From The Straits Times    |

Scary door-pounding, menacing glares and arm bending – these are familiar signs of debt collectors at work. Well, in the movies at least. By the same token, if you were a debtor, you would know better than to mess with these intimidating characters who can make life a living hell for you if you don’t pay them back on time.

But going by debt collector Yvonne Ho’s daily activities, the world of debt collection is not as exciting as what the silver screen would have us believe.

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Yvonne and her team of debt collecting specialists

Yvonne shatters the stereotype of the boorish debt collector – the 1.62m-tall sales director of debt recovery agency Singapore Debt Collection Service looks every bit the girl next door with her youthful mien, her face stripped bare of makeup and her hair pulled back in a simple ponytail.

Most surprising is that she’s only 23, but already leads a team of 20 debt enforcement specialists – her term for debt collectors.

Debunking stereotypes
The image of debt collectors being rowdy and behaving like criminals is an evil local debt collection companies – there at least 55 in Singapore, according to Yellow Pages Singapore – battle constantly.

Last November, after a video of debt collectors being hostile to an alleged debtor at his home went viral, a group of 10 debt collection companies banded together to form the Credit Collection Association of Singapore (CCAS) to develop an industry code of conduct. Although Singapore Debt Collection Service is not a CCAS member, it tries to set itself apart from miscreants in the industry by adopting a righteous approach to debt collection.

“We are trained not to use scare tactics like threats or violence to intimidate debtors. Instead, we try to understand where they’re coming from,” explains Yvonne. “If they can’t pay up because they’ve lost their jobs, we help them find one – without taking any commission.”

One such debtor was Shashi Suppiah, 36. “I was jobless and I owed a friend $10,000. I was really stressed because Yvonne’s team was hounding me for payment,” he recalls. “When she offered me a job at her company, I was really surprised. Suddenly, I had a base salary of $1,000, plus commission. So I set aside $500 every month to repay my debt. After two years, I was able to clear it completely.” Shashi is now operations manager at Singapore Debt Collection Service.

Yvonne has not hired another debtor since, but continues to check with clients to see if they have job vacancies for those in debt. To date, she has helped 13 debtors find jobs.

Father in serious debt
Yvonne was compelled to start working nine years ago not by choice, but because her father had fallen into serious debt after his renovation business had failed.

Desperate to recoup his losses, he turned to gambling in the casino, which made things worse. Yvonne remembers people constantly knocking on the door of the family’s two-room HDB flat to demand payment; even their car was towed away. As a result, her parents’ 16-year marriage fell apart and they eventually filed for divorce.

Armed only with a PSLE qualification, Yvonne decided to drop out of school at 14 and find a job to help pay off her father’s $40,000 debt. 

She took on a clerical role at Singapore Debt Collection Service, which was started by her then-boyfriend, Keagan Tan, who is 18 years her senior. They are now married and have three daughters, aged six, four, and five months.

With a growing interest in the business, she began to take on more complex duties and, at the age of 18, took over the reins from Keagan (standing behind Yvonne in the main photo), who currently oversees marketing for the company. 

Of course, clients are often surprised at how young she is. Some even refer to her as xiao mei mei (Chinese for “little girl”), a tag she finds amusing. “It doesn’t bother me,” she says. “I let my work speak for itself.” 

While her core priority is recovering monies for clients, Yvonne feels that her personal experience makes her more sympathetic towards debtors. “I know how frustrating it can be for someone to have mounting debts, yet have no means to pay them off,” she says.

“Are you a loan shark?”
It’s a question that people often ask her, especially since there is no legislation that regulates debt collectors in Singapore. Her answer is a resounding no, but she says she tries to “operate within the confines of criminal law”.

For starters, to avoid being confused with illegal loan shark runners, her team members always wear a uniform and carry an official pass.

Yvonne also has strict hiring policies and rejects applicants who, in her words, just want to harass people. She ensures that potential hires understand the struggles of someone who is in the red, then monitors their performance during missions before making a hiring decision two weeks to a month later. What she looks out for? “A demonstration that he or she has an understanding of the situation from both the client’s and the debtor’s perspective,” she says.

In many instances, Yvonne finds that using a softer approach improves her team’s chances of recovering the debt – “Most people are less defensive when you take the time to speak to them,” she says. And the figures speak for themselves: The company has worked on more than 1,000 cases since 2002 and has a success rate of 85 per cent. For cases where debt recovery is unsuccessful – two years is the cut-off period – clients do not have to pay commission; they only cover the transportation, manpower and documentation costs, which range from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, depending on the difficulty of debt recovery.

Yvonne chooses to handle the more aggressive clients herself, or sends one of her two female colleagues. These women, who are in their twenties, perform administrative duties and manage the company’s finances most of the time, but Yvonne finds that it’s usually more effective to send female debt specialists to meet hostile clients. “Women are perceived to be less aggressive,” she explains.

To encourage debtors to pay up, the company also devises customised payment plans. Yvonne recalls an episode that involved a young man who owed the company he was working for $10,000 for wrecking the company car in an accident. “Knowing that he worked as a truck driver and had a take-home pay of $1,500, we proposed a monthly payment of $500 to our client, which we felt was a manageable payment plan for the debtor. Both parties agreed to it.”

Persistence is key
Going to debtors’ homes or offices to collect payment is part of the job, but sometimes, debt collectors also have to console individuals who have been cheated of their life savings or have been duped into taking a loan. They may even have to double as private investigators.

“Sometimes, people are MIA (missing in action) and I feel like a bounty hunter hunting them down,” Yvonne jokes. She reveals that the best informants are the debtors’ neighbours, who let Yvonne and her team in on the best times to “catch” the debtor. The longest they’ve waited for someone to come home? “Six hours!” she exclaims.

And the longest time taken to recover a debt? Two years. For all the effort, a debt specialist is remunerated with 5 per cent of the total debt amount recovered. Add that to the basic pay, and one can expect a debt specialist to earn at least $2,000 to more than $3,000 monthly.

No case is too difficult
One would think that, surely, debt collectors have their fair share of enemies. Thankfully, Yvonne and her team have never been in a life-threatening situation – they’ve only encountered a debtor who had called up a friend as backup to intimidate the team into leaving. The debtor and his friend shouted at the debt specialist, behaved arrogantly and refused to cooperate. This went on for an hour and a half, until the debt specialist managed to calm the pair down and get them to understand the situation.

Some debtors have also called the police on them and reported them for harassment. “Each mission usually involves four debt specialists – two to conduct negotiations, one to take case notes, and one to videotape all proceedings. The case notes and video are handed to the police when evidence is required,” Yvonne explains.

Family support is key
Yvonne’s time management skills have improved because of her job. Although she works irregular hours and sometimes on public holidays, she still finds time to go for weekly kick-boxing and gym classes, and never fails to organise family outings at the weekends to spend time with her kids.

She has also learned never to judge a book by its cover. “Even if someone appears to be doing well or is well regarded in society, he or she could very well be in debt,” she says. 

More importantly, her family has been incredibly encouraging. “They know that I’m managing a proper business and that I’m trying to help people,” she says. “Really, it’s not a hooligan’s job!” 

Photography: Wong Wei Liang, Art direction: Alice Chua, Styling: Evon Chng, Hair: Ash Loi/The Atelier, using Sebastian Professional, Makeup: Gigi sng, using Urban Decay, Yvonne’s outfit & necklace: Topshop

For a video of Yvonne and her team in action, download the digital edition of Her World March from the Apple App Store or Google Play.

This story was originally published in Her World magazine March 2015.