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Meg Roberts, Creative Director, Schwa

From sign-up flows to shiny new websites, businesses spend months polishing the ‘wow’ moments in their customer experiences.

But what about the trickier times?

Like when customers owe you money? Or when they’re trying to close an account for someone who’s died?

We think these moments might be the real make or break of your brand, and so do the experts Hannah chatted to last week. Here’s who she had in the Zoom room.

  • Christina Dolding, who helps LV’s vulnerable customers as their head of heritage
  • Michael Hainge, CEO at Ethical Commercial Services, who help clients collect debts in a responsible way
  • Kirsty Hunt, training and consultancy manager from Cruse, a bereavement charity
  • our own founder Neil Taylor, who helps companies like HSBC and E.ON get their tricky comms spot-on.

 

Businesses often make difficult situations more difficult

Kirsty kicked us off with some stats: on average, when a person’s next of kin dies, they need to talk to 21 different organisations to settle up all the bills and bank accounts. And while some of those organisations will have bereavement teams with specialist training to help, it sounds like that’s far from standard.

‘44% of people say this process is time-consuming,’ said Kirsty. ‘But worse still, 16% of people say it’s actually traumatic.’ Now, we’ve seen a lot of brand documents over the years – ‘we’re human, agile, warm’ – but traumatic? That’s not one we tend to come across.

 

And often, process is the enemy of empathy

‘If someone’s in the right headspace to call,’ said Christina, still on the subject of bereavement, ‘then be there to answer that call. Put them straight through to a specialist team. Don’t keep them on hold. Don’t pass them from pillar to post. Make sure you’ve got everything you need to sort it. And own the case. If they call again, make sure you’re the person answering.’

After all, there’s psychology at play here. Most of us can (and do) deal with long waits and meh customer service on an any average day – but everything changes in the context of heigh emotions, like grief or financial anxiety. ‘When someone’s in that place, even the little things can feel catastrophically upsetting’, Kirsty told us. A typo in a letter, a long wait or a less-than-convenient process can easily become the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

 

But the answer isn’t to wrap your customer in cotton wool, either

‘Get it done, make it quick,’ Christina went on to say. Particularly if a customer is calling you: they’re ticking it off the list. At that moment, they probably don’t want your sincerest condolences or heartfelt wishes. They just want to get the job done.

 

Of course, as with all things, communication is crucial

If people are trying to get the job done, then they need to be clear on what’s what. So why the waffling letters and emails?

In particular, you’d be hard pushed to find an more opaque area of business than debt collection. Decrees and defaultingarrears and assets – even the word debtor itself.

‘When you stop calling someone a debtor, and start calling them a customer, something changes.’ Michael said. ‘And it’s not just a tweak. The whole relationship improves. Customer says “We want to get back on track with you.”’

 

If in doubt, mirror the customer

‘When my mum died, whenever I would write to the solicitors, I’d put My mum’s estate as the subject line,’ said Neil. ‘And invariably, when they wrote back, they’d always change it to The estate of Mrs H. Taylor deceased. Why? I think they thought the formality meant they were being respectful, but I felt like they were correcting me.’

‘Yes,’ added Kirsty. ‘Always mirror the customer’s language and manner. If they say my mum, say your mum. And certainly don’t use any euphemisms: it’s okay to say dead, death and dying. It’s what’s happening. And besides, the passed away stuff can be confusing if English is your second language.’

 

It’s all good customer service sense

Don’t make the customer jump through hoops, do mirror some of their language, make your communication simple: if you’ve worked in a contact centre, none of this will be new to you. So why does it feel harder to do these things when you’re talking about debt and death? It’s human nature: ‘some people are better at it than others,’ mused Christina, but it’s normal to feel uncomfortable talking about certain topics. (After all, ‘sorry for your loss’ cards are much harder to write than ‘happy birthday’ ones.)

So what can you do as an organisation to get around the discomfort? For Cruse, it comes down to The Four Ps:

  • Planning: have you mapped out your trickier journeys end-to-end?
  • Process: do your systems make things hard work?
  • People: who’s talking to customers in tough times, and have they been trained?
  • Paperwork: your letters, emails and contracts – are they clear and empathetic (without being over-emotive)?

 

And why put the time and effort into getting it right?

For Michael, it’s a moral obligation as much as anything. ‘Never forget the impact you as a business have on people. Every year, hundreds of thousands of people attempt suicide because of debt. In my mind, that’s a public health crisis.’

And if you’re making a case to the board, Neil’s got the answer. ‘Measure it.’ He insists. ‘A/B test your collections comms: send half your customers one of your usual templates – jargon-filled, complicated, cold. Send the other half something that’s warm, human, empathetic. Then see which gets the better response.’

Harder to measure is the warm, fuzzy feeling people get towards your brand when you do right by them.

‘We get feedback from people saying ‘you’ve made a difference at the worst time in my life’’ said Christina. ‘That’s amazing, isn’t it? It makes me very, very proud.’