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Column: A grieving daughter finds comfort in an unexpected source: customer service 


Death comes with paperwork. There are credit cards to be canceled, bank accounts to be closed, mutual funds to be transferred. When my mother died recently, I set myself to my tasks. Hers was not a tragic or unexpected death; she was 103. Still, we were soul-close. This, I thought as I began, was not going to be pleasant.

But I was wrong. In a way, it was.

I was continually amazed as every single customer service person I spoke with began by expressing condolences. It happened so many times that I started taking notes:

“First, let me say that I am sorry for your loss.” “Before we go on, I am very sorry for your loss.”   “I can help you with that, but first, my condolences for your loss.” And in a particularly heartfelt moment on the phone with Franklin Templeton Investments: “Oh, Barbara, I’m so sorry.”

I was touched. But I was surprised that I was touched. After all, these condolences were surely company-mandated. Financial firms get calls all the time from people settling their late loved ones’ affairs. They would be foolish not to train employees in how to handle them.

No matter; I was still grateful. This wasn’t a conventional financial transaction; this was the closing-down of my mother’s life.

And there, on the other end of the line, someone understood and was sorry. With a single phrase of condolence, whether they were required to say it or simply responding with reflexive kindness, they had established a human connection.

Suddenly I wasn’t speaking to an anonymous voice, but to someone who might have suffered his or her own loss. There on the phone, we were not customer and customer service rep; we were simply two fellow souls on earth.

My friend Suzy Sachs encountered similar thoughtfulness when she went to her brother’s bank after he died last year.

“The poor guy at the bank showed me unbelievable patience and kindness, ” she says. “I talked way too much and gave him details he never needed. When we finally finished, he said again how sorry he was for my loss.

“Every time I’ve been in the branch since, he comes up to me, shakes my hand, calls me by my name, and asks how everything is going,” she continues. “In this painful journey, I am often stunned by the kindness of people – strangers and friends. It gives me faith in humanity.”

Mimi Weyrick found that every financial institution, with one notable exception, dealt tenderly with her after her father, former California Lt. Gov. Ed Reinecke, died. 

“Even little things like canceling his subscription to the Orange County Register – people were just so nice and gentle with me,” she says. “It kind of renewed my faith in people. It’s not like his death was unexpected; he was 92. But it was just nice to have somebody say, ‘Hey, I’m really sorry.’”

Such expressions are profoundly important, says Jane Bissler, a grief counselor in Kent, Ohio, and a past president of the Association for Death Education and Counseling. “We want people to acknowledge where we are in life,” she says. “When we’re grieving, we want people to understand that you need to treat us a little bit differently. We don’t have 100 percent of our brain power; we are living a little bit in our heart, and we’re sad or we’re stressed or we’re anxious.”

When someone is kind in that moment, she notes, “We say, ‘OK, this person is going to get it. They’re trying to understand. They’re trying to meet me where I am.’ ”

Early on – before my mother’s death, but well into her dementia – I called the New York Times and the New Yorker to cancel her subscriptions.

Those were my hardest calls. The Times and the New Yorker defined her; they represented her in her full liberal New York Jewish glory. I had kept her subscriptions going for two years after she had lost the ability to read. 

I didn’t want to simply cancel her subscriptions. I wanted to tell someone who she was. 

“I think she’s probably one of your longest-running subscribers,” I told the woman taking my call at the Times. “She’s been reading the Times since the 1930s. She did the crossword puzzle every day, in pen. Including a half-hour after she came out of anesthesia for open-heart surgery at age 94.”

The customer service rep murmured kindly as I cried.

And the New Yorker: “She not only subscribed for decades, but she once had a short humor piece published,” I told the phone staffer. “Oh, that’s wonderful,” the woman said in tones that made me certain she meant it. I smiled proudly through the tears.

Mine were good experiences. But not everyone’s are. That notable exception Mimi Weyrick encountered?

Her father’s private bank ducked her calls so determinedly when she was trying to find out the value of his account that she had to drive there and waylay a banker in person.

“I could not get them on the phone. Nobody would return my call. We literally had to track them down,” she says. “It wasn’t until my brother threatened legal action that they started to work with us.”

And this report from a friend: “Shortly after my dad died, the pain clinic called my mom to ask when she would be returning his pump. This is the morphine pump that was surgically implanted in his stomach to deliver a steady stream of medicine to try to limit his pain. She was taken aback, and she told them it was buried inside of him. The woman paused for a second or two, then wondered, ‘What about the remote device that went with the pump?’” 

My friend Mike Precker, a writer in Dallas, will never forget the aftermath of his father’s death, though it happened in 1974.

“We had literally just gotten back from my dad’s funeral when a fellow from the local bank called to inquire when we would be paying his credit card bills,” he recalls. “Apparently some poor guy’s job was to read the obits and then call the families.”

Mike cut up the credit card and mailed it to the bank with a letter reading, “Dear Sir, I hope that from the tone of this letter you can infer just what you can do with the enclosed card.”

At Franklin Templeton Investments, the firm that was notably kind to me, Bethany Hendricks is vice president of customer service for the subsidiary whose wealth transfer team handles calls after a death. After her own father died, she called a credit card company to close his account.

“I probably got transferred three different times, and each time I had to say my dad died,” she says. “There was no acknowledgment of what that meant. And at one point there was a language barrier, to the point where I had to keep saying, ‘He’s dead.’ ‘He’s dead.’ It was awful.”

Franklin Templeton tells its people to acknowledge a loss and express condolences. But beyond that, the firm deliberately provides no script.

“We want them to be real people,” Hendricks says. “This is probably the time when you have the biggest opportunity to really be good to a person. Our folks fortunately are in the position to be compassionate in that moment and take a little extra time to be human.

“I don’t want to overstate what we do; we’re just a financial services company,” she says. “But I think people are hungry for finding people who are really people, and connecting with them on a very human level.”

The way companies handle those moments can be crucial, says Rima Toure-Tillery, assistant professor of marketing at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. “Any company, anyone that becomes aware of someone else’s loss has to say, ‘I’m sorry for your loss,’” she says. “To most people it wouldn’t seem like they’re doing something extra.”

From a marketing point of view, there are advantages, Toure-Tillery says. All banks offer similar services; warm personal exchanges can be what keeps a customer loyal. But the real impact comes if a company treats a grieving relative poorly. That’s when you get “the nightmare stories,” she says – the ones that make people so angry that they tell them, over and over, for years.

And a bank could lose more than goodwill. Weyrick suspects that her father’s bank was ducking her to keep her from moving his assets elsewhere. In fact, “we would have been happy to leave everything there,” she says. “But it was because of how they treated us in those first few months that we decided to move everything.”

As time passed after my mother’s death, the financial transactions became less fraught. I wasn’t grieving; I was just taking care of business. 

But I never stopped appreciating it when a customer service rep said she was sorry for my loss. Each time, those words turned a transaction into an acknowledgment of our fundamental bond. We are all human, we are all walking the same mortal path, and we can all use a little kindness, even and maybe especially from an unexpected place, to light the way.

• Barbara Brotman is a freelancer and a former writer for the Chicago Tribune. Read more stories from The Rotarian