Bill Bartmann, CEO of debt collection company CFS2, does things a little differently. Instead of just calling, hounding, and suing debtors to pay what they owe, he calls them "customers" and provides them with free job-search services, such as resume help and interview prep.
Perhaps the reason Bartmann runs his company differently is because he himself has never shied away from living life differently. A high school dropout who later put himself through college working at a hog slaughterhouse, he found himself $1 million in debt himself after his first business collapsed. He clawed his way back up by building CFS, the subject of this HBS case study — but then, that too, imploded. Now he's back (again), and doing things differently (again). What follows are edited excerpts of our conversation.
What's it like running a debt collection company that's so different from the rest of the industry?
It's a little bit like telling everyone that the world is round, when they're still in that flat-earth society. The debt collection industry believes that you have to beat people up to get money out of them — that's in their DNA. We all know pleasure and pain are what motivate people, but the debt collection industry has only ever focused on pain. In our company, we've reversed that, and quite frankly it works wonderfully.
Maybe some of the people we work with made bad decisions, and maybe some you wouldn't want to hang out with, but most of them are people like you and me, and they just got swept up in an economic tsunami that literally knocked the blocks out from under them.
You've said the idea came from your employees. How did that happen?
Well, there was this emphasis on litigation by the debt collection industry. We saw that as a train wreck. The banks that sell these loans have so much reputational skin in the game, when the banks become aware of how exposed they are by the tactics of these agencies, we believe the banks will want to change course. So we had decided that we really needed to focus on the pleasure principle.
We knew we needed to be more than just nice, but we didn't know exactly what to do. I went to my employees. I said, "How do we create pleasure for the customer?" This was my plea to 120 employees at a company-wide meeting. What can we do to have them respect us, like us, to "friend them," for lack of a better term, to want to work with us? So ideas started coming from the audience. Some people suggested raise their FICO score, or help them get their credit back, get a credit card. So then we went to test these ideas with our customers: did they want these things? The customers did not. The customers said, excuse the French, "We want the damn phone to quit ringing." It was an epiphany. They didn't want the things we thought they wanted. Maslow's hierarchy? These people were not even on the bottom rung.
So we huddled everybody together again. They said, "The number one problem we hear from customers is that they don't have enough money to pay their bills." We realized if we help them get a better job, they'll have more money. It's one of those really simple things where you wonder, "Why didn't I think of that earlier?"
So how did you take that idea and actually put it into practice?
We tried a number of different approaches which didn't work early on. It was mostly advice and suggestions, things of that nature. So we huddled again. And then an employee said, "We're going to have to do it for them. They can't do the heavy lifting themselves — they're so beat down they have no get-up-and-go left." So now we get the customer on the phone, get their info, write a resume for them. We realized we were on to something, and we said, "OK, let's do more of that." We start with a petri dish and if something doesn't work, we don't do it anymore. If something does work, we replicate it.
So tell me about that. How did you take what you'd learned about the resumes and replicate it?
We started doing job interview prep. We put customers on Skype before their interviews, show them what to wear, do mock interviews.
Then we said, "We've got to do more than hope they hear about a job, let's help them find one." So we created a job network. We take their resume and look for openings that fit their skill set. We'd find one, call up the customer, and ask them if it's of interest. Then we'd fill out the application. We'd schedule an interview. And then we would do the mock interview. And then at 8:00 am on the morning of the interview, we call our customer to get them out of bed.
Our success rate has been phenomenal.
How do other companies that are hiring your customers see this? Do they know they're being helped by a debt collection company?
It never comes up. The companies do not know that's how that person ended up there, and nobody really cares where the application comes from.
Were there any surprises you ran into, in implementing some of these ideas?
Not all our customers have the same buttons to hit. We're all different. So one of my employees said, "Why are we trying to figure out what they want; why don't we just ask them what they need?"
Early on, requests came in for food stamps, child care, a new hot water heater, fixing a leaky roof, a new wheelchair. Someone wanted a tree in his backyard cut down. Someone needed a casket for their father's funeral. And we said, "OK, we'll do that."
We've now delivered 203 services that are just as eclectic as you could imagine. In the case of the leaky roof, we called up Habitat for Humanity. The guy who needed a water heater, we called up Salvation Army. Cutting a tree down in the backyard, that was even more simple. We now keep a database of 6,000 agencies around the United States so that whenever we have a customer that wants or needs anything we can find someone who cares about that customer. There are organizations that care about every race, religion, gender, military service, and so on. We care about one person, the customer. So find out everything about who our customer really is so that we can target the organizations that care about some aspect of who they are.
I know you said the point wasn't to have it make money, but I read that you actually do make good money with this model.
This company is only 3 years old, so we're still growing, but our results today are two times that of any peer in the industry. That is shocking. Note to industry: There is a better model.
So what if other debt collection agencies start copying your model? Would that be a good thing? How will you adapt?
First, I hope they do copy my way. I'm not afraid of competition. We really think the world is a better place if we could get every debt collector to follow this model.
Secondly, we think there's enough debt out there that we don't' have to worry about competition.
If somebody catches up to us, that's not their fault — that's our fault. We're first movers, and it's our job to stay ahead.
You know a few things about losing money, as well as making money. Advice for those out there who may be facing down failures, business or otherwise?
Somebody once told me that failure is not final. I thought that was just another cute little cliché thing. I didn't give it much shrift. But then I had the good fortune of failing a couple of times. And here's what I found out: he was right. Failure is not final. It is an awkward, uncomfortable, anxiety-filled portion of your life; it is not your whole life. It isn't who you are, it's what happened to you, and once you get that distinction, then you realize, "I can change that. I can come back. I can do again." Isn't that was capitalism is all about? We have the freedom in America to try anything we want to, and most of them do not work. But entrepreneurs say, "I just want some of them to work."
I really hope I end up being a role model for businesses and businesspeople who failed. Then I would look back at all of my failures and scuffed knees and bruised elbows and know it was worth it.