rather than outsourcing this critical task, draft a procedure and perform it in house. Internal audits will not only save you money and help to prepare you for inevitable external audits, but they will allow you another measure of data security and the flexibility of doing so when production will be impacted the least.

There are several steps to develop and perfect an internal auditing procedure.

Decide what you are measuring

Use your processes and procedures manual or job description files to make a detailed list of what you are auditing.

Write a procedure

This procedure should be systematic, disciplined and replicable. The audit should be able to be performed by any member of your team to control for bias and make it time-efficient.

Conduct an audit and capture findings  

Once you have drafted a procedure, conduct an audit based on what you have. When you actually go through the auditing process, you find things that you missed when developing your methods and writing the audit procedure.

Share the findings with your staff and make changes

Discuss the issues and inefficient practices with your employees and brainstorm on ways to improve these practices. Use standard criteria to measure findings and apply changes.   Make sure your team understands why the procedure is being changed and how it will help efficiency.   Once changes have been implemented, follow-up on the reported findings regularly to ensure the best results.

Consistently update (as your processes change)

Once you have implemented changes, you will need to change your internal audit procedure to reflect that so that you will be measuring the success of your new procedures during the next audit. Make sure you keep the results from each internal audit so you can compare them and see how your changes have made a difference.

Repeat

Internal auditing is a process that should be repeated annually or semi-annually.

Remember, by constantly updating your methods and driving your company toward improving their success, you will achieve your ultimate goal of providing the best service to your customers in the most efficient manner possible.

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Drop by next week for Better Business Practices, Part VI on call monitoring procedure.

Best Business Practices, Part V

Last week we talked about skip trace waterfall procedure– how debt collectors find out where debtors live and the best way to contact them.

To recap, waterfall procedures are modeled after a software development concept and are organized by tiers of vendors that provide specific services. This week we continue our waterfall theme by discussing employment and banking waterfalls.

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Employment and banking waterfall procedures utilize the same type of vendors as skip tracing but exist to search for a debtor’s place of employment and banking information. This information (often called “hits”) is necessary to move forward on accounts and execute the judgment that has been handed down by the courts, either by garnishing a debtor’s wages or performing a bank freeze.

When building a waterfall, it is important to establish contracts with multiple vendors. The vendor at the top tier of your waterfall will be the net that catches the most, for the lowest price. In other words, negotiating price with your best, most accurate vendor is the best strategy for improving your waterfall’s efficacy. Waterfall specialists must constantly be analyzing the results and effectiveness of the waterfall while continually providing feedback to vendors as to the quality of their work.

Vendors will normally charge a low rate for non-verified hits and a premium rate for verified information. Vendors understand they are competing for your business. Their goal is to be the first to receive each account, thus improving their change for success at giving you the best return on your investment. Once the first transaction (search) is complete, the accounts without any hits begin their way through the trickle-down effect that is the waterfall.

Lastly, because search information comes from data garnered by applications for jobs, credit cards, cell phones, etc., new information could present itself at any time. For this reason, it’s a good practice to resubmit accounts back through the process approximately every six months to ensure information is captured as debtor’s circumstances change.

And then, just as the back of the shampoo bottle instructs, rinse and repeat as necessary!

Drop by next week for Better Business Practices, Part VI on internal auditing procedure.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Best Business Practices, Part IV

Skip Trace Waterfall Procedure

So far in our series on best business practices, we’ve discussed disaster recovery and vendor management plans, both of which are applicable to a variety of business models. Today’s topic, skip tracing waterfall procedure, is more specific to the debt collection industry.

The bottom line is debt collectors and lawyers cannot do their jobs without being in contact with the person in debt.  Skip tracing is the process by which collectors and investigators use software to search electronic databases and online profiles. These searches can uncover information useful in the efforts of debt collection and assists collectors in ensuring they’re contacting the right individuals.

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Skip tracing waterfalls combine the use of electronic information, automated lists created by the collector and the talents of skip tracing specialists to ensure that every available resource is expended.  A beneficial skip tracing waterfall procedure streamlines old skip tracing practices and makes the process of finding information more efficient.

The waterfall model itself is a process often used in software development and designed to emulate a waterfall in that the information flows from top to bottom through phases (or in our case, vendors).

Your skip tracing waterfall procedure should include building easy access lists of accounts as well as having a dependable and cost-efficient arsenal of vendors.  Once established, it’s paramount that you train your skip tracers to find the best vendors that do the best work for the best prices and then use these tools for optimum success.  This will allow you to find and contact debtors and help them to explore their options for satisfying the debt by making payments or settling the debt upon contact.

Vendors are ranked and utilized based on their capability, economics, past successes and accuracy of results.  Once these factors are determined and searches are underway, skip tracers have more time to work other projects, perform other forms of skip tracing procedures and seek new information for communicating with debtors.

The waterfall approach is considered a best business practice because it is a progressive and innovative way to reach people and is part of the successful formula that makes a collections business thrive.

Drop by next week for Better Business Practices, Part V on employment waterfall procedure.