Challenging UK organisations to improve the way bereaved people are treated

The Loop of Hell

On Monday 11th April 2011, I was busy making plans for Richard to come home from the hospice.  It was a hard-fought battle, as we needed to secure two live-in carers to help.  This was because I had two very young children to look after and as much as they wanted to help, all our family lived 80 miles away or more and so couldn’t always commit to be here.  I was in a state of heightened nervousness; I needed to make sure everything was just right for Richard, that the hospital bed was set up in the right place in the sitting room, that the house looked its best and that the carers’ room was clean and ready for them.  And of course, I had the overriding knowledge that Richard was coming home to die.  None of us knew when that was going to be, but I just hoped that his wish to die at home was going to be possible.

That was the first day I received a call from a credit card company – for now I will call them CC, although I am sure in time their actual name will come out.  Expecting a call from the hospice, I answered the phone and heard someone asking to speak to Mr Smith.  I explained that it wasn’t possible and asked if I could help.  When they told me where they were calling from, I explained very clearly that they would never be able to speak to my husband, that he was dying and asked if they could please write to me and that I would sort the matter out at a more convenient time.  I assumed that to be the end of it.  How wrong could I have been?

We then seemed to be caught in a CC loop of hell.   The calls increased in frequency.  On the Tuesday I think I spoke to them twice.  This was the day Richard came home and I could have done without speaking to a credit card company again, quite frankly.   Richard died at 3.45pm on Wednesday 13th April.  At around 4.30pm the phone rang and his sister Jenny answered it.  It was CC.  Jenny explained that her brother had just died.  The caller said they would need to take some more information.  Jenny again explained that her brother had just died and asked if they could call back at a better time.  The caller’s response?  To ask for his date of death!  There was no compassion, no human response at all, just an insistence to get the information they needed, regardless of circumstances or suffering.

The following days should have been about grieving a wonderful man, of sorting out the death certificate, funeral and other arrangements.  And they were.  But interspersed in the pain of very early bereavement were the ever-increasing calls from CC.  Whenever the phone rang, we could almost guarantee that it would be CC asking to speak to Mr Smith.   I tried ever so hard to remain polite – quite possibly too hard, as when I did eventually blow I did it with gusto!  Each time I spoke to them I would say very clearly that my husband had died and asked them to write and I would settle the account.  At one point I remember asking to speak to a manager as I wanted to complain.  The agent came back and told me not to worry as they had resolved the issue and I wasn’t in any trouble!!  I insisted on speaking to a manager, who eventually deigned to speak to me.  I said that I wanted recordings of every phone call the company had made to my house over the past week and that I would be complaining at the highest levels about the organisation.  The manager told me that it would be impossible, as they didn’t keep recordings of customer calls.  Of course I knew this to be a lie.

In a state of desperation, I googled the company and found the contact details for one of its key people.  I emailed him at 3.46am on 15th April.  He responded at 5am assuring me he would look into the matter as soon as he got into the office.  That morning I received further phone calls from CC, asking to speak to Mr Smith.  I wrote another email, stating that I would be contacting the police as I felt I was being harassed by his organisation.  I think during one of those phone calls I may have advised the caller to fuck the fuck off and fuck off some more when he got there.

I then received an email from the company’s CEO and from that moment on, my view of the organisation was completely turned around.  Instead of being an incredibly negative feature of Richard’s death, CC became a positive part of it.  In the first instance, the CEO offered me his condolences and his sincere apologies for the distress his company had caused.  He wrote off the outstanding balance on Richard’s credit card – I still have no idea how much he owed.  He offered to make a substantial donation to the charity of my choice, which was the Katharine House Hospice, where Richard had been cared for so well.  In addition to this donation, the teams responsible for the calls did their own fundraising events and raised a further £4,000.  But much, much more than this, he changed the mindset of his organisation.

Now, instead of doubting the honesty of their customers, the agents are trained to accept what customers are saying to be the truth, after all, very few people do actually lie about such things.   Employees are now trained, targeted and rewarded in different ways.  Instead of the focus being solely on successful collections, customer satisfaction plays a big part.  The calls between CC and me during that week of hell are now used in their training programme for collection agents and customer services representatives – a fantastic example of how not to speak to a bereaved customer.

A few months after this, the CEO came down to Banbury to meet me along with his senior management team.  I then went to their offices and met some of the key members of staff, many of whom told me how they had been brought to tears by what had happened to me and the way I had been treated.  They were happy to show me how change had been affected throughout their organisation and that no more customers would ever be treated in this way again.  At that time, just over two years ago, I wanted to do something with this, to try to influence change across other organisations, as although CC were the worst company I had dealt with, they were by no means the only one to get it badly wrong.  Two years ago wasn’t the right time for me, Richard’s death was too raw.  But now I feel it is the right time and judging from the response I have received from this blog, things really do need to change – bereaved people need to be treated with more respect, compassion and kindness during their most vulnerable times.

Compassion matters

Making a phone call to tell a company that my husband has died is probably the most difficult thing I have ever had to do.  In the weeks and months following his death from cancer in April 2011, I would sit, phone in hand, needing complete silence – something not always easy with a 3 year old and 1 year old baby around – draw a deep breath and dial the number.  I would hear the words come out of my mouth….”hello, I am calling to inform you of my husband’s death…”.  I would then pause, wondering what response I would receive; would it be full of human empathy, expressing condolences and sympathy, or would it be a near-automated voice telling me they need to transfer me and to hold the line, with no comment on my earth-shattering announcement?

Whether it’s your partner, child, parent or sibling, when someone close has just died you are probably at your most vulnerable.  Lack of sleep, funeral arrangements, counselling others who are grieving, a huge amount of admin and a myriad of other things present themselves on top of your own personal grief.  I used to target myself with three achievements a day; if I could call a bank, write a letter to a solicitor and get the children out of the house I felt the day was a success.  Very often it was as much as I could do just to get out of bed and feed the children.  And so it was incredibly frustrating to find that every single time I told an organisation about Richard’s death I just wasn’t listened to.  There was not a single exception to this.

A few examples of how badly companies have got it wrong with me include:

  • My sister in law Jenny taking a phone call from a credit card company half an hour after Richard died.  She told them he had just died.  Their response?  To ask for his date of death (far more on this another time).
  • I went to several different local branches of banks and building societies.  Without exception, each one of them left me standing there with a copy of my late husband’s death certificate in hand after I had told them that I was there to inform them of his death.
  • Richard’s bank assuring me that I would not receive any further calls from them, only to receive a call on my mobile number from them asking to speak to Mr Smith.  They only had my number because he had died (more on this another time too!).
  • I was threatened with adverse credit by his mobile phone provider if I didn’t settle the outstanding contract – he was dead and therefore not able to use his phone!
  • Sending Richard’s death certificate back to him, saying, “Dear Mr Smith, thank you for your death certificate…”.
  • Countless letters and phonecalls received, despite me informing the company of his death

I have so many stories, from my own personal experiences to friends and family who have encountered similar problems, to know that how organisations train and target their employees needs to be improved, drastically.  This isn’t just a process or even policy matter – things don’t just need a tweak here or there, rather getting it right should be at the very core of an organisation’s mindset, and the impetus to change needs to be driven from top down.  At the time of his death, someone said to me that perhaps it was because my circumstances were exceptional, to be widowed at 40.  I now know this not to be the case – through WAY – Widowed and Young I now have many friends who have lost their partners at a young age.  Death is not exceptional, it is the only sure thing in life.  How the bereaved are treated matters because at some point or another it will affect us all.