Fighting stereotypes Featured

8:00pm EDT August 26, 2009

Roger Weiss once dropped from the ceiling of his office dressed in full combat gear. The president and chief operating officer of CACi understands the stress his 320 employees endure, and he does what he can to break the tension with unexpected silliness every once in awhile.

As debt collectors, some of their pressure comes from flawed public perceptions of being cruel and overdemanding. To combat the false stereotypes, CACi became the first Missouri agency to sign a trade association’s Collector’s Pledge. The agreement promises to treat clients with dignity, respect and understanding — principles that Weiss and Chief Financial Officer Shawn Farris have been enforcing since they bought the company.

“Flip the boat upside-down and start with a clean slate,” says Weiss, whose company reported 2008 revenue of $12.3 million. “Realize change in one area typically catalyzes change in most areas.”

Smart Business spoke with Weiss about battling negative stereotypes and rewriting public perception of your company.

Nip negative perceptions in the bud. The keys to combating negative stereotypes are to realize that they exist [and] realize what they are. Do a self-assessment to see if any truly apply.

You have to step outside yourself. Take a look around at the culture and at the front-line employees and observe: Do I see any of the characteristics of the stereotypes being emulated? I have to do a paradigm shift and look at things from the perspective of a consumer and say, ‘How would this affect me? How would I react to it?’

By wanting to eliminate those negative characteristics, you have to know what you want to replace it with. Identify the perception that you would like to have associated with you; build your practices around the positive perception.

As an example, one of the negative stereotypes is, ‘A debt collector is overdemanding.’ To me, overdemanding means they don’t care about a person’s personal situation or finances. What we coach our collectors to do is use empathy and put yourself in the consumer’s shoes. It helps reduce the characteristic of being overdemanding, and it replaces it with the characteristic of empathy.

You’ve got to take (stereotypes) head on. You have to say, ‘What am I going to do to eliminate this?’ each and every time.

Get employees on board. Know the road that you want to travel and commit to traveling it. Make sure it’s clearly communicated in simple statements to the staff: ‘This is the road that we’re going to take. You’re either on this road with us or you’re not on the road.’ We show them the benefits of why we do something in a particular manner and how doing it differently might damage a process or lead to a broader failure.

If you keep trying to pull people on to that road, they’re going to keep fighting you and they’re going to spawn some other bad seeds. You’ve either got to get them on your team or get them off your team. There’s no middle of the road.

We always start with taking the approach of maybe they don’t understand. So we’re always going to pull them to the side; we’re always going to have an informal conversation. We’ll ask people, ‘So this change is coming up. What are your thoughts? What ideas do you have?’

And after that, then we ask them to occasionally summarize: ‘I want to make sure that people understand what we’re doing here. Can you tell me how you understand it?’ We make it as informal as possible.

We’re going to tell them, ‘Here’s the reality of the situation, and here’s the correction action we anticipate you taking.’ In an informal conversation, it’s obviously a whole lot softer than that.

If that doesn’t work, we’ll have a formal conversation. If that doesn’t work, we may have to take disciplinary actions.

Investigate employees’ perceptions. Identify key peer leaders, meaning someone not in supervision and not in management. They’re going to be the ones who are driving the weekend plans in the group of friends or the ones who are driving where they’re going to go for lunch or even who’s going to take the lead at their break time to get up to go on break. They’re the ones that tend to be more outspoken.

You’ve got to make them an ally — not a spy but an ally. I will pull someone in and bring up the change. And then I will stroke that person’s ego a little bit. I tell them, ‘Hey, I know that people really look up to you a lot, as do I. I would really like your input on how we’re going about this. How are people perceiving it?’

It’s not always pretty, but it’s honest, and that’s what’s needed. We don’t just take one person’s word for it, because most people have personal agendas to advance. So we’ll get a sampling from various departments or various peer groups and see what information tends to be across the board.

Communicate transparently to clients. In order to have a clear, consistent and simple message, you have to be pretty much an open book. If you have hidden agendas or hidden information, there could be a disconnect in the understanding of what your sense of mission is. If you have a mission that is beneficial for all parties involved, you want to make sure that mission is shared uniformly with everyone.

It’s part of our responsibility to make sure they understand what we’re doing on this end. The best way we can do that is to communicate it to them and then to let them come in and listen to phone calls or come into our system and monitor and audit [their] accounts to see that we are actually doing what we’re saying we’re going to be doing.

Perception, like trust and respect, is earned through actions. Simply telling the public one thing and having never backed it up does nothing to modify the perception. <<

How to reach: CACi, (800) 777-7971 or