When Sunshine Hefferon answers the phone at work, she doesn’t know what the caller’s mood, motivation or state of mind will be.
“I might get someone who’s crying because they’re at wits’ end. I might get someone who’s angry, and I have to remember it’s not about me.
“You have to meet each person where they are. I try my best to listen, to validate them.”
Hefferon is a financial counselor at GreenPath Debt Solutions’ call center in Farmington Hills, Michigan. When she takes a call, her first goal is to establish a rapport with the caller. That allows her to begin the sometimes difficult but always satisfying experience of helping consumers improve their finances and their life.
“You can hear a smile over the phone,” Hefferon says. “I really get satisfaction when they say, ‘I’m so glad I talked with you.’ ”
GreenPath is a nonprofit credit counseling, financial education and debt management organization with offices in 15 states. The company also serves consumers nationwide by phone and online.
Financial counseling wasn’t part of Hefferon’s initial career plan.
“I had a degree in psychology and was pursuing a master’s degree,” she says. “I started working in the call center, became a bankruptcy counselor and then a housing counselor. I liked the environment, and I like to help people. … Working here is definitely rewarding.”
GreenPath offers housing, student-loan and bankruptcy counseling, credit report review, debt repayment plans and many other services. It is a member of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, the nation’s largest nonprofit financial counseling organization. GreenPath has about 500 employees nationwide and assists almost a quarter of a million consumers each year.
Working from the call center, Hefferon consults with clients exclusively by phone — never in person. But GreenPath has many offices where people can come in and meet with a financial counselor.
Hefferon says communicating by phone is not a hindrance at all. She always strives to be empathetic, without coming across like a pushover. Her job is to help clients understand, accept and take responsibility for their financial problems, and then develop a corrective action plan to move forward.
“We put together action items each time we speak, and sometimes people don’t follow through,” Hefferon says. “My job is not to be a babysitter. I tell them, ‘The action plan is about you.’ ” Ultimately, the client has to take full responsibility.
Some get it, some don’t
Hefferon says it can be frustrating when a client constantly overspends or runs a monthly deficit of $1,000 or more, and the person just doesn’t want to change. But more often than not, she says, people facing huge bills or credit card debt do want to change the way they live. That’s when Hefferon finds her work deeply gratifying.
“I had been talking with an older, single woman in her 70s who was living on a fixed income and having financial difficulties,” Hefferon says. “When she was married, her husband handled all of the finances.”
“When she first called me, she was literally crying on the phone. She said she had gone to a restaurant and had trouble paying the bill. That’s when it hit her.
“She started to track her expenses, she now writes down every dollar she spends. Before that she didn’t even know her expenses, she didn’t even know the (monthly) deficit. She said, ‘Wow, I can’t believe I was spending this much on XYZ.’ ”
A plan to get debt-free
Hefferon’s client took part in GreenPath’s Debt Management Plan. Under the plan, GreenPath serves as an intermediary between clients and their creditors. All parties agree to a repayment schedule that typically includes reduced interest rates and one consolidated monthly payment. The client pays GreenPath, which then disburses the money to the creditors.
GreenPath is a member of NerdWallet’s Ask an Advisor platform. Hefferon and other GreenPath counselors have answered more than 160 consumer questions on AAA. Anyone can ask a question and get a free answer from a credit counselor at nerdwallet.com/ask.
As a nonprofit, GreenPath relies on grants, funding from some creditors that take part in its programs and client fees. Organizations such as GreenPath differ from for-profit companies (sometimes known as debt settlement companies) that also work with people who are seeking debt relief. For-profit companies usually charge more and sometimes engage in deceptive or illegal practices, according to federal regulators.
“When some people first call in, they think we’re a debt settlement company,” Hefferon says. “We tell them we’re not here to talk them into something. We’re here to lend support and to talk about the pros and cons of all the options. My intention is to educate people and help them do better.”
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Image courtesy of Sunshine Hefferon