Gareth Power, a customer services manager at payday lender Speed-e-Loans, has a list of names and telephone numbers covering three sides of A4 to work through.
They belong to Speed-e-Loans customers who have failed to make several payments or have defaulted altogether. "We do anything from 50 to 100 calls a day each, depending on whether people call back," Power says.
Behind us there are about eight people doing exactly the same thing; it sounds like soul destroying work, quite frankly. While I am waiting to be introduced to Power I overhear one side of a conversation which goes like this: "Hello, please can I speak to Mr A? Oh, he's in the kitchen? Please could you ask if he will come to the phone? Ah, he's not in? But I thought you said he was in the kitchen? …"
Despite the frustration of trying to talk with people who clearly do not want to have a conversation, the staff are calm, there is a friendly buzz in the office, and no raised voices or slamming of phones. "We always look to treat the customer fairly and with respect," Power says. The company does not use debt collectors and claims to have only once taken a defaulting customer to court.
Speed-e-Loans is a small company. It employs 15 people and makes about 3,000 loans a month up to a maximum of £500 each. But the last day of every month – payday for many people and therefore the day they choose to pay back their loans – tends to be very busy with everyone in the office working on collections.
Although the website says "… our customers are people just like you. Doctors, teachers, nurses, professionals who need a quick short term cash advance", the target customer earns about £21,000 a year. A borrowers average age is 32, with 80% between the age of 23 and 40. Speed-e-Loans prefers not to lend to people under the age of 23; the company's chief executive, who left the company soon after this interview, said: "They should probably be going to their mum and dad."
He said the company had three types of customer: those who borrow and pay back on time; 10% who get into genuine difficulty and often end up going bankrupt; and 25% "who need a bit more help", maybe because they can't pay the loan back in one lump sum.
The first call Power makes is to someone who fell into arrears at the end of January. The original loan was £300, with £158 in charges, but by the end of June it had grown to £758 with penalties and additional interest. I can see from the record that Speed-e-Loans has tried calling this customer 10 times, but has had no luck in getting through, and this time is no different.
Next Power tries the customer's mobile but the line is dead, so finally attempts to contact him at work. He isn't there, apparently, so Power leaves a message asking him to call back. We both
know he won't.
The next customer borrowed £150 on 30 December, asked for an extension on 27 January and defaulted on 24 February. When Power opens up the file he discovers the customer has been signed off work with long-term sickness and has taken out a debt management plan through which he has repaid just £1.49.
The next few customers are not at home or work. On the wall is a Consumer Finance Association poster displaying the trade body's lending code for small cash advances. Rule number one is: "Always communicate with customers in a fair, clear and accurate manner. Identify yourself fully."
Each time a call isn't connected Power leaves a message, sweetly asking the debtor to call back so they can work out an agreement. "There's no point in screaming a message they are just going to delete," he says. "A quarter of the calls go through. It's that 25% we have to make count."
I am visiting the Speed-e-Loans office in a business park in Elstree, Hertfordshire, on a Friday morning – the third day of the RBS/NatWest computer glitch debacle and the first day it really seems to be having an impact on banking customers.
"A number of customers are ringing in saying they can't pay because they're with NatWest," Power says. "But I've just noticed on the TV that NatWest says the problems are now resolved, so I'm going to try calling this customer to see if she wants to retry paying."
This time he gets through straightaway and the customer is happy for him to try putting the payment through again, but it is still declined. Power says there is likely to be a backlog, but points out to the customer that there will be a late payment charge of £14.95 if she has not paid by midnight.
She seems quite happy about this, no doubt believing (erroneously, as it turns out) her bank is capable of sorting out its problems in time to prevent her from paying a penalty.
Power, who worked for Nationwide building society before joining Speed-e-Loans at its inception, says: "Some customers can be verbally aggressive, but only because they are under a lot of pressure. We know it's not aimed at us but because they've got themselves in a difficult position. [If they are aggressive] we terminate the call and try another day."
Salary In the range of £25,000.
Work-life balance "I work standard office hours – Monday-Friday 9am to 5pm – so when I am away from work I can focus on my family. I've been married for nine years and have twin daughters who are three years old so home life is also full-on. In my spare time I enjoy working out at the local gym and going for long runs to unwind."
Best thing "Without a doubt the people I work with."
Worst thing "Dealing with the occasional aggressive customer who is struggling with debt yet unwilling to discuss and agree options to resolve their situation."
Category: Payday loans