A practical guide to helping bereaved customers

Bereavement process for customers

This is the first of two articles looking at how to make your processes more human and compassionate for bereaved customers.

There are fewer more guaranteed ways to make the news than dealing badly with a customer’s death.  Almost every story looks the same:

Grieving relatives are shunted heartlessly through a completely heartless process by a heartless organisation focused solely on its own internal processes.


Here’s a story from 2013…

A media company (let’s call them Mediaco) sends a bill to a deceased customer:

“…Alongside a £63.89 charge the bill stated “D.D Denied-Payer deceased”, a reference to the fact the dead man’s bank had refused a direct debit payment. Under this Mediaco added a “late payment charge” of £10.”

The PR department was rushed out to smooth things over:

“We have a team in place to ensure bereavements are managed sensitively and will ensure this wording is removed from our billing system.”

Then they did exactly the same thing in 2015 to a customer who’d already written 12 times to tell them about her husband’s death:

“Eventually she lost her patience and in December said she no longer wished to stay with them.

She said:

‘But on Saturday a letter came, again addressed to my husband, requesting their hub back. I am 70 and my friends are horrified at what has happened since my dear husband passed away.’”


Setting aside the reputational damage to your business, isn’t this the time, above all, to treat a customer with respect, compassion and humanity?

In our experience, it is an area of customer experience that seldom gets the attention it needs – until it reaches the press. Then the wrath of the Board descends from on high.

Here are some practical ways we’ve found that make the process simpler, less painful and smoother for everyone.

Before you act, plan. Here’s how…

1. Give someone responsibility

Projects like this touch a lot of different departments.  Give one person overall responsibility for leading it.  They don’t have to do everything, but they do need to coordinate and lead.

2. Give them backup

Get someone senior – ideally a director – on board.  You’ll need a bit of corporate weight to break down silo walls now and then.

3. Get a team together

Set up a team to make the whole thing better.  You’ll need one person on the team for each department your deceased processes touch.  At the first meeting, ask everyone which other departments should be there.

4. Map the scale of the problem

Raid the stationery cupboard for A3 paper, post-its and pens. Get the team to talk you through their individual processes and map them. Highlight the bottlenecks and problem areas so you can come back to them.  This stage will probably bring you insights into your own business’ process that will be best described as ‘toe curling’.

5. Walk the process through – as a customer

You need a clear, warts-and-all view of the process and how it feels to someone outside the business.

Get four or five people who don’t work for your business to be customers. Get them to start at home, at their kitchen tables and go from there, walking the process through step by step.

You’re looking as much for how they’re made to feel going through the various processes as the processes themselves:

Website

What advice is there?  Is it easy to find?  Can they complete forms online (one bank I checked gave a link to an online form that didn’t work with Chrome or Safari on a Mac).

Callcentre

How are your ‘customers’ treated when they call to report a death? Do your staff show compassion? Are they trained to communicate effectively?  Is there empathy – and sympathy too? Or is it all a bit ‘computer says no’? Do they get bounced from customer services rep to customer services rep?  Can everyone explain the next steps clearly and with humanity?

Branch or store

Get your ‘customers’ to go into branch and talk to staff.  Again, how are they made to feel?  How simple are the processes?  When you ask for evidence of the death, how is that done? Is it focused solely on compliance with your own processes or treated sensitively? Do you invite your customers into a separate area or room, or make them stand on the shop floor?

Correspondence

Get copies of every communication touchpoint and evaluate them objectively. Can you simplify them?  Make them more human in tone? Reduce how many there are?

Processes

Do the processes run smoothly for your customer? And, more importantly, do they feel like they run smoothly?  Bereaved customers won’t be thinking clearly, understanding or taking in everything you say – so make allowances for this.  Make everything even simpler and clearer than you think it needs to be.

Throughout, you’re looking for two things – ways to make things simpler and ways to make them more human-friendly. Once each of your ‘customers’ has been through the process, get them along to a team meeting to talk you through their experiences.  This sort of ‘real world’ customer experience will show up so many things that an internal audit will never spot.

6. Check everything

Absolutely everything – it’s the little things that have a huge impact, particularly when a customer is already distraught.  And it’s the little things the press will pick up on too.

For example, the British Bankers’ Association produces a really helpful guide for bereaved customers. You can download it from their website (https://www.bba.org.uk/publication/leaflets/bereaved-customers/). The document’s filename, displayed on the screen of a customer who has recently lost someone? “Final_spreads_bereavement1.pdf”.

Where next?

By this stage, you’ll have a good idea of what needs fixing.  They’re nearly always down to broken or clunky processes, customer service skills that need honing or robotic, tough-to-understand operational customer communication.

The next priority is fixing the broken processes and slimming them down where you can. But doing that is really just the basics. You’ll actually make the biggest difference to your customers through changes to your people’s attitudes and they way they communicate.

In the next article, I’ll explain more about how to change attitudes and transform how your team communicates with customers about sensitive issues like this. Does your business deal with customer bereavement well?

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Mark McArthur-Christie

I'm managing director at Rubuss. We work in taking operational customer communication and turning it from an overhead into a business asset.