The film ‘The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’ opens with newly widowed Evelyn Greenslade (Judi Dench) held in a call centre phone queue. She hears “thank you for your patience, your call is important to us. We will be with you shortly” She has clearly been holding for some time and is having a frustrating customer experience.

When Evelyn finally speaks to an agent, she is angry. “Just talk to me!” she shouts, pleading with the agent to go off script, to show some empathy and to treat her as a human being. The agent states “since the account is not in your name, I need to speak to the account holder.” A stunned Evelyn gathers her courage to quietly reply, “He’s dead. There is only me.” Unable to veer from her formulaic script, the agent repeats, “Since the account is not in your name…” Evelyn’s thoughts are then narrated for the audience: “She spoke without a trace of humanity. As if she didn’t realise I was going to pieces on the other end of the line.”

When I first saw the film I wondered how realistic that experience might really have been. However having some insight into closing accounts for a deceased relative recently, I noticed how surprisingly variable the quality of services offered to bereaved customers can be. For large customer service organisations (like telcos) closing accounts following the death of a loved one is likely to be an unfortunate everyday occurrence. For an individual, it is more probably a very difficult task that is being faced for the first time. Like Evelyn, amidst the grief there are necessary administrative tasks to be done at a time one least feels like tackling them. When one can barely think straight because of bereavement, it would be nice to think that practical (and empathic) help might be offered from those that have more experience.


The Bank (Rating: Customer Hero)

Given the circumstances of my own situation, closing bank and savings accounts was my first daunting task. Using their website, I quickly found a central number I could call as speaking to someone was my preferred option. The recorded telephone menu was straightforward and soon I spoke to an agent who made me an appointment at a local bank. Prior to my appointment a letter arrived advising me what I should bring along. Having such a list was very helpful as I too was tackling this emotionally difficult process for the first time. On the day of my appointment I was therefore able to arrive prepared. The bank adviser greeted me in person and took me to a side room. She even asked me if I would like a cup of tea before beginning the process of closing the accounts. She was very kind and was patient with me if I had an emotional dip. Every step of the way I was offered useful help and guidance. She explained that as part of their service the bank’s bereavement team would write to each company that had a direct debit/standing order to explain why no further payment requests should be made. At the end of the meeting I felt I had received excellent customer service and was much calmer as a result. With this first significant task complete, I packed a small suitcase and went away for a short time to stay with my family.


Telco 1 (Rating: Zero)

Before I went away, I called Telco 1 to advise them my relative had died. Like the bank, I got through to a human fairly easily and quickly. The agent I spoke to advised me that a bill had already been dispatched. That’s fine I thought. I shall pay that when I return. However, upon my return (a Saturday morning), there was a red bill on the doormat (addressed to the deceased account holder) requesting immediate bill payment. This was the very first written communication (to the home address) that had been received. It was upsetting as I’d hoped an obvious pattern of ‘on time’ payments never been missed until now might have triggered a different approach. When I listened to the home phone messages, to my surprise there were also a series of voicemails from Telco 1 advising the account holder to call the finance team to settle the bill. Hmmm… Had I not advised Telco 1 some days before that the account holder was now deceased? (Surely this should have been noted quite prominently in the account records to provide a rather big red flag for Telco 1?) I picked the telephone up to call. The phone had actually been cut off but attempting a call prompted an automatic redirection to the accounts team without needing to dial a number. I thought it very clever to join debt collection processes up in this way.

Going through the menu options I again spoke quickly to an agent. Unfortunately my experience began to mirror that of Evelyn’s. The agent stuck doggedly to her script displaying an extraordinary lack of empathy. Although I explained very early in the conversation the reason for my call, she moved almost seamlessly from a perfunctory, “I am sorry for your loss” to, “how do you want to pay this bill?” Her attitude floored me. I wondered if she were unable to understand me or detect any emotion in my voice. By sticking so rigidly to her script what came across to me was that the agent thought I was lying.

As a business psychologist I realise we are all made up of dark and light. During workshops I am able to take participants through a change curve (interestingly built on the Kubler-Ross bereavement curve) where different emotions and behaviours may be displayed. Up until this point in my life, my own dark side has put in relatively few appearances. However, as my grief quickly escalated into incandescent rage, my dark side chose its moment. It put in a spectacular guest appearance. Words I barely realised I had in my vocabulary suddenly burst forth to take starring roles in my sentences. Although I found this disturbing, I must also admit I found it strangely satisfying to have an outlet for some of my anger. It may be that I moved several places along the change curve during a 20 second period.

After this outburst the agent’s script was of little use to her. The call plummeted to an even lower point when she told me I would have to call again on Monday morning to speak to the bereavement team. Call again?? Could she not transfer me or even log a call back request? None of these were options available in the process unfortunately. At this point it seemed a criminal offence that Telco 1 could link up and automate its debt collection processes but have such an epic fail regarding customer care. The experience led me to find and complete a customer feedback form for Telco 1 within their own website. At the time of writing (four months on), I have received no response other than an automatically generated reference number returned a few seconds after hitting the ‘send’ button in their web form.


Telco 2 (Rating: somewhere in between)

A week or so went by and a letter from Telco 2 (addressed to the deceased) arrived stating that an account held with them would be suspended within seven days unless payment was received. I did not know what this related to as I knew Telco 2 was not my relative’s mobile phone provider. At this point I also began to wonder whether the bank had delivered on its promise of proactively contacting organisations as I’d expected. As I now needed to call Telco 2 to clarify things, I wasn’t looking forward to it.

Telco 2 prides itself on being ‘digital’ so contacting customer services was immediately challenging. Via the website an existing customer can log into their account to access customer services. As I wished to close an account on behalf of someone else it was seemingly impossible to even get started via digital means. The letter I’d opened offered existing account holders an option to dial 150 from their mobile phone. Unfortunately this was no help to me as I reasoned that the account must relate to a 4G WiFi device which clearly I could make no call from. However, the letter provided an alternative telephone number for existing customers so I tried that.

The telephone option menu appeared to have many, many, levels. Each time it appeared I needed to enter the account number. This was helpfully referenced in the letter too but after entering it I was thwarted by requests for passwords or other codes once I was through. I called several times and tried different routes and permutations of keypad options. It seemed as if I was falling into an endless series of rabbit holes that I could only escape by ending the call each time. It was very frustrating indeed. On my way down the rabbit holes I was offered an endless array of customer hints and tips but could not find my way to actually speak to a human being. With no email option either, I decided to write and post a traditional letter asking that the account be closed.

Two weeks later, I received another letter addressed to the deceased stating that the account had been suspended until payment received. Clearly my letter had not found its way to the accounts team. As a last resort, I turned to social media. Eventually I found some useful community responses. One actually suggested how to get through the telephone option system if you happened to be a bereaved relative. I called again, followed this suggested route through the options menu – success! Once through, the customer services representative I spoke to was wonderful. She spoke to me conversationally without a regimented script. She really listened and was empathic. She believed what I was saying. She took lots of notes, repeated back her understanding and said she would send an email to the bereavement team on my behalf. She also responded well to my request to perhaps make contacting the bereavement team easier up front via the website or web form. A week later a letter arrived confirming everything the agent had said – the account had been closed with no need for any payment to be made.


Telco 3 (Rating: Customer Hero)

Coinciding with my Telco 2 experience, a letter arrived from Telco 3 (the mobile phone provider) addressed to ‘the executor’. It was a gentle, thoughtfully constructed letter that, like the bank, provided details of what I needed to do next. A direct telephone number was given along with the name of a customer services representative. I called and immediately spoke to a very nice person who was exceedingly polite, empathic and helpful. She handled the call very sensitively indeed and stated that no charges are made in these circumstances. A few days later I received a follow up letter confirming the action that had been taken and the letter signed off by wishing me well. I realised that the bank really had acted as it said it would. I also realised that in linking up so well with Telco 3 it had been an admirable process for handling bereaved relatives. This did contrast starkly with the woefully inadequate Telco 1 experience and the ‘fine once you got through’ experience with Telco 2.


Learning from Evelyn

Stepping back, it’s relatively easy to see where organisations can make simple, basic improvements to the customer experience. I realise, and indeed also teach others, that managing our own behaviour and responses more positively can lead to better outcomes. My own customer journey enabled a very real experience of where misplaced ‘standardised’ behaviour and responses can quickly ename a delicate situation. There is a time and a place for an automated response and it is so very important for customer facing organisations to get this right. Get closer to the customer. Stop, listen, understand and imagine things from another’s perspective. We all have the capacity for empathy but to do this we need to come off-script.

Evelyn was enterprising in that her own experience enabled her to land a job teaching young call centre colleagues to develop more emotional intelligence. Being a very gracious woman, she helped them learn cultural differences, to move off script and to speak in more empathic ways. But it’s not just about improving agent training. It’s also about looking at processes and how to be more joined up. When standardising the front and back end processes for bereaved customers, please make it easier, not harder than it should be. Otherwise grief is escalated to become frustration and ultimately a burning rage. Thank you for your patience.