Mick Clocherty: What I learned during my week as a debt collector

18/07/2016
angela

Writer Mick Clocherty says the devil is alive, well and working in debt collection

THE year was 2014. The Scottish independence referendum had failed to deliver a Yes vote, and the future looked like a terrible place to live. 

It was with this in mind that I made an earnest attempt to become a debt collector; handing in my CV to a debt recovery specialist after I'd spent out yet another temporary contract in a call centre. I didn't think it would be that hard. The world is a tough place, and I thought I could be tougher than the toughest. 

The money was appealing, too. I thought I could get a crumpled brown suit, shave my head, wear a combover and have a specific prostitute I'd visit regularly who'd be the only one who'd see me cry. I figured I'd be good at shouting at people down the phone, because I've seen every episode of The Thick of It. 

Glasgow, surprisingly, is something of a hub for debt collection agencies, particularly in call centres. I'm sure there was a board meeting somewhere where the question was uttered: "Well yes, but where can you find an accent that's both friendly and threatening?"

If the world is such a terrible place, I thought, I'd just have to make sure I had my own terrible place in it. I lasted about a week.

Glasgow, surprisingly, is something of a hub for debt collection agencies, particularly in call centres. There are about 14 based in the city centre alone, as well as various others peppered across the West of Scotland. 

I'm sure there was a board meeting somewhere where the question was uttered: "Well yes, but where can you find an accent that's both friendly and threatening?"

The first clue was the interview, during which I lied about having a degree and not having basic human empathy. The two Stalinist HR types with matching haircuts interviewing me told me it was good for them that I was so customer focused, because debt collection has changed a lot recently. If debt collection has a mantra, it's that.

When you're trading in human misery, it's hard to dress it up into something positive. People who are in a lot of debt, it should come as no surprise, are usually poor and a large number also suffer from mental health issues. 

The call script may as well have said: "Hi there, this is Mick calling from Gold Star Prosperity Wealth Ltd, we've recently purchased your low self-esteem, lack of ambition and some of your cancer. May I speak to John please?"

When you're talking to someone at their lowest ebb, it's difficult to sound like you're their friend who just wants to help them pay back what they owe. The call script may as well have said: "Hi there, this is Mick calling from Gold Star Prosperity Wealth Ltd, we've recently purchased your low self-esteem, lack of ambition and some of your cancer. May I speak to John please?"

The training was the standard affair. Telling people your name and background, condensing your hopes and dreams into a short introduction, drawing posters. Some of the people had worked in debt recovery before, and they were the ones who looked like they habitually enjoyed the taste of human blood. 

I had a brief flirtation with becoming one of them. One lunch time I went for a KFC with a cockney guy who I'll call Iggy, who told me he was disappointed that he wasn't allowed to threaten people any more; we talked about liquid ecstasy.

Iggy intrigued me, because he was proud of what he was. Being a compulsive gambler from a poor background, he had actually racked up a lot of debt himself, and through numerous dealings with debt collectors he had figured the racket was just the ticket to raise him out of poverty. 

One lunch time I went for a KFC with a cockney guy who I'll call Iggy, who told me he was disappointed that he wasn't allowed to threaten people any more.

Iggy had taken his lumps, and was now ready to be the one doing the kicking, not unlike a gangland initiation. The problem now, he told me, was that the whole process was too fair to the individual in debt, and that our bonuses would suffer because we could get away with less.

On the third day of training, we learned the procedure for dealine with someone threatening to kill themselves on the phone to you (listen patiently, fill in a form, notify the police). 

It was on the third day that I started drinking at lunch time. It was beginning to dawn on me that badgering people who had been backed into a corner for a few pounds a week was not something I could reconcile myself with doing for a living. 

Luckily for these unethical leeches, there are always bigger bastards out there than me.

The new skin on these agencies does little to hide the black hearts at the centre. While it obviously is extremely positive that some of the more threatening practices have come to an end, we should be wary of considering these companies respectable or legitimate. Because next, they become acceptable. 

It was on the third day that I started drinking at lunch time. It was beginning to dawn on me that badgering people who had been backed into a corner for a few pounds a week was not something I could reconcile myself with doing for a living. 

Before you know it, Wonga.com will be receiving a papal knighthood (source: Godfather 3) and kids will be told chasing down the poor for what little money they have is a fine choice of career when they leave school.

The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world that he didn't exist. He does exist.

Not only that, he's been on a communications training course and will tell you that he's "here to help"; and "being the devil has changed a lot recently".

Picture courtesy of Thomas Hawk

Check out what people are saying about how important CommonSpace is. Pledge your support today.