The Final Journey: CX and the Death of a Loved One

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Photo by Noah Silliman on Unsplash

My dad passed away in January. A lifelong insurance man, Roger was well organized, well-liked, and, I think, a well-respected community member. He was a tenacious fellow who, when confronted with even the bleakest scenario, always managed to claw his way out. This time he couldn’t muster that final climb and, while it is never easy to lose a loved one, at 78, he’d had a pretty good run.

You never really think about this aspect of life until you are faced with it. After the funeral and friends disperse, you are left with the reality that Dad is no longer here. However, what you might not expect is the twisted bureaucratic latticework left in the wake of their passing.

Dad was a very organized person. Everything had its place and nothing made him happier than a well-filed cabinet or an organized dishwasher. A dedicated jig-saw puzzle fan, he left a number of difficult mysteries behind for us to piece together. There were usernames, passwords, accounts, and agreements… to which we had no access. Passwords and accounts were scribbled and crossed-out a dozen times on an old yellowed index card he had used to keep track of his accounts. Gaining access was difficult, but that was only the beginning.

In working through all of this, what was surprising to learn was the wide range of preparedness, or lack thereof, of companies in dealing with this relatively common situation. Some were good, most were bad, and some were horrendous, but let’s start with the good.



The Good

Dad passed away in the middle of a large research project I had. While driving down from Boston to my hometown in Pennsylvania, I had to start switching airline flights, car rentals, and lodging to accommodate this new sad curve ball life threw at me.

Driving down I-84, ever watchful of my speed and the state troopers, I dialed up Delta Airlines. I was eventually connected with an older call representative with a rich baritone voice and the clipped articulation of a military officer. I was reminded of Lt. Richard “Dick” Winters of the 101st Airborne from Band of Brothers fame.

“How can I help you today sir?” asked Lt. Winters.


“Well I need to change my airline flight and I am hoping you can help me… because I know this is last minute … but my Dad recently passed away and … and …”

Right there I totally lost my composure and got a bit choked up. I don’t know why. I think it was just reality setting in.

Sensing my discomfort, Lt. Winters cut in. “I am very sorry to hear about your loss Dr. Fish, I lost my father a while back, so I know how you are feeling. We will get you taken care of…”

It wasn’t a fake empathy. This guy meant it.

He went about changing my flights, waving whatever charges he could, and wished me the best with a verbal man-hug. I am fairly confident he bent more than a few rules on my behalf. He was a brief warm light in the cold January sky on that lonely highway.

CX Tip #1: Be Like Lt. Winters

It wasn’t a process really; it was his sincere willingness to help a vulnerable stranger in a tough spot. The lesson here is that your everyday representatives, waiters, checkers, tellers, and salespeople will all run into tough life situations that their customers are going through. While I’m not sure you can train for that, you can prepare them. You can also hire good caring people-centric people. That’s the basic ingredient to CX even in the darkest hours. I will always remember the kindness of Delta’s Lt. Winters.

The Bad

Financial security is one of the first things people start to worry about when a spouse of 50+ years leaves this planet. In the case of my mother, this was no exception. While she is all set now, the uncertainty of the moment added stress to an already overwhelming experience. The key to reducing this anxiety for your customers is to remove that uncertainty as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, that is not what had happened.

My Dad was insurance man for 40+ years, as his dad before him. He had a number of policies with his own company which he touted his entire his life as being ‘the best’. One would think that, if any organization would have a good process for the death of their customers, it would be an insurance company; particularly when the insured was an employee. Unfortunately, one would be very wrong in this case.

In trying to get answers as to what policies he did and did not have, we were moved around from department to department to get a straight answer over many weeks. While we were doing that, the local agent (or someone) had informed the parent company that my father had passed away. In response, they promptly stopped payment. No warning, no letter, no nothing…just no direct deposit. They just cut off my 78-year-old mother’s income completely.

Several months later, after we had procured the right documents and contacted the right people in the right departments, and after several three-year-old type meltdowns I had with their reps, we finally got it resolved. What they did right was to escalate this issue until I finally got to talk to a human being who could do something about it. What they didn’t do right is have any process for the death of an employee in this situation…in this case, their own salesman.



CX Tip#2: Communicate with those Alive

Journey map the situation that happens to millions of families every single year. Your customers will literally die. Figure out what you are going to do about it and make it easy for the survivors. Have a consistent process, a consistent communication approach, and keep people informed. My father’s company had either not done this homework or failed to execute it. Also, remember that communication in a crisis situation is critical. It doesn’t change anything, but at least it gives perceived control to your customers, which is a welcome port in that sorrowful storm.

The Reprehensible

My mother has a car…which was registered in my father’s name. In retrospect, this was a catastrophic mistake. It turns out that the captive finance company responsible for the lease were not at all prepared to deal with the very common process of changing ownership from a spouse who has died.

While I won’t bore you with the details of our 3+ month adventure in trying to get this simple task accomplished, some of the highlights include:

  • Dealership personnel knowingly misinforming my mother of a procedure because it was “complicated”
  • Call center personnel not knowledgeable of their own policies or reasons for those policies
  • Lack of follow up, issue tracking, and case management
  • Being passed around from department to department
  • Losing important, confidential documents (like my father’s death certificate – twice!)
  • Sending physical documents to the wrong location after the address was updated
  • Losing faxes transmitted minutes beforehand
  • Only being able to communicate via inbound phone or fax (no email, no direct numbers)
  • Making it necessary to hold a séance to get the password for his online account

It wasn’t until I escalated this issue in a Twitter rant that I finally was contacted by someone from their executive offices to help. She was excellent; she helped and did so with professionalism. Having my mother’s credit app finally approved, she wished me well, as all that was left was to pay a $75 transfer fee. Unfortunately, as of this writing, this issue is still not resolved, as they could only take a physical check mailed to their location. Fingers crossed!

This company lacks the tools, policies, training and the processes to handle a fairly common situation effectively. This could almost be excusable if it wasn’t for one other important element: empathy.

With the exception of the specialist from the executive office, the default position was that I was the cause of the issue. I had entered the wrong policy number. I had mailed it to the wrong place. I had not followed their procedure. I did not understand their policies.

Worse, when I explained my situation for the 20th time, almost every call representative would say “I’m sorry for your loss” in the same way a fast-food employee might say “you want to super-size that?” I am not expecting a moment of silence or psychotherapy. Perhaps just the common courtesy of giving a rat’s ass.

CX Tip #3: The Right People, The Right Team, The Right Plan

First, hire the right people, develop the right process, train them, and ensure they have the right tools to do their jobs. Second, in crisis situations, have a dedicated team to deal with these issues. It is in the best interest of everyone to resolve these situations quickly.

Finally, do not train your customers to use social media as their last resort. I was happy I got attention, but this “squeakiest-wheel” approach is not only dissatisfying to the customer (why did it have to come to public shaming?), but most likely also hugely disruptive to the company. What could have been resolved in one letter or phone call for a few dollars, took 20+ contacts and what I assume was a great expense for the company.

Also, I have been kind and haven’t revealed the company in this article, but I can assure you it isn’t the first time I have related this experience and have not afforded the same courtesy in its telling. Do it right the first time.



The “One” Thing: Empathy

The real differentiator in all of this is what matters in any job: giving a shit. Call it commitment or engagement or whatever, but if your employees don’t care about what they do and don’t care about their customers, you will suffer the consequences in high servicing costs, high acquisition costs, high turnover, and high customer churn.

Don’t overlook those less frequent but highly emotional times in your processes and procedures. In these cases, your company will either shine or fall precipitously from grace, never to recover.

As for my Dad we all miss him, but life moves on. I think he might have liked it that I wrote an article about how to persevere, correct processes, and advocate for human empathy; virtues that he both loved and lived. Perhaps a small tribute to a great guy. See ya, Dad.

Photo by Dave Fish

2 COMMENTS

  1. I am so sorry to hear about the loss of your dad. I lost my mother last year at 102. While she lived a long, rich life, I miss her. Thank you for your great story. I hope you will write a book with this story as the section starters. In the end, it is not about CX scores, journey mapping, big data, or golly gee whiz technology. It is about creating, nurturing and sustaining a culture of service providers who give a shit.

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