Lime Legal

Engaged tone

Published 01 September 2023

Better use of the telephone can help deal with rent arrears, and avoid legal action. Mike Barry explains

Rent arrears will arise in the area of social housing. Tenants have difficulty in making payment to various ‘creditors’ from limited resources. Their priorities may not be those of their landlords.

They may receive letters from various creditors – they can be ignored, put behind the clock, or thrown away.

Any ‘threat’ they contain diminishes as days pass. So in dealing with rent arrears the landlord needs to ‘engage’ with the tenant, by telephone.

The telephone is simply a tool and, like any other tool, it is only ever as effective as the person using it. Knowledge and skill are the crucial attributes of the caller.

For example, what does the caller know about the tenant? What can be learnt about the tenant during the conversation? What is the landlord’s policy on arrears? What ‘arrangements’ are acceptable? The caller is ‘speaking for the landlords’ and must have all the knowledge to be able to do so.

The caller needs a variety of skills. First, tone of voice is important. Aggression breeds aggression, so a loud voice or a bullying tone will lead to a heated, but fruitless conversation.

Other points for the ‘collector’ to bear in mind include:

  • Get personal. Give your name, and use the tenant’s name, often. Use your first name if you wish, but give the tenant the courtesy of ‘Mr’ or ‘Mrs’.
  • Don’t criticise. The tenant’s rent money may have been spent on something else. No point in saying: ‘You shouldn’t have done that, should you?’ Much better to say ‘I understand why you did that, but it means that the rent is unpaid, doesn’t it?’
  • Don’t make comparisons. The tenant may say that he/she had other bills that had to be paid. Don’t say ‘We all have bills to pay, I have to pay mine!’
  • Don’t interrupt. Let the tenant finish what he is saying. For example, the tenant may explain that he/she ‘took the children out for the day and...’ Let them finish. Don’t interrupt with ‘What did that cost you?’
  • Be sympathetic. Try to build a relationship with the tenant. Avoid using ‘you’ and ‘I’. Use ‘we’ instead. For example, don’t say: ‘But the rent is due Mr. Blank, and you need to pay it. I have to point out that.’ Say, instead: ‘But we agree that the rent is in arrears and we need to work out how it can be paid.’
  • Listen – and use the ‘silences’. Collecting means listening as well as talking. Say what you need to say, and then listen and try to understand the tenant’s problems. If you have said what you need to say, wait for a response. Don’t ‘leap in’ if there is a silence.
  • Keep your temper. Don’t get angry! You may feel better for doing so, but you will have achieved nothing!
  • Keep the objective in mind. The call is intended to resolve the arrears problem. Keep that in mind. Keep bringing the tenant back to that issue.
  • Confirm ‘agreement’. The call must have a conclusion. What has been agreed? Whatever it is, go over it again to avoid any misunderstanding. If the tenant has no proposals, confirm that. ‘So you’re saying, Mr Blank, that you are not prepared to pay, and would prefer us to take the matter to court. Is that what you really want?’ That may provide an opportunity to ‘re-open’ the conversation.

An effective telephone call can establish a good personal relationship with the tenant, under the control of the caller. Letters cannot do that. The telephone, used effectively, can.

Mike Barry is a trainer for the Institute of Credit Management