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Sunday 17 December 2017

How 'demanding' phone calls have left distressed borrowers on brink

Young bank workers with little experience of life are cold-calling vulnerable clients, says Jerome Reilly

TEAMS of junior bank officials, under intense pressure to meet daily targets, are cold-calling distressed borrowers with potentially devastating results.

The head of the Government-funded agency that helps those in financial dire straits today paints a disturbing picture of life on the debt frontline.

Michael Culloty, the National Development Officer with the Money Advice and Budgeting Service, said the agency was deeply concerned by reports of some bank officials seeming to speak "aggressively" to borrowers over the phone.

Mr Culloty told the Sunday Independent: "We train our staff in MABS to deal with suicide ideation and how to cope with people with depression and people who are either medically or psychologically vulnerable.

"Have these young bank personnel got the life experience and the training to do this?"

Ulster Bank has more than 400 bank officials who are currently dealing with people in financial distress.

And it is likely that Bank of Ireland (BoI), Permanent TSB and Allied Irish Bank have even more staff working with distressed borrowers – given the size of their respective loan books.

Mr Culloty pointed to an alarming problem that has emerged in the preparation by those in debt of the standard financial statement (SFS) – the key document which is used as a blueprint to create sustainable long-term debt solutions , including the Mortgage Arrears Resolution Process (MARP).

He said one of the main problems with the lack of face-to-face contact between bank and debtor is that statements filled out over the phone are not based on reality.

If the facts included in the SFS are not based on reality, the "long-term sustainable solution" to arrears is destined to fail in the future.

"That's why we are particularly concerned about all this over-the-phone filling out of a standard financial statement (SFS) where there is no face-to-face contact.

"The bank staff are under a time limit, there is a push on from senior staff and we wonder about the veracity of those standard financial statements on which solutions are being based.

"We have seen some financial statements which have little resemblance to reality and on which decisions are being reached under the MARP process," he said.

Both BoI and Ulster Bank have told the Sunday Independent that their staff do receive training and advice about how to deal with distressed borrowers.

A spokeswoman for Ulster Bank said: "Ulster Bank employs over 400 trained and experienced people to help our customers in financial difficulty. Staff undergo initial training in a range of areas, including how to best help customers in distress, before they are allowed to contact customers.

"We continue to invest in ongoing training and are focused on continual development."

A BoI spokeswoman said they have introduced ongoing training for staff who are interfacing directly with customers.

"We are extremely conscious of customers in difficulty in particular areas of the bank's business whether they are in our mortgage arrears section or in the business sections as well.

"We have specific training for them, specialised training around how to deal with distressed customers and designed to better equip our staff in their dealings with customers – to deal with them with empathy."

Mr Culloty said that in many instances when people come through the door of MABS offices around the country it is clear they are in despair and turmoil.

"After speaking to them, the first thing we do is to send them to their doctor, mainly because we believe that at that point they are just not capable of dealing with their financial problems, either physically or mentally," he said.

He said the problem with the inaccuracy of SFSs comes about because people do not do the necessary research regarding how much money they will need to live on.

"They have never sat down as a family and talked about it," Mr Culloty said.

"They don't know how much money they need to live as a family.

"And we have seen people putting down values in weekly columns when they should be in monthly columns and vice versa.

"People who are under pressure, who are under stress and people who are fearful will, first of all, be incapable of doing the research; but secondly, because there is a power imbalance here between the lender and the creditor, they will put down figures which may be totally out of sync with reality to show that they can pay in order to hold on to their home."

He posed the question how this complex process of filling out the SFSs could be done over the phone in the short space of time.

"It is a suspect process. So the outcomes must be suspect as well. I have been hearing talk from MABS advisers questioning the quality of the interaction between bank and client.

"Very often people in distress are dealing with young bank officials on the end of the phone with very little life experience who seem to have very little flexibility in dealing with cases."

"One wonders what sort of culture these young bank officials are working under. What kind of pressures are on them to keep their job, to be productive.

"How are they being evaluated internally with regard to their work. Is the Central Bank going in and looking at the processes, what are the rules and regulations regarding staff and what type of productivity values are being demanded?" he asked.

Mr Culloty said it was clear that phone calls to those in debt have to be handled with sensitivity.

"If I am crying on the phone, is the bank official told to listen to me, to listen to my pain or are they told: 'You have three minutes to deal with this person. Get this message across and that's it'."

He said he has heard young bank officials have specific targets to cover a certain number of calls in an hour.

"I have been told of instances where people go to their local bank and they are being handed a phone in the bank and told to talk to a person in Cork, or Dublin or even Scotland."

Mr Culloty also said that many people witheringly branded "strategic defaulters" by bank chiefs are in reality "mental health defaulters" and are in such deep despair they are simply incapable of dealing with their financial problems.

Sunday Independent

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