The Crossroads of Empathy and Compliance

| Mary Shores

December is here, and you know what that means: We’re so close to a new year. After the ups and downs that 2020 has brought, most of us are thrilled to get a fresh start.

How can we really make this new start count in collections? I wholeheartedly believe we need to embrace humanity-plus business (meaning business that focuses more on human needs, feelings, and fears), compassion, and empathy

Implementing empathy is vastly beneficial, and I’ve seen the results to prove that. I’ve written about this before, and you can read about it here. Something else that’s always important to be aware of, though, is the crossroads of empathy and compliance.

Sometimes, if we’re not careful when we use empathy, we can slip into compliance breaches, which can lead to lawsuits. After speaking to compliance attorney John Bedard, I identified some prominent compliance issues that could arise if you’re not careful when implementing empathy at your agency.

Luckily, there are several ways to avoid compliance issues while simultaneously being empathetic. Let’s dive in and discover the crossroads of empathy and compliance.

Define Empathy Correctly

Empathy has been a prominent buzzword in recent years, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. All industries, including collections, have become more mindful of using it in everyday operations. That said, many people overthink the definition of empathy. Some confuse it with sympathy, which is the ability to feel sorry for another person. Others confuse it with advocacy, which is direct relief for a struggling individual or a group of individuals.

Plain and simple, the dictionary definition of empathy is the ability to understand another person’s perspective. 

In other words, when I train collectors to be empathetic, I don’t train them to feel sorry for consumers or to promise them that they are their number one advocates. Doing either of these things can result in a breach of compliance because it can create a false impression that could later be used against your agency.

Instead, I train collectors to use empathy to make consumers feel heard and understood. Simply telling the consumer that you understand he’s going through a hard time or that you hear what he’s saying validates his experience, which helps him meet his basic emotional needs to move the call forward.

Remember: Before you implement empathy at your agency, fully embrace the true definition and abandon false definitions of empathy.

Recognize the Triggers of an Angry Consumer

Collectors don’t wake up in the morning wanting to get in an argument with a consumer. Typically, arguments ensue because a consumer is feeling angry during the call, and the collector feels trapped and unprepared to handle the strong negative emotions.

It’s easy to be annoyed with angry consumers if you don’t fully understand why they’re angry. Sometimes, being annoyed or getting triggered by the freak-out will cause compliance issues because the collector may say the wrong thing or mirror the anger.

When I train collectors with The Collection Advantage online training program, the first thing I teach them is to master human emotions. After all, collectors need to understand why a consumer is angry so they can facilitate the conversation effectively.

According to Matthew Liberman’s study “Putting Feelings into Words,” labeling emotions can help us understand them better. So, when a consumer is raising his voice or being demanding, you can write down what feeling you think he’s experiencing. Whether that’s frustration, anger, or despair, attaching a word to the consumer’s reaction will help you process what you’re hearing and gather your own thoughts before you respond.

Your response means everything on escalated calls because words are powerful. You have the power to flip the narrative and come to a solution.

Note: It’s important to realize that consumers are triggered by the negative feelings attached to debt. 

When you understand that consumers aren’t angry at you, and they’re only triggered by the circumstances, it’s much easier to navigate the rest of the call in an empathetic and compliant manner.

Avoid Using Empathy as Manipulation

Here’s the thing: When using empathy, you can sometimes be completely honest with the consumer while being manipulative and putting the consumer in a tough spot he doesn’t know how to get out of.

Imagine this: A consumer explains his current situation. He is out of a job, and the debt he needs to pay is 10 years old, out-of-statute, and is something he can’t afford. The law is very clear: A debt collector cannot make a demand for a payment on an out-of-statute debt. While the consumer can pay it if he wants, he needs to be aware that if he does, the statute will renew. It’s a collector’s job to provide this information.

Let’s say the collector uses empathy in this situation to attempt to renew the statute. He offers the consumer a $5 payment arrangement without explaining the consequences of agreeing to an arrangement on an out-of-statute debt. The consumer offers a $5 arrangement under the guise that he’s understanding the consumer’s current financial struggles without revealing that he’s actually asking the consumer to pay a debt he could very well forget about at this point.

Because the collector is showing the consumer that he hears and understands his current financial situation, he seems empathetic on the surface. The compliance issue arises in how the collector came to a solution. First, he’s offering a payment arrangement that is likely way lower than his company’s minimum. Second, he is convincing the consumer to pay by offering an affordable arrangement, which will restart the statute. Ultimately, the collector is being empathetic while being non-compliant and risking a potential lawsuit.

How can we avoid being manipulative while still being empathetic?

The answer is to avoid taking empathy to extreme levels. I’ve written before about the Goldilocks Zone of Connection, which is the sweet spot of connection that collectors should strive to achieve. It’s also essential to want what’s best for the consumer instead of trapping him in a scenario he doesn’t need to be in.

If collectors are mindful of how they’re using empathy and how they’re avoiding manipulation, they will stay in the Goldilocks Zone and stay compliant.

Mapping the Crossroads in Your Call Flow

As we enter a new year in a new normal, I believe empathy will affect your bottom line as an agency and as a collector. In today’s environment, empathy is essential, so using it in a compliant manner is going to make or break your calls with consumers.

If you use the tips above, you’ll increase your chances of de-escalating phone calls and decrease your chances of receiving complaints and lawsuits. When you couple compliance and empathy, it truly is a win-win.

Want next steps? Book a free strategy call with me today to learn how The Collection Advantage online training program can help you create a team of empathetic and high-converting collectors. More information on The Collection Advantage program can also be found here.

To hear more about the crossroads of empathy and compliance, check out this recording from a webinar John Bedard and I put on with

To see this post as it was originally written, visit

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