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How to handle grieving clients


September 5, 2018   by Jason Contant


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Brokers are used to responding to clients’ questions about their insurance needs, but are they always able to effectively handle grieving customers?

The million-dollar question is how to ensure brokers are building enduring and caring customer relationships, while also protecting the company’s interests, Megan Devine suggested in a blog published earlier this week in Harvard Business Review. Devine recommends creating clear responses in the event of a death; educating reps on key words on the topic; and seek out grief experts.

Devine conceded in her work with grief education and outreach, she’s yet to come across a good model for how companies should talk about death with customers. But she recommends the following:

  • Ensure the company clearly articulates what its response should be when there is a request to close or transfer accounts following someone’s death. Map out all the possible circumstances that could precede a request and come up with different response paths, which will vary depending on industry and customers.
  • Educate reps on key words a caller or writer might use to indicate they’re in emotional pain. Words like “I’m calling on behalf of my late husband” or “I need to close the account, as there has been a death” may seem obvious, but it’s easy to miss an important word or two when handling a large call volume daily. After education, give reps an appropriate script for the situation, including information about when they should and shouldn’t break in (it could be helpful to veer off script, but you don’t want reps veering toward inappropriate “counselling.”) Acknowledging the customer’s loss goes a long way, even when you can’t change policy.
  • Seek out grief experts on answers to questions about the topic. Grief isn’t easy to deal with, and is not a typical corporate subject to broach. Having a person steeped in the topic can help navigate complex questions and scenarios as new policies are crafted.

“Your customers may forget a lot as their lives move forward from their loss, but they’ll always remember how your company treated them,” Devine wrote in the blog, How to Talk to a Grieving Customer. “All it takes is one kind response to change everything.”

In today’s day of social media, bad news travels fast, and cruel or indifferent treatment from a company’s service department is definitely not good for the bottom line.

Devine experienced the grief process firsthand when calling on behalf of her partner, Matt, after his death. She called every agency with whom Matt had an account. With one notable exception, everybody else said they were not authorized to give information or close or transfer the service without the account holder’s permission. She said she repeatedly had to say the “account holder is dead.

“I don’t think I can overstate the rage I felt having to repeat that statement over and over again, only to be faced with a complete lack of acknowledgement of the information I shared,” Devine wrote. “Each customer service rep was incapable of breaking their carefully-constructed script, unable to respond graciously to the actual information being given. Each interaction was marked by irritation and impatience, as though I was wrecking the rep’s day by attempting to close the account, or even transfer it into my own name.”

She related the one exception of her wanting to keep a message from Matt, which would be erased after 60 days per phone company policy. The rep offered suggestions on how to record the message, thereby preserving it before it was erased from the server.

“The rep remained calm and kind as I started to cry,” Devine wrote. “No policies were changed, and I didn’t get what I wanted. But I felt heard in that call. I felt like I’d spoken to a real human, one who genuinely cared. And I told everyone about it. Nine years later, I remember that call, and I still have the same phone company.”