Your stories of demands sent to the dead
- 15 May 2013
- From the section Business
Walter Stevenson had been looking after his elderly mother's financial concerns for a while before she died at the age of 96.
So, the day after she passed away, he made the multiple telephone calls required, hoping that her affairs could be tied up swiftly to allow the family time to grieve.
"Everybody could not have been more helpful," he says.
Everyone, that is, except the cable and telephone company.
It wrote a letter addressed to Mr Stevenson's late mother, Jean Campbell, which was then followed up with a email asking why she was leaving. Staff were sent to the wrong address to pick up the TV box, and a rebate cheque was made out to her instead of her son.
It took weeks and many telephone calls to get these mistakes corrected. The company never replied to Mr Stevenson's letter of complaint at the end of the whole saga.
"Things like this are a one-off for people like us, but companies have to deal with these situations every day," he says. "It could have been so much easier if they got it right first time."
Mr Stevenson, from Falkirk, was one of many BBC News website readers who shared their stories of poor customer service after losing a loved one, having read about the case of Jim Boyden.
Mr Boyden had posted a photograph on Facebook of a broadband bill sent to his late father-in-law by Virgin Media, which included a fine for late payment even though the direct debit note said "payer deceased". The company apologised.
Some of these stories appear to be the result of computers generating the letters in a world of big business dealing with millions of customers.
One reader told of how his family was sent a final bill by a communications company, while they were still grieving, demanding a payment of 1p.
Other cases seem beyond belief. Jean Barton, of Stockport, rang a company to explain that her mother had died and the account needed to be closed.
They sent an invoice, addressed to her late mother, which said "Sorry you have chosen to leave".
It is not just those who have suffered the loss of a loved one who have been on the receiving end of insensitive letters and calls.
Reader Andrew Wilson, of Wigan, writes: "My mum called me to say her [cable] services had been disconnected. When we called we were informed that the account had been closed as my mum had passed away.
"We informed them that my mother was very much alive."
'Moment of truth'
In the highly automated and regulated world of customer services, mistakes like this do occur. Yet, Jo Causon, chief executive of the Institute of Customer Service, says this should never be used as an excuse during brief contact with families who are bereaved and often feeling vulnerable.
"This is a moment of truth in terms of getting it right," she says.
"The process can be seen to be quite mechanical, cold and insensitive."
She says operators, who have to keep to certain rules regarding sensitive personal data, still need to show "emotional intelligence" by appreciating the position the caller is in and respond with empathy and respect.
Even if they are just doing their job, some understanding of the vulnerability of customers might prevent people being offended.
Chris Pratt, of Nottingham, outlined a case of this kind. He was sent an "insensitive and ironically prompt" request to send part of a pension payment back because his father, who had retired after 38 years of service, had died halfway through the month.
In some cases, the bereaved family might want the matter just to be dealt with in a functional and prompt way, Ms Causon says.
With the internet and social media pushing the balance of power further towards the consumer, the consequences of getting it wrong may now have a wider effect, as Mr Boyden's case proved.
So, Ms Causon says, the key to avoiding such mistakes is good training.
Kristina Hultgren, a lecturer in English language and applied linguistics at the Open University, has conducted research into how call centre staff are coached to talk to customers.
She says staff receive "empathy training" and need to compensate for the personal relationship being diluted in the name of call centre efficiency.
First Direct, the online and telephone bank, employs nearly 3,000 people at its enormous call centre in Leeds, and has won various awards for customer service.
It has a team who are trained specifically in taking calls from bereaved relatives of customers. They sit in a quieter corner of the call centre.
As soon as it is clear that the caller is a bereaved relative, then the call is diverted to one of at least two of these specialist staff members who are on shift at any one time.
But mistakes still occur, and like many other institutions, the bank has a "grovel list" that staff can use if a mistake has been made.
Call operators can offer wine, chocolate, flowers or a cheque up to the value of £50 to compensate people left upset or distressed.
Staff make the call depending on what is said on the phone, but can also refer the case to senior management in more serious circumstances.
So, what can customers do to save themselves from this extra upset if they lose a loved one?
The paperwork involved after a death can be cumbersome and confusing, and lead to bigger problems. This was illustrated in the case, sent to BBC News, of Kathryn Dewar's newly widowed mother. She was pursued by debt collectors for an unpaid bill of £11, despite her belief all the outstanding bills had been paid.
Rebecca Hirst, of First Direct, suggests that it is important to keep a will up to date. Loved ones should also be aware of their close family members' financial affairs, such as knowing which accounts they hold.
There are lots of guides for those who are recently bereaved, such as the Money Advice Service's checklist of dealing with money after a death, which includes tips on clearing up tax and pension issues, and meeting the immediate costs of funerals.
And among the paperwork, there is the expense.
Matthew Kelly told the BBC of how his mother was told she would be charged to insert her name on an account in place of that of her late husband - the fee was greater than that for a death certificate.
The company eventually waived the charge. Given the chance, these companies and their staff want to make amends for any upset they have caused.