The bereavement process – a CX perspective


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A key moment of truth

You would expect that most consumer facing organisations should have simple and effective processes in place to handle the situation when someone dies, treating these scenarios as key moments of truth from a Customer Experience perspective. And as the person sorting out this situation, you hopefully only have to ‘test’ out these processes once or twice in a lifetime. Well my wife has just sorted out the affairs when her father died, and in reality those expectations can the described as either good, bad or ugly. As a CX professional, I had a first-hand opportunity to observe my wife applying these processes in action. And there’s a lot that can be learned, which is the purpose of this article.

To set the context, Louise’s parents are in their late 80s, and with her father’s health declining, a couple of years back her parents moved to live a mile from us. They bought a nice bungalow, which we got adapted for simple, single floor independent living. We bubbled up to them from a COVID household perspective, which meant we could support them throughout the pandemic. It was the right thing to do.

That also gave Louise the opportunity to help them sort out their financial affairs – for example closing legacy policies and accounts, putting remaining accounts in joint names and having a power of attorney to deal with affairs in their behalf – so that when the first death occurred then the administration overhead was reduced. In effect, Louise could start at the top of the filing cabinet and work through each section in turn.

It is now six weeks since her father died, and so she has now undertaken that exercise.

The good

Let’s start with the positive customer experiences, and give credit to the UK government and local authorities ‘Tell Us Once’ scheme. When you pick up the death certificate from the registrar they encourage you use this service as it basically means that you only have to report the death once and then the changes relating to pensions, benefits and taxes all get initiated. For sure there’s some paperwork that gets generated but that’s tailored to the actions required. And it is remarkably joined up, as we evidenced at the recent elections when only one voting card popped through the letter box at the bungalow. As if by magic, the electoral roll had been updated with her father’s details removed.

The only improvement that could be considered for the digital age that we now live in is for the UK authorities to create an electronic process for communicating and accessing a valid death certificate. When Louise visited the registrar, they helpfully suggested buying several originals of the certificate, so that multiple organisations could enact their processes in parallel. It seems to be a legal requirement for them to physically see an original, which of course they then copy for their records and return. As an alternative, in the future, then why not have a secure digital ‘portal’ where any organisation can confirm the living status of an individual, perhaps requiring identity data such as name and national insurance number which would be known confidential personal information. That would also reduce the risk of fraud – instead of so much paper being transferred around.

The bad

Many financial organisations have setup a dedicated bereavement team to support the processes required when a customer dies, but the performance of these teams is only as good as the processes themselves. As Louise found out.

And of those financial organisations, the worst experience came from a pension provider. As her father died just before the end of a month, a full payment was made at the start of the next month. This generated a letter from the pension company effectively asking for the money to be returned, as the payment had been made in error. Louise effectively ignored this letter, on the basis that a widow’s pension was due to be paid to her mother in the future, and that as part of the transition from the ‘old’ arrangement to ‘new’, then she expected adjustments would automatically be made.

Fast forward another month, and no further pension monies were received, prompting Louise to call up the provider and speak to their bereavement team to find out what was going on. The explanation was that as the account was in arrears then it was effectively frozen, and no adjustments would be made before the surplus monies were returned.

Really? That doesn’t sound like ‘treating customers fairly’ to me, bearing in mind that a pension is something that should a reliable source of cashflow. Definitely could do better, particularly when contrasting this poor private sector experience to the ‘tell us once’ government service that had seamlessly adjusted her mother to a widow’s state pension without a problem.
And in terms of minor improvements, then think about how easy it is to access the bereavement teams. Louise rang one credit card company who had a front end menu of press 1 for this and 2 for that. There was no obvious choice for her scenario and so she selected the ‘lost and stolen’ option and was then transferred on. With natural language solution now mature and accurate, then having a ‘tell us what you want to do’ speech based IVR would have catered for the bereavement scenario, given that there are only a few variants to “I want to report a death” for the technology to make a routing decision on.

And where you do publish a direct number to reach the bereavement team, then make sure you staff it appropriately to avoid lengthy wait times. Louise had 15 minutes queuing on hold for a share admin team, with no alternative “can we call you back” option available.

The ugly

For as long as I had known Louise’s father he had always read the paper every day. Being a loyal customer he had a newspaper subscription, which included a rather antiquated process of posting out a physical coupon that was exchanged at the retailer – one voucher for each day. Over time this subscription was upgraded to include digital access, and to be fair Louise’s Mum is now so comfortable reading the paper on her iPad that when the death occurred it was a case of Louise ringing up the call centre to cancel her father’s subscription and take out a new digital only version for her mother. So far, so good, as the next month’s supply of unwanted vouchers was not despatched.

But this is where the processes started to go badly wrong. The first mistake was to receive an email – addressed to Louise’s father – saying they were sorry to see him cancel his subscription, at the same time as asking to complete a survey rating the company. And then over the next month, further marketing notifications were received from the company, again addressed to someone who they knew had died. Louise rang up to complain, to be told by the agent that because the account had been closed that there was no way to suppress the pre-existing marketing preferences. What an admission of process failure.

So when Louise received a message on the family WhatsApp from her brother-in-law to say that he could no longer access a digital version of the paper (because the account he was ‘using’ had been closed), then instead of politely suggesting that he take out his own subscription, she offered up her mother’s account details instead. Is this a guilty secret? Well not really, bearing in mind how badly the family had been treated by this company. And I wouldn’t mind betting that it will be several years before they introduce a tracking service to limit the number of devices where a digital version can be accessed. More fool them!

Taking action

The point here to remember is that CX actions have most impact when they affect how you make the customer feel. The bereavement process is at one end of a spectrum of emotional stress, and as a result is a true litmus test of how well an organisation put customers at the heart of everything they do.

Make it simple, be respectful, and please, please don’t mess up!

Paul Weald
Having worked for some 30 years in the contact centre industry, I have built up a vast array of experience across all aspects of people, process, technology, operations and Customer Experience. The latest innovations - such as customer service crowdsourcing and digital money saving apps - are now making it so much easier to provide new methods of customer engagement using digital communities.


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