October 19th, 2015 – Dery calls a client.
Dery works on our Constant Client Contact team (CCC), responsible for keeping up communications between students and clients. He asks her if she has any other questions or concerns. She says ‘yes’ and that she’s worried about her loan.
They talk for thirteen minutes. He recommends she see me, the program director, to clarify about the loans. She agrees and then Dery hangs up the phone.
He has done his job and done it well.
November 4th – I go to see the client.
I work in El Progreso, a small town in Honduras. I travel to her community and hike down to her home. I ask permission to enter from the fence. The client appears in the door and invites me inside. I duck a low hanging palm and make my way in.
She is concerned about her principal amount. There are a number of late payments on her $200 loan and she knows it. She’s worried that if she wants another La Ceiba loan, it will have to be less. I tell her that is true, but I have calculated how late she is and have a suggestion; I recommend that she try to pay off the loan before November 27th.
If she does that, I say, we can keep her at the desired amount of $200. We talk for 20 minutes. I thank her and take my leave.
I have done my job, or so I think.
November 26th – The client pays off her loan.
My heart sinks a little and I gulp. To remain at $200 she needs 60 or below. Her number reads 64.
I sit with my notes on my lap, trying to look more official than I feel.
I offer her the lower amount and watch a mixture of surprise and anger come over her face. I try to explain my mistake, own it, and ask for her forgiveness. She has more questions and then points in the direction of her small convenience store and says:
“We work with other lenders. When they promise my husband an amount, they give him that amount. You told me to pay it all this month. You were wrong and you didn’t do your job.”
She turns down $175 and asks me to leave.
I want to point out that I hadn’t promised anything. I want to remind her she was late on her payments. Excuses bubble up from some place that wants to shield me from criticism, yet I know she is right and the excuses, baseless. I keep my mouth shut and go.
I recount this tale to a number of people during the following week. At least she had the power to accuse me, I tell myself, trying to find a silver-lining. Nonetheless, it is clear that my job is to make sure clients understand as much as possible. With her, I have failed to do so. Some suggest sticking to the numbers means I’m punishing her for my mistake. Should I offer her $200 anyway?
November 30th – I get a call.
“I accept your $175 offer,” she says, “bring it to me on December 10th.”
December 7th – I visit her to clarify the terms of the loan.
I tell her I’m thankful for her time and her cooperation. I tell her La Ceiba is thankful to have worked with her for so long (4 years), and because of this I’d like to make her the original offer of $200.
She nods, but before accepting, she explains her frustration: not only are the holidays approaching, when money is tight, but she also put in a lot of effort to pay us back in the time span I gave her. To do so, she had to borrow $20 from her store, $20 from her husband, and $10 from her daughter. It wasn’t easy, she says. That was why she was so angry that day.
She accepts the offer and I make a joke. We laugh together and the tension is broken.
December 10th – We deliver the loan. Things are good and we continue working.
The reader should take from this story what they will (I’m certainly still learning lessons from it) but at least take away this: lending isn’t infallible. Our work isn’t perfect. We learn from each other like we work out a riddle. The answer is always as satisfying after the frustration of figuring it out.
At least we did it together; staff to client – client to staff.