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“He is dead – which is why he can’t come to the phone and talk to you. D-E-A-D, deceased, no longer living”. I exclaimed forcefully in the phone to the call centre operator. All I was trying to do was cancel dad’s TPG internet – and somehow I had morphed into a bad Monty Python skit.

“I understand he is dead. But we still require our processes to be followed,” said the operator.

“Well if you tell me the processes, then I can follow them for you. Can I send you a death certificate? Will that prove that he is dead for you?”

After much discussion with her supervisor, the operator finally gave me the email address of the area that handles disconnections of the internet after bereavement. She made me understand that this was the equivalent of handing out the personal emails of the One Directions band members.

I sent a copy of the death certificate to the email address I had been given, complete with the explanation that I wished to cancel the internet because of the death of my father – only to have the following returned.

“Thank you for your email.
We regret to know that you wish to cancel your account with us.
Please be informed that your request has been received and has been forwarded to the proper department.
You will be receiving a feedback within 24-48 hours.
TPG would like to thank you for your support.”

Sigh. This was followed two days later with:

“This is to confirm that we have processed the cancellation of your account.
In accordance to our Terms and Conditions, TPG requires 30 days cancellation notice which can be viewed via our website: http://www.tpg.com.au/terms_conditions/standard.php
However, as a gesture of good will, we have waived the 30 days notice.
Cancellation for your account will be processed at the end of your billing date which is xx/10/2012. Your service will be deactivated on this date.
For immediate cancellation, please be advised that once we enter the request, we can no longer withdraw the cancellation and you will no longer have access to your current service. If you wish to change the cancellation date, please reply with your preferred date.”

To which I replied – “As dad is no longer using the service in heaven, could we please cancel the service immediately rather than at the end of October.

Who knew you had to give 30 days’ notice of your impending death!

To be honest – I had never much thought about death – and how businesses handle it when a client dies. This past week since the death of my father has given me a salutary lesson in what is good/average and downright dreadful in how businesses handle the challenge of death.

You don’t have the right form

It all started with the doctor visiting dad to declare him dead. (Dad died at home in his favourite armchair). Dad’s usual doctor was absent, so another doctor came in his place. It was obvious though that this doctor had never done a declaration of death before – and she had forgotten to bring the relevant paperwork with her.

No biggie,” we thought. That was until the lovely, warm, friendly people from the funeral parlour refused to collect dad’s body without the right form. “We can’t be driving around with bodies and no forms,” said the gentleman from the home, standing with his arms crossed and looking like a nightclub bouncer.

Visions of “A Weekend at Bernie’s” started to cross my mind as I tried to work out the logistics of putting my dead father and chair in the back of a Ute and driving him to the funeral parlour.

We stood in silence, staring at each other for a moment until my brother suggested we ring the doctor and the doctor could authorise the collection. After a moment’s chat on the phone, the doctor agreed to fill in the right form, and the people from the funeral parlour agreed to drop in and collect it on the way.

Yep. You are not really dead without the right form being completed.

Death is one of the final taboos. This is why I suspect so many people struggle with what to do.

The best practice companies

Telstra was brilliant (once you found the right section). Their bereavement support team were in Australia and hit exactly the right note of empathy and clear instructions.

Average

Most companies were proficient. They took the details, asked for a copy of the death certificate to be mailed in, or posted out a form to be completed. No warmth – just clinical proficiency.

Commonwealth Bank – has a bereavement support team but you still have to go through 4000 “Press 1 to …”, Wait half an hour, be transferred, be disconnected on transfer, and redial to go through the system again (and again) until you finally get through the right team. Once you get there, they were great.

Dreadful

The dreadful companies fall into two categories – poor security and poor service. I was amazed at how many services I could cancel over the phone just with the full name, date of birth and address. Let that be a lesson to you about Internet security and why you never give out a full date of birth.

TPG topped the poor service category, closely followed by Virgin. With Virgin, having a call centre operator in the Philippines lecture me for what seemed like hours about how my father was in a better place with God, that God had given him a gift and how she would pray for his soul (while having no clue about how to terminate his mobile service with them) didn’t help. My father was a rabid atheist, and any mention of God would send him off during his life. Is it wrong to wish a plague of Jehovah’s Witnesses to visit the call centre operator daily for the next year?

Other services required an initial phone call, an email, a forwarded email and another phone call (or two) to confirm the email and the phone calls. Trying to keep track of where we were in the process is hard to do when your mind is fuzzy with grief.

And still others promised returned calls to arrange final readings … for which I am still waiting.

So what are my lessons for businesses on handling a client’s death?

Know that some of your clients will die

You need to have clear protocols on how to handle it – and train all of your team on how to use them and where to direct enquiries.

Make it simple for the bereaved to find out who to talk with

With all the services, I first checked their websites to see if I could find out who to talk with, who to ask for and what I needed to do. 99% of the websites were totally silent, which meant going through the general switchboard or recorded message merry-go-round.

Do not offer to pray for the soul of the bereaved to your God

A simple – “I am sorry to hear about your loss” is fine.

Streamline your processes

Make it a simple one or two step process. Don’t add layers of complexity that do not need to be there.

Check your standard emails to make sure they apply to the situation.

Know that people will cry when they call

Don’t get flustered or angry if they are trying to talk through tears – they are doing the best they can. Your bereavement team needs to be staffed by the most patient and caring people in your organisation.

Return calls & keep your word

My patience fuse has dropped from days to minutes, (a normal part of the grief cycle I have been told). If you say you are going to do something for the bereaved – then do it!

Have a simple checklist or email to confirm what was discussed in writing

During grief, it is easy to forget details of what has been said. Having an email confirmation can help remind you of what has to be done.

And on a personal note, a huge thank-you to my friends and clients for all your support during this time. And particular thanks to my amazing brother and kids. Your love and support have meant the world to me.

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Inspiration Please Give 30 Days Notice Prior To Your Death