Kinder, Gentler Debt Collectors

As bankruptcies and delinquencies rise, the banking industry is turning to behavioral scientists for help dealing with customers who can't - or won't - pay their debts.

One result for credit-card holders may be less arm-twisting and fewer nasty telephone calls when payments are overdue. Diehard deadbeats might even be rewarded for changing their ways.

"Ultimately, it's going to be more customer-friendly," says Lee Spirer, a collection expert and principal with Booz Allen & Hamilton Inc. in New York.

"It stops someone who is teetering on the very edge of bankruptcy," he says. "Instead of upgrading from a wooden bat to an aluminum baseball bat, you say, 'Let's sit down and talk.' "

The rise in bankruptcies, and how to deal with it, was a key topic for bank executives attending the American Bankers Association's Bankcard Conference, which closed here Tuesday.

Traditional collection methods - primarily persistent telephone calls - aren't working anymore, Mr. Spirer says. That is because consumers have learned to screen calls with answering machines and even train their children to detect bill collectors, he added.

Behavioral scientists such as psychologists, sociologists, and anthropologists can help by profiling debtors and tailoring the collection approach to specific individuals, Spirer says.

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