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Focus on Skip Tracing to Reach Ultimate Goal

  • Written by Joshua Fluegel

Focus allows a collection professional to surpass all distraction and obstacles to achieve the ultimate goal: collect on an account. However, determining on what to focus on and how best to go about it is why many consider collections to be an art. Collection Advisor spoke to Dallas S. Bunton, Sr., chairman and CEO of North American Credit Services (NACS) for this issue’s Agency Spotlight to learn more about the unique way they focus their skip tracers on objectives that help them reach their ultimate goal. We also learned about NACS’ company culture and how their focus on serving others has helped them all work in concert.

How did NACS come to be and describe its history with skip tracing?

bunton dallasNACS grew from a vision of healthcare executives in 1979 desiring to have a healthcare collection agency to support its national footprint. By 1982 I joined the healthcare group and worked for and in the development of the agency. With the entrance of computers still early in the game of operations, we actually still had a lot of work from data work cards (seriously old school). Skip tracing was all done manually. There were no automatic scrubs for phones, landline or cell, as today. All communication was done by making a call or sending a letter asking for information without disclosing why. That in itself was an art. Everyone answering the phone, it seemed, wanted to know who was calling and why… period. Of course at this time there were no consumer ad hoc programs for their phones, no caller ID and no number blocking. A good skip tracer with great voice tone and personality are worth their weight in gold. Through the years agencies and consumers have become more aware of systems, programs that help to avoid talking and skip tracing efforts. Still, a trained quality skip tracer with understanding of the what, who, when, where and how can uncover a stockpile of information that can lead to successful recoveries.

What kind of collections does NACS do and describe the part skip tracing plays in the process?

NACS is 100% healthcare. With all the overload of HIPAA and negative publicity surrounding healthcare accounts, collection and credit reporting of this debt causes a tremendous level of caution. Having access to the client’s system is vital and pieces of data are available that often provides information regarding motor vehicle accidents (MVA) or insurance where the hospital may have the account flagged/registered as selfpay. Our company also subscribes to any electronic scrub on the market. What is NACS’ philosophy when it comes to establishing and maintaining relationships related to skip tracing (vendor relations, informants, etc.)? In healthcare the process is more straight up as far as the patient and responsible party is concerned. In healthcare we use client systems, available electronic scrubs and ACA schooled/trained skip tracers as necessary. Most often this has now become more of a specialty department due to insurances and MVA opportunities.

Can you describe this specialty department and how it would ideally be set up?

It goes back to training people to put them in a different frame of mind. As collectors, we have a frame of mind to turn as many accounts as we can for as many dollars as we can. In the long run it’s certainly going to be in our favor; we know what we are doing. But that doesn’t necessarily mean we work every account like we could. What we have developed over the past few years is a specialty area. We pay the people differently. We train them differently. We train them more like the old-school skip tracers but with a new flavor, a more technical environment for discovering and evaluating data. We have a protocol where they know certain pieces of information they are looking for might get them into a third-party environment where there was a slip and fall or an MVA. All of those have a whole different set of questions. If the questions are similar, it’s the tone and the way you process the questions and how you evaluate the answers that might encourage you to continue and take more time. We recover quite a bit of money each month through the specialized department because they are paid differently, they slow down, they ask the who, what, when, where, why, how on almost every account. Most of the accounts they work are no less than $1,000 and go on up to $100,000.

What is an obstacle in skip tracing these days?

Consumer phone blocks, consumer recording and conversation to trick/deceive staff in to making a mistake while communicating, getting us sued. The longer we are on the call with a consumer the easier and more likely we are to say too much or the wrong thing. It has been this way for years. That has not changed.

What is NACS’ most valued technology in the recovery/skip tracing process? Why?

Our trained staff because they “think.” Thinking allows us to try and test tools as they become available for positive results.

Is there a thought process or tactic you encourage in skip tracing efforts?

I’ve been doing this since 1973. In the beginning, as we progressed and began to have tools for skip tracing, we specialized. ACA trained skip tracers. We were separate from collectors because we had a different mentality and a different job. Through the years we’ve progressed to a more technical scrubbing environment where we don’t have to touch all the accounts. We just scrub them and score them and see what we can do. That works. We all know that the top 20% is paying 80% of the money, but you can get lost in that to the point where you don’t take your time training the people to be effective at what they do.

You set the bar differently for them in their commission. You make multiple systems available to them because you trust them to take the time. They’re not on this, “I’m going to do 15-24 calls an hour.” We don’t take these people and put them in that environment. I don’t care if you don’t work but five accounts an hour. If you’re working large balance accounts, the money doesn’t often come in two, 10 or 60 days. These things often take months, especially when you’re dealing with an MVA or a thirdparty slip and fall. You have to have a person that has a lot of patience. They see the value of their time as they develop case after case. It’s almost like being a paralegal when you are developing your case knowing that the end result is going to be down the road. But when it hits, it’s going to be a windfall.

What is something you think has changed in skip tracing for debt collection in the past five years?

Describe how this makes things better or worse. I think the shifting of the telephone market, landline decrease, cell increase and knowing when and how to use each. The necessary scrubs that are available are most helpful. However, understanding consent forms/signatures of cell use when in the registration process is a must. The correct wording by the service provider can make all the difference if a suit is filed.

Is there a particular wording that might land an agency in trouble?

It’s actually the lack of wording. Too often the hospitals have already set their consent forms in stone. They are already full of so much data because of Medicare and HIPAA. Four or five years ago agencies started getting sued because we were receiving sales numbers and there was no consent. If the hospital forms had simply said that patients agree and understand that the information that they’re providing is going to be used in all levels of communication in collection of the account, whether it’s insurance or a collection agency, that would have kept us safer. Remember, the recent case law last year said if a cell phone number is provided, that is mutual consent. We didn’t have that rule until 2016. Prior to that it was just suit after suit and everyone was just fending for themselves. Of course ACA was putting out the verbiage hospitals should use on their consent forms. I was, like many other agencies, giving the verbiage to our clients. But the clients had to spend months going through their legal departments just trying to get consent forms changed.

Our goal has been that we want to see the verbiage in the consent form allowing us to use a cell number on an auto-dialer. That’s what the issue is: Can a cell number be used on an auto-dialer? In a lot of cases up until just recently those consent forms were not available. Then what do you do? You have to scrub all of your phone numbers through some of the providers to make sure the cell numbers are excluded from your auto-dialers. You can do the cold call like we did years ago without using your dialer. That’s what we do. We have blended operation in our company because we have some clients where we clearly have consent to use a cell number, and put it on our dialer, but in 50% of cases we don’t. We have to do it old school by scrubbing the numbers first to make sure we know a landline from a cell number. Then we have a compliance process for each one.

That’s what I’m talking about. You have to be more aware and communicate and engage more with the client because even clients are being sued now.

What is one of the worst skip tracing-related mistakes an agency can make and explain how it can be avoided?

Not being prepared before a call is being made. Always review and study the account information. Determine how it got to this place: accident, purpose, lack of registration data or lack of verification during registration. Skip tracing when you are not prepared sets us up for failure and possible violations that can lead to poor client relations, poor customer relations and potential lawsuits.

How do you cultivate a positive and productive environment on the collection floor?

Culturally, we’ve always had an environment of willingness to serve. That’s probably one of the first questions we ask a person, if they know the definition of serving another individual. We explain that this is how we do it and ask if they can accept it and be part of this culture. They must understand when you get someone on the phone you might be the one person who can make a difference in that person’s life. It isn’t all about collecting money. If you treat a person like a human being the money will eventually come. We’ve always cultivated that. I’ve always owned my own company. We have 300+ employees and we train them all the same way. Everyone buys in. If they can’t buy in, they can’t stay.

 NACS Chili Cook Off
 CEO Dallas Bunton, Sr. and staff at the NACS 2016 Chili Cook-Off Challenge

How is NACS involved in the community?

NACS is involved in numerous community- based projects throughout the year. They range from employees participating as a crew team in a healthy charitable competition alongside other businesses for a one-day festival on the Tennessee River which benefits the local children’s hospital to an annual chili cook-off competition held on the NACS campus in Chattanooga benefiting consumer financial literacy programs around the globe.

What is one tip you would give agencies regarding collections/skip tracing in the current CFPB and regulation-rich environment?

Be sure that you have a clear job description with defined processes that is understood by management and compliance. Then train, train and review work.

What do you like to do in your free time?

I enjoy reading and driving thru the country and enjoying the scenery. But when I can, I throw in a cruise in the Caribbean for good measure.