Liz Booth reports on a new initiative in the financial services sector to relieve the administrative burden of death for clients’ families
Death is sadly inevitable and so it seems is the ability of many services to make life even harder for those left behind. However, there is now growing determination among financial services professionals to alleviate some of the distress around what is always a very difficult time.
On average, bereaved people have to contact 21 different organisations to cancel contracts and settle outstanding debts or credit balances, from local authorities, energy, water and telecoms companies, banks, building societies, mortgage lenders and credit card companies, to consumer credit firms, TV companies and on-demand screening services, insurance firms and gyms.
According to a survey carried out by Cruse Bereavement Care, of the 1,600 respondents, 27% said it was not straightforward to contact relevant organisations to tell them about a death. It often took two weeks or longer to contact everyone, according to 32% of those polled, while for more than one in 10, it took longer than a month.
Sadly, it is easy to underestimate the emotional burden of making those calls – telling numerous companies that your loved one has died. “That’s one of the worst things ever, having to say those words over and over again,” admitted one of the respondents.
Cruse, a bereavement charity supporting thousands of people across England, Wales and Northern Ireland, helped more than 35,000 adults with one-to-one support and a further 4,500 through groups last year. It worked with 5,600 children and took almost 12,000 calls on its national helpline, with some 5,000 volunteers giving an incredible half a million hours of their time every year to supporting bereaved people.
Out of 1,600 respondents, 27% said it was not straightforward to contact relevant organisations to tell them about a death. When asked what words they would use to describe the process they said:
- Time-consuming (44%)
- Stressful (39%)
- Upsetting (30%)
- Complicated (24%)
- Traumatic (16%)
It often took two weeks or longer to contact everyone (32%). For more than one in 10, it took longer than a month.
Drive for change
However, Cruse’s work is not enough on its own and the PFS is committed to adding its weight to the drive
Consider a typical comment from one respondent and it is easy to see that more needs to be done by financial services: “The bank just kept telling me they needed to speak to the account holder – I snapped in the end and said unless they wanted to talk to a pile of ashes they would have trouble.”
Cruse has been calling on businesses to make sure they are putting bereaved customers first and not making an already painful time more unbearable.
Financial organisations have been under pressure from various quarters – including regulators and the Financial Conduct Authority – to improve their treatment of customers at a vulnerable time.
So, as part of its response, the PFS has backed a four-point plan to guide advisers in ways to handle such calls with sympathy and empathy.
The Covid-19 pandemic has also heightened awareness of many end-of-life issues and has accelerated the call for streamlined end-of-life processes across all commercial sectors.
Added to that, moves are underway for a ‘bereavement standard’, after a YouGov poll showed 80% of the British public support its development. Senior executives from some of the UK’s biggest banks, building societies and insurance companies came together recently to discuss how they can improve services for bereaved customers and how this standard could be framed.
More than 60 organisations, including Lloyds, Santander, Barclays, Nationwide and Legal & General, along with intermediary firms and brokers, attended the virtual summit hosted by Cruse and Settld.care, an end-of-life administration startup.
Chris Pond, who co-chaired part of the summit and is chair of the Financial Inclusion Commission, says: “By showing up, the leaders of these financial institutions have shown their commitment to improving standards for bereaved and vulnerable customers. They recognise that there are problems and they have committed to action to make things better.”
Johnny Timpson, who co-chaired the meeting and is a financial protection specialist at Scottish Widows, says: “The insurance sector understands that end-of-life admin processes can make life difficult for bereaved customers.”
Mr Timpson, who is also chair of the Access to Insurance Working Group, adds: “While nothing can take away the pain of losing a loved one, the insurance profession is absolutely committed to helping and supporting the families of deceased customers at this most difficult of times. We are keen to look at the idea of digital verification or digital death certificates and a central register.
“The Association of British Insurers’ Covid-19 Pledges, together with the Protection Distributors Group Funeral Pledge and Claims Charter, are examples of just some of the steps that we have taken to make the period following loss of a family member just a little bit easier; and we welcome the opportunity to share best practice and take learning from other sectors.”
The proposed bereavement standard would set a time limit for account closures, standardise paperwork and documents required – with an emphasis on digital documents – and would ensure service providers have dedicated bereavement channels with properly trained staff, available to customers.
But even before that standard becomes normal practice, the good news is that for many organisations, it is simply a matter of considering and understanding what the bereaved customer needs from you and then delivering that compassionately, effectively and efficiently – the key ingredients of good customer service.
Liz Booth is contributing editor of the PFP
Image Credit: GettyImages
- Plan: Have a written plan in place that outlines what you will do to make sure bereaved customers are treated with empathy and respect.
- People: Train staff and make sure everyone who comes into contact with bereaved people knows how to respond efficiently and with understanding.
- Process: Streamline your processes and procedures to be simple andp ragmatic. Avoid unnecessary steps and repetition.
- Paperwork: Ensure your paperwork is easy to follow and only asks for the information that is needed. Pass on details of where people can get practical and emotional support.
This should be the simple first step. Organisations that embrace the Financial Conduct Authority guidance and best practice with regards to vulnerable customers will have already made positive steps towards having an effective plan. However, every death is different and every bereavement is different, so make sure that your plans cover more than ‘normal’ or expected deaths. If the coronavirus pandemic has taught us anything, it is that situations can change rapidly and in unexpected ways, so plans should be flexible and adaptable to meet the changing needs of both the business and the customer.
When organisations approach Cruse to deliver training for their front-line staff, the most frequently requested topic is ‘what to say and what not to say’. As a society, talking about death, grief and bereavement is still pretty taboo and very few people say they feel confident talking to bereaved people. This is an area where Cruse can help and, combined with ‘professional empathy’ skills, most people can start to feel more confident and comfortable in their interactions with bereaved customers.