Liam Croke: It pays to be nice, unless you work in a call centre

I received a telephone call from a good friend a couple of weeks ago asking me would I speak to her mother-in-law, who was having financial difficulties. I was told she was having trouble making her mortgage repayments. She had some arrears and simply didn’t know what to do next or how she should approach her lender. I duly met her late last week and to say I was shocked at what she told me would be an understatement.

I received a telephone call from a good friend a couple of weeks ago asking me would I speak to her mother-in-law, who was having financial difficulties. I was told she was having trouble making her mortgage repayments. She had some arrears and simply didn’t know what to do next or how she should approach her lender. I duly met her late last week and to say I was shocked at what she told me would be an understatement.

Grainne (not her real name) is 57 years old. In 2002 she was debt-free, she had no mortgage and owed nobody anything. She was and is a nurse. In 2002 her partner – I’ll call him Mike – talked her into remortgaging the house for €120,000. The purpose of the loan was home improvements. Reluctantly she agreed with Mike who convinced her that he would make the monthly repayments so they would “have nothing to do with her”. He would look after everything to do with the mortgage.

In 2013 Grainne received a phone call from her lender’s call centre advising her that she was in arrears and what was she going to do about it? She said she would call them back as she had no idea what they were talking about. She confronted Mike later that evening, who admitted to intercepting the arrears letters and said he had not being paying the mortgage for the last five months. Any money he was making was being spent on drink. What Mike did to Grainne is for another day and another article; what I want to tell you about this week is how Grainne was treated by her lender.

Shortly after she found out she was in arrears she began to receive four to five calls per day from her lender’s call centre: Mike wasn’t returning their calls. Wiping her tears away and barely able to speak, she told me how some of these calls were sinister and extremely distressing in nature. Grainne was trying to co-operate whilst explaining her situation to them, but on one occasion she was told: “I’m not here to listen to your love story.”

She had a face-to-face meeting with her bank and they examined her finances separately to Mike’s. The outcome was that they told Mike how much Grainne was earning and said he was contributing too much to the household expenses. He should be paying her less and she should be paying more, according to the lender.

Isn’t that incredible? Here was this lovely women who didn’t even realise she was in arrears, but was now being treated as if she created this problem herself – the only blame she can take upon herself is trusting Mike, but why would she ever have doubted him, a person who was her partner for the past 30 years?

I have a huge problem with call centres, specifically arrears centres. I have never heard of anyone having a positive experience in dealing with them. After I met with Grainne I called someone I knew who worked in one of these call centres to get a steer as to how they can treat people like Grainne. Let’s call him Conor. Luckily he doesn’t work there anymore so he could give me quite a bit of information.

He said the company he worked for had an automated dialling system so when he logged onto his computer, within seconds the dialling system would attempt to connect him to a person in arrears.

He was told he needed to do two things every day – (a) connect with as many people as possible and (b) get as much money from them as possible. Simple as that.

He had to go through a prepared script, find out why the person hadn’t been paying their mortgage and then get commitment from them to pay as much as they could – at any cost! Some of his co-workers, he said, took this to heart and would say the most awful things to customers in order to get them to pay something off their arrears. He told me about the reasons cited by people unable to pay, so I am guessing that some call centre “representative” just didn’t believe what Grainne was telling him.

Maybe he’d heard it all before and that was why he was so dismissive.

Conor told me that he was one of the best collectors of money in the call centre not because he was aggressive but because he was decent to people: he was human. He had the ability to know when someone was genuine and when they weren’t. And it wouldn’t take a genius to know that Grainne was as genuine as they come.

Conor, though, was reprimanded for being nice and helpful to people – the telephone calls were monitored and randomly listened to, to make sure each collector was adhering to company policy. He was given a verbal warning and reminded that his job was to collect money and not to, wait for it ... focus so much on helping people.

I am now going to take up the fight for Grainne and give this bank a taste of their own medicine. I have requested recordings of the phone conversations between Grainne and her lender because it is not right to treat her this way. She has been a nurse all her life, working in a really busy ER department. In exceptionally difficult conditions, she may just have helped the kind of people whose job it is to be so unhelpful on the phone but regardless of where she works or how many people she has helped during her working life, nobody should be treated the way she has being.

I wonder what training people in these call centres get. Very little it would appear, but again these people are reading from a script, care very little for the company they work for and will probably move on to another company after not very long, so customer care is not a high priority, it would seem. I will keep you posted on how I get on.