What Customer Service? Companies Should Treat the Bereaved with More Compassion

The subject of an organisation or establishment’s insensitivity in dealing with people who have recently lost a loved one is once again in the media after the television presenter Kate Garraway had to resort to social media to ask Harringay council for help after several failed attempts to speak to someone about its payment demands and threats of bailiffs being sent to her late husband. 

Harringay responded rapidly and resolved the issue. However, as Kate said herself, her high-profile tweeting and very public plea are unusual ways to resolve the problem – and importantly aren’t an option for most people dealing with the same distressing issue. Her experience of ‘phoning, waiting 50 minutes, being put on hold by the call handler, and not being able to speak to anyone out of call centre working hours, as well has having to explain repeatedly that the account holder had passed away, is sadly not unusual.

Kate is Not Alone

In response to the publicity surrounding Kate’s experience, members of the public shared their stories. One daughter revealed that after her father’s death, the DWP wrote to inform him that he had passed away2. More distressing was her father’s mobile phone company, which, having been told of his death and the contract being cancelled, sent him a marketing letter explaining it ‘wasn’t too late to change his mind’.

Stories such as these have been reported widely over the years. Take the story of Ms Smith. Three months after her father passed, Ms Smith3 regularly received letters threatening repossession because of missed payments from his mortgage company; each time, she had to call the bank to give her father’s birth and death details. There have also been numerous reports of banks losing death certificates or giving conflicting advice, delaying the closure of a relative’s account4,5, and a survey by Fairer Finance found 22 out of 49 savings providers made relatives queue on phones or in branches to notify them of a death6.

Too Many in Distress

With more than 500,000 deaths in the UK each year, there have been and still are too many bereaved people who find registering the death of a loved one and notifying all the relevant organisations to be an extremely distressing experience, both emotionally and financially.

The emotional cost comes from the frustration felt when having to repeat the same painful stories and same information on numerous calls to call centre operators who are themselves having to spend time on calls for which they may have had little training and can only devote limited time. Trying to close the decedent’s accounts, such as telephone and gas, is stressful enough, and if trying to transfer them to a living partner, spouse or child the anxiety just increases because it can result in the deceased’s partner or family being cut off just at a time when the service might be needed most. It is no surprise that Good Housekeeping’s 2020 survey revealed that 24% of people called the process traumatic7, and less than 18% thought service providers were helpful, efficient, and empathic.

Two years on, in 2022, the UK Commission on Bereavement (COB) found that 61% of relatives struggled with the administration and practicalities of death notifications, and many (43%) were also facing financial difficulties.

Financial Strains

The financial costs of administration often begin with death registration fees for any estate worth over £5,000. Then there is the cost of sourcing and sending multiple copies of death certificates and other paperwork to notify creditors and service providers (the utilities, telecoms companies, subscription providers, financial institutions, etc.) that the death has occurred. These costs may be unavoidable, but they can be reclaimed once probate is complete.

Except that families can wait in limbo for over three months while dealing with this complex probate administration, and it can stretch up to 23 weeks if it is paper based rather than online.

Account providers often have their own requirements and cumbersome processes, adding unnecessary stress to people who are already distressed or vulnerable. In addition to long, frustrating ‘phone calls with untrained and unsympathetic call centres, many services will only trust physical death certificates, passports, or the power of attorney received by post before they will act.  Meanwhile, the utility companies, telecoms providers, creditors etc, continue to charge costs to the decedent’s account, and send them marketing communications.  Sometimes probate can take more than a year to achieve – and in those situations, can cost thousands in lost interest payments or interest on debts accruing, especially on outstanding inheritance tax – and many property sales fall through.

A Public Service

Hearing such stories of grieving relatives enduring these stresses at a time when they are vulnerable led the Commission to make several recommendations to the Government on how to ease that burden. It proposed that the Government’s death registration website ‘Tell Us Once’ could be extended beyond its own departments.

Once a death is registered, the next of kin or executor of an estate can choose to use the ‘Tell Us Once’ online service to automatically notify most government departments of the death all at once, including HM Revenue and Customs, the Department for Work and Pensions, the Passport Office, the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, and the local council, among others. After the pandemic, this service was being used for 80% of death registrations.

The COB recommended that the service should be broadened to include certain essential third parties, such as service providers and that is a good ambition. But it is surprising that the private sector has not yet seized the opportunity universally on creating an equivalent service. It only exists in pockets.

Digital Service

NotifyNOW, for example, launched just over a year ago, gives the bereaved (or the representatives of a deceased) a simple, single route with which to notify utilities, banks, subscription service providers and similar businesses of the death of one of their customers.

These organisations face the same challenge but approach it in different ways. Most have a very manually driven process that is laborious, time-consuming and inefficient. With a service like NotifyNOW, the process in digital and completed online.

From a customer experience perspective, the experience is more practical, and less emotional, and therefore involves less stress. It also involves less cost; only one death certificate (or similar documentary proof) is required.

There is no need for representatives of the bereaved to contact a contact centre or speak to anyone in person, a process that is not only cumbersome but can also be emotionally draining. There is no need for anyone to have to sit on a call for 50 minutes, be transferred, cut off or receive post addressed to their dearly departed.

Digital innovation can help companies eliminate much of the anguish of their deceased customers’ loved ones and, in so doing, not only reduce costs for everyone but preserve their reputation and their future customers. It will be interesting to see how the future of death notifications for private sector firms develops.

By Luke Cheadle, Head of UK Operations for The Estate Registry

This article was submitted to be published by The Estate Registry as part of their advertising agreement with Today’s Wills and Probate. The views expressed in this article are those of the submitter and not those of Today’s Wills and Probate.

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