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Turning Red to Black Blog: Discussing Topics Related to Revenue Cycle Management, Debt Collection, Debt Recovery, Debt Management, Billing Operations and Billing Procedures

Negotiating with a Debtor Part 3: Knowing the Difference Between a Payer and a Staller


A call comes in and you have a patient on the phone. You have their account in front of you and know what they owe and why they owe it. But you don’t know what their circumstances are or if they are even ready to pay. How much time should you spend working with this patient?

No patient is the same and while the goal is always to clear their balance as quickly as possible, remember, however old the debt may be, your customer or patient may still feel a personal or moral obligation to pay. Trusting that they will do so should not affect the sensible write-off of the currently uncollectible debt, nor should it move you to throw “good money after bad” at a cost greater than the anticipated recovery. So it is critically important for any negotiator to listen to the debtor in order to make informed decisions that will dictate not only the lowest arrangement that should be accepted on a patient-to-patient basis but also whether this patient is actually trying to make that arrangement or is trying to stall your attempts at recovery.

Listening to your patient’s concern by allowing them to air any grievances they may have will help you to build trust with them and give you a greater chance of satisfying their debt. Thus, it is wise to first listen to your patient and let them get any angst or frustration out of their system.  Many times sympathizing with them and letting them know that you understand their frustration will ingratiate yourself to them and allow you to work through this difficult situation with them more effectively.

Related Article: "Negotiating with a Debtor Part 1: Using Standard Criteria"

Once you’ve given them a chance to explain their situation it’s time to find out if this person is going to be a willing payer. So it’s best to put the ball in their court:  “So Mr. Jones, how are we going to take care of this balance today?” Mr. Jones can then either offer a repayment term or try to find an excuse to steer the conversation in a different direction. This should be your primary indicator of whether you have a “payer” or a “staller” – the debtor who is intent on stringing you along – on the phone.

No matter how large the balance is, there is always a point when the time your organization puts into collecting the balance negates any profit it may see from collecting the balance in full.  This represents a possible end goal for the “staller” – wasting enough time that it is no longer feasible for you to turn a profit on their account even if you were to turn it over to collections at this point.  Whether this tactic is intentional or not, it is important to recognize a stalling patient immediately and turn their account(s) over to your collection agency.

Related Article: "Negotiating with a Debtor Part 2: Achieving a Satisfactory Payment Arrangement"

Conversely, the individual may very well be able to pay…and pay in full.  Your department’s resources and skills come into play now and it should use your organization’s Accounts Receivable Plan and standard criteria to inform the direction it takes.  Perhaps that is to offer possible payment arrangements to clear the debt. Perhaps, with limited resources that means you turn it over to your third-party pre-collection or collections teams.

Your department’s ability to skillfully negotiate is critical to your success if you are doing it yourself.  Many times debtors claiming they can afford no more than small monthly payment can turn around and pay a large balance or make a substantial down payment by the end of a call. A skilled collector can make this happen during a negotiation all the while gaining valuable knowledge as to the debtors’ ability and willingness to pay. This works against the “staller” while reducing the time it takes to clear the balance.  Offering terms that can be met is also conducive to clearing the balance while steering your organization clear from spending more time on a paying account than is necessary.

In this scenario it should be made clear that any broken arrangement will cause the patient’s account to be referred to collections – this is your trump card and one you need to stick to no matter what relationship you have developed with the debtor.


4 Things to Remember During Any Debt Negotiation:

  • Listen to your patient and work to understand their personal circumstances.
  • Apply this knowledge to a set of standard criteria to give your negotiations a starting point.
  • Start your negotiations by allowing the debtor to suggest terms that will work for them. Counter their offer with higher payments over short periods of time – the maximum amount you think the patient can afford. Never bid against yourself (i.e. always let the debtor lead with their offer, and if they don’t, simply ask them what they can afford).
  • Be willing to say “no” to a lower offer than you are willing to accept, or any time you feel the patient is stalling, and kindly remind them that their account will now move to your collection agency and this is their last chance to work it out with you directly.

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