Thursday, September 04, 2008

I'm not a Great Manipulator; but I can tell who doesn't have a good business model, maybe


Back in the spring of 2003, while still in Minnesota, and 15 months out in “retirement”, I had an interview with a debt collecting company, that had started with a job fair. The first interview in HR went fine, and then I came back to talk to a manager, and it seemed to go well, but he picked up on the fact that I was very “analytical.” I did get a tour of the floor, with all the warm gear, and got to observe a collector for about a half hour. Somehow we got into a metaphorical conversation about red and green kryptonite and Smallville and Clark Kent. So I was invited back for a third interview with a youngish man who was the head of HR.

He challenged me with quite a blunt question. “Tell me the last time you told someone what to do, and they did it.” I made up some story about how we implemented the daily or monthly billing system at the credit reporting company back in the 1980s. I remember how, as a kid, I used to resent the idea of parents, teachers or superiors doing something “just for authority”.

I asked him, what were the consequences when a debtor didn’t pay. He said something nebulous like, “it gets on their credit report.”

Of course, you see my point. If there are clear, legal and enforceable consequences for failing to pay, then the consequences will speak for themselves, and my ability to project “authority” becomes a red herring. On the other hand, if the company is depending on me to put on an act, it’s business model is suspect. It shouldn’t need that. The fact that since then millions of people got subprime loans with poor credit says that the "consequences" didn't speak for themselves. People wouldn't do the right thing until they were "told" to by someone who projected authority.

At the close of the interview he said something else that still sticks in my mind. "I am convinced that you fully understand the job. I have reservations as to whether you can actually do the job." Because of not enough social bearing perhaps. Objection to manipulation and schmoozing.

I didn’t get that job, nor did I get a job as a first party collector for Target. But I did get on as an immediate hire at RMA a few weeks later. No existential questions in that interview.

I worked for two months before deciding I would come back to Virginia. The IT environment was stripped down and simple, with menu-driven, character based screens only, but the platform was actually Unix. The applications may have been written in some kind of COBOL. The sign-on procedure required us to enter an IP address, but there was no actual Internet connection. This was the first work logon that I had since my work account was suddenly canceled in front of my eyes in December 2001 prior to my layoff.

This was a good company; it gave a week of training, and was strict about complying with the FDPCA (Fair Debt Collection Practices Act). Even so, I was counseled to ask “is (Jane Doe) there?” and fake pretending to be a (now “Facebook”) “friend”, rather than sound like someone calling for official purposes. Once we reached the person, the mini-miranda starts.

Al Gore said, at the Democratic Convention, that we’re becoming a nation of sales people who don’t make things. If you have a real product or service, you really don’t have to manipulate people, do you?

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