Collection Letters - General Considerations
( Originally Published 1918 )
Of all the letters the business man is called upon to write, the collection letter is perhaps the most difficult. Money may be due, and there is no real reason why the debtor should not be asked to pay it. Nevertheless, there are few things in business a man resents so much as a request for money. The collection letter must, therefore, not only overcome the debtor's natural reluctance to pay, but must overcome it without injury to his feelings—at least if his good-will is to be retained. For this reason the collection letter requires intelligent study and much care.
It is obvious that the conditions of a debt will directly affect the letter devised for its collection. To a small ac-count, unless something more is involved than its mere amount, but little time and trouble can be devoted. With larger accounts the letter may, in many cases, be nothing more than a notification that the account is overdue; in other cases the debtor must be persuaded, must be reasoned with, or must be driven into payment. It is obvious that no one letter or series of letters can be devised to meet all cases. Form letters may be prepared that will satisfy a majority of collection requirements, but these letters must be modified as required by the peculiar conditions of special cases, and at any time it may be necessary to discard them entirely.
This is particularly true in the collection of larger amounts, where the sum involved is sufficient to justify much care and attention. Here a knowledge of the personality and the condition of the debtor will be found of material assistance. It not only enables one to handle the matter with intelligent tact, but, by utilizing or refer-ring to some personal incident or other matter in which the debtor is interested, it is often possible to gain his confidence and his good-will, and in this way get him to really do the best he can in the matter of making payment. It is obvious that the form letter must be abandoned in such cases.
No invariable rules can be laid down for the preparation of collection letters. In general it may be said that to secure proper attention and—which is even more important—to bring the money that is their ultimate object, such letters should be characterized by (1) clearness, (2) terseness, (3) force, and (4) courtesy.
The necessity for clearness in a collection letter, and indeed in any other business letter, will be admitted. It is, however, impossible to write a clear letter unless a clear idea exists in the writer's mind of the ends to be attained by his letter and the means by which he expects to attain them. He must know what he wants to say and then say it so that its meaning is as clear to the recipient as to himself. Paragraph freely, so that each idea stands out strongly by itself. Do not bring in irrelevant material of any kind that would obscure or divert attention from the main thought; i. e., that the writer wants the money due him. Above all things do not let personal feelings influence the letter to its injury. At times indignation or even anger may be proper, but these should be used as a means to an end. The letter should not be made a vehicle to relieve the collection manager's feelings at the expense of his collection.
At times references to matters not immediately connected with the collection of an account help to soften the request for money. Thus, as already suggested, after calling a customer's attention to his overdue account, the letter might go on to mention some new line of goods, or any other relevant matter of possible interest, in order to give an incidental and inoffensive air to the demand for payment; but even here, however, the request for money should be clear, and should be given sufficient prominence to prevent its being submerged and lost under the reference to special sales or other such matters. The announcement may and should have a direct advertising value, but its primary purpose is to soften the harshness of the request for money and to give it a matter-of-course air; and it should be used only in subservience to this more important purpose.
As a rule, a collection letter should be terse. What is to be said, should be said as fully as is necessary to convey the desired meaning, but it should be said in a concise, pointed manner. Long, involved sentences are entirely out of place and tend to weaken the letter. Terseness makes both for clearness and for force.
On the other hand, terseness should not ordinarily be carried to the point of brusqueness, as this might in itself make the letter offensive. Also, if the account is questioned, terseness is to be avoided. In such case it is politic to discuss the matter at such length and in such detail as to show that the writer is really desirous of getting at the facts. Indeed, at times a little "rambling" may be advantageous in a collection letter, provided that in this verbal traveling the writer does not lose sight of the main purpose of the letter—to collect money. The principle involved here is that of breaking the news gently. You want the money and perhaps you are determined to have it. A plain statement of the facts may get it; but you are in many cases much more likely to get it if you go into much detail as to your surprise and regret at its non-payment, the trouble the delinquency of the debtor is causing you, and the injury to the customer's credit if you are forced to extreme measures, etc., etc. The whole matter is one of discretion.
The two characteristics already discussed, i. e., clearness and terseness, are essential to force. Beyond this, force requires the use of such language and such expressions as will cause the recipient of the letter to act. There is nothing more forceful than simple Anglo-Saxon, with its short, strong words; and the collection manager will do well to cultivate its use. In a collection letter, above all others, a spade should be called a spade and not be referred to as an agricultural implement.
It may also be noted that the forceful letter is usually built up of short sentences. A long, involved sentence does not lend itself to force of expression. A complex idea should be expressed in a number of short sentences, unless one strong, clear, and not too long a sentence can be made to carry the whole idea.
One of the essential elements of successful collection letter-writing is courtesy. There are occasions when a rough and even brutal collection letter is a proper letter to write; but such occasions are rare. The collection manager may at times find it advisable to be indignant, sarcastic, or even angry; but he should never violate the rules of courtesy and sink into rudeness or brutality, unless it is clearly and unmistakably necessary to gain his ends.
It is one of the elementary principles of successful collecting never to offend a debtor if it can be avoided, and particularly when this debtor is a customer with whom future business is desirable. To ask a man for money is a delicate matter at the best, and both courtesy and good feeling are usually necessary to make the request effective without disturbing the friendly relations between the parties.
There is always a tendency in letter-writing to indulge in language and expressions that are not characteristic of the writer's conversation. This is not entirely to be deprecated. A man may be a very effective talker, and yet his style be so loose, so defective as to grammatical construction, and so lacking in accuracy, that a letter in the same style would produce more amusement than money. Speaking generally, however, a letter written in the same general style you would use in talking is—if you are a good talker—much more effective in every way than one that is unnatural, stilted, and perhaps grandiloquent.
It is not a bad idea when writing an important letter to imagine the debtor before you, and dictate as you would talk under such circumstances. Naturally your dictated letter must be more concise and more directly to the point than your conversation, and it is not possible to bring in illustrations and explanations as freely as you do when you are talking. At the same time, words and phrases that you would not use in conversation are to be avoided, and as far as suitable the natural directness of spoken language should be employed.
The free use of slang expressions is not to be commended. There are, however, so many expressions in the English language that have been crystallized into so-called slang, and the American people are so used to such expressions, that an occasional word or phrase of slang gives a force which could be obtained in no other way. Do not, however, use slang too freely; and use it only when it really adds to the force and effectiveness of the letter.
Tone of Letter
The condition of the particular account has a good deal to do with the tone of the collection letter. It is obvious that an account which is just due requires very different handling from one that is badly in arrears. Courtesy should characterize the letters in both cases, but, while the later letters will be as peremptory and as strongly expressed as they can be made without being absolutely offensive, the first letters will usually take a tone of friendly confidence that payment will, of course, be made, and that the letter itself is merely a reminder.
It is always unwise to write a collection letter under the influence of excitement or anger. If you do write under such circumstances, keep the letter until you cool off; then read it over, and send it if you still think it wise to do so. It is safe to say that in nine cases out of ten the letter will not be sent.
Appearance of Letter
The mechanical construction and arrangement of the collection letter is outside the province of the present volume. It may, however, be suggested that the letter itself should be neat, clean, and arranged according to the general form used by the house; and that the stationery should be suitable both in quality and style to the business it represents. A cheap letterhead inevitably gives the idea of a cheap concern. Also, in these days of good typewriting, the letter should be mechanically good. If form letters are used with names, etc., filled in, the filled-in portion should be so well matched in color and so neatly inserted that it cannot be identified as a form letter. A letter that proclaims on its face that it is a form letter is worse than a printed notice.
Suggestions for Collection Letters
Always be sure, in writing a collection letter, that the money asked for is the amount really due. Nothing irritates a customer more quickly than to be asked to pay more than he owes or to pay an amount that is not due at all. Further, a dunning letter inaccurate as to amount creates a bad impression of the house from which it emanates, and, if the matter should ever be brought into court, the erroneous letter might be very embarrassing for the collection manager.
Even with the most tactful treatment, it not infrequently happens that a debtor becomes irritated by the continuous persistence of the collection department, or is aggrieved by the peremptory tone of its letters. Some-times, indeed, the collection manager becomes irritated himself and lets this irritation crop out in his letters; and then the debtor has grounds for grievance. In such cases, if the customer is worth keeping, he can frequently be brought into line by a diplomatic letter from some important officer, or perhaps the head, of the concern. Such letters are usually written only when requested by the collection manager. Their tone will vary with conditions. If the collection manager has really lost his temper and written letters that were too peremptory or were other-wise offensive, the official can deplore this fact, explain that the objectionable letters were not authorized by the concern, were written without its knowledge and consent, and regret exceedingly the fact that they were written at all. If this is tactfully done, it will usually establish an era of good feeling, and later on in the letter the official can take up the matter of the debt and suggest some form of settlement, or perhaps ask the debtor for suggestions on his part as to how the account can be settled up most speedily and with the least inconvenience to him.
Or, if the collection manager's letters have been fully justified, the official writing can take his choice of a number of different grounds. He may suggest that the collection manager did not quite understand the situation, or did not fully appreciate the consideration that should be extended an old customer, or was misinformed as to some condition, or took the position he did without authority, etc.
In any such case the elimination of the collection manager puts the matter on an entirely different basis, and, with proper handling, some settlement of the account should be possible. It is but rarely that a man who fully intends to evade his debts takes umbrage at any collection letter, no matter how emphatic or offensive its tone. Hence, the mere fact that a customer objects sufficiently to a collection letter to voice these objections, is in itself an indication that he expects—or can be made to expect—to pay. It is then up to the official who takes the matter in hand to make the most of the possibilities.
Postal cards should rarely if ever be used in making collections. The only excuse for their employment lies in the fact that the card can be mailed for a penny and saves stationery. Its disadvantages completely overbalance these small advantages. The postal card message is public property and the debtor may very justly be offended at the publicity given to his private affairs.
In former days the postal card was frequently used by collection managers just because of the very objection-able publicity brought upon the debtor. The Federal government, however, stepped in and blocked the scheme. A mere notice on a postal card that payment will become due on a certain date is forbidden. Nor is any matter tending to cast a reflection on the character or the standing of the person addressed, allowable on a postal card.
In fact, so much is excluded that the postal card is practically disqualified for use in making collections.
Some circumspection must also be used as to what appears in collection letters. Libelous and abusive statements and threats are not permissible, and may bring the sender into trouble with the Federal authorities, even though the letters are sent in sealed envelopes. The hand of the Federal authority is heavy; and the collection manager should take no chances of bringing it down upon himself. In case of uncertainty he should either keep to the side of undoubted safety or consult and be guided by his postmaster.
The collection manager must vary his letters to meet conditions. Form letters or other good letters which might be adapted to his own use or which might give him suggestions for letters of his own, are always desirable, and he should be constantly on the watch for these. To preserve them, he should have his scrap-book or files in which all such letters may be kept in convenient form for reference.
Such letters will come to the collection manager from various sources. His own letters as he works them out and proves them will, of course, be carefully preserved. He can also secure letters by exchanging with other collection managers, and occasionally very good letters will be found in works on letter-writing.
One method of securing collection letters is at least interesting. Some time since a gentleman made a small purchase from a house noted for its very excellent collection methods. On the due date his indebtedness was not paid. Statements were mailed him without result. A letter went forward, but received no attention. Another letter, and yet another, followed; but nothing happened. This went on until the patience and the collection resources of the house were practically exhausted, and a final notice before suit warned the delinquent debtor that the end had come. Then he made his appearance, settled up his ac-count with apologies, and explained that the collection letters were so very good and the procedure so interesting that he felt compelled to wait until the last one had come into his possession.