The curse of ‘deadmin’

25 July 2022

9:03 PM

25 July 2022

9:03 PM

George Monbiot has gone to war. Some readers may know this fellow by his nickname ‘Moonbat’ – he’s a Guardian columnist, environmental campaigner and sometime bugbear of my colleagues on this magazine. But I think his casus belli, here, crosses the ideological battle-lines.

He is in a righteous rage because, a full four months after the death of his mother, Vodafone was refusing to cancel her mobile phone contract. He says they were rude and aggressive, insisted on speaking directly to his ‘frail, confused’ elderly father (despite his children having a power of attorney), asking him to recite his dead wife’s phone number and tell them exactly when the contract started, and using his failure to recall as an excuse not to cancel the contract. When finally the family stopped the direct debits, he says, Vodafone set a debt-collection agency on the elderly widower.

His experience clearly resonated with a number of his readers, judging by the responses he got detailing similar cruelties; many saying that they were told that only the deceased person was authorised to cancel their own account.

It did with me too, as it happens: my recently widowed mother went through a low-key version of the same process. She cancelled my father’s contract online on the Vodafone website – and was dismayed not long afterwards to receive another bill. When she phoned them up to complain, she was told that they had no record of the cancellation and so she’d have to pay the extra bill anyway. Rolling her eyes, she wrote off the £40 rather than argue the toss. Nice little earner for Vodafone: the equivalent of drawing ‘Bank Error In Your Favour’ in Monopoly. I wonder how often such little technical glitches take place.

Old Moonbat’s experience mostly resonated with me because of a parallel case of what some have taken to calling ‘deadmin’. My widowed mother has just spent more than two months unsuccessfully trying to get the Bank of Scotland to do something as simple as remove my dead father’s name from their joint business account. She had just lost the man she’d loved since she was 18 years old. For week after week, she’d phone the bank’s numbers, and for week after week she’d be pushed from pillar to post. On, and on and on it went – and she found it deeply frustrating and upsetting.

‘We’ll need someone from private banking to call you back.’ (It happens that, for historical reasons, their business account was in the private banking department.)

‘I’m from private banking but I’m not authorised to deal with business accounts.’

‘Someone will call you back within 48 hours.’

‘I’m from business banking but I’m not authorised to deal with private accounts.’

‘Someone will call you back within 48 hours.’

‘We have a list of names here for who controls the accounts but it seems to be out of date.’

At one point we seemed to be getting somewhere. She was given the name of the man with responsibility for the account. I Googled him in the hopes of finding a direct email – and discovered that, though he indeed once worked for Lloyds TSB, he now runs the Lagos Waste Management Authority. That perhaps explains why he was taking so little interest in her case.

Mr Monbiot has formed the conclusion that Vodafone’s behaviour is ‘not a mistake but a policy’. Me, I’m more charitable as far as my mother’s dealings with Bank of Scotland go: I see it not as deliberate but as basic, old-fashioned corporate incompetence. Nobody would have produced something as funny and humiliating as the Lagos Waste Management detail out of anything other than cluelessness. That’s alarming for different reasons – namely, that you want the people to whom you entrust your money to be in possession of a basic connection between arse and elbow.

But of all the circumstances in which corporations need to be on their games, at their most competent and most compassionate, bereavement should surely rank highest. It’s a circumstance in which kindness and efficiency will win friends and customers for life, and in which indifference or exploitation will be a cruelty multiply compounded. Corporate self-interest, even if compassion is too much to hope for, should cause them to put in place simple procedures and clear chains of communication. Yet so many people going through grief seem to suffer similar experiences to the ones my mother and George Monbiot’s father have gone through. I single out Vodafone and Bank of Scotland because these are the closest examples to hand, but they are not the only ones.

Mr Monbiot and I, finally, did the same thing after many weeks of frustration: we made our complaints public on social media. In both cases, it was a last resort. My mother and I had despaired of the hours spent on the telephone, the 48-hour waits to be called back by someone who still had no clue how to contact anyone with the power to remove a dead man’s name from a bank account, a formal complaint showing no sign whatever of progressing, and registered letters written in duplicate to the head of bereavement services and the head of the private banking division having gone unacknowledged for a full fortnight. I thought, what the hell: I’ll see if shaming them on Twitter will have any effect.

And you know what? It bloody did. I am not someone with millions of Twitter followers. I’m a relatively obscure literary hack. But the same afternoon that I started moaning about it online, I got a phone message from an urbane old colleague of mine, Ben Brogan – who, by a happy chance, turns out now to work as head of public affairs for Lloyds TSB. An email with my name on it had crossed his desk and snagged his attention. At once, with graceful apologies, something we’d been politely asking for through the proper channels for two months was sorted out in about 48 hours. Lucky me. Lucky my mum. Not so lucky, those many bereaved oldies who don’t have a Twitter account and a blue tick or a chance connection with a corporate PR man.

The point is that, whether we’re dealing with cruelty, laziness or imbecility, the thing that it took to get the wheels moving, in both cases, was public embarrassment. And what strikes me about all this is that both these corporations clearly, in one respect, are entirely capable of putting well-functioning policies and procedures into place. They can react swiftly and decisively to pass a problem to someone in a position to resolve it. They can move, in fact, like shit off the proverbial shovel in the right circumstances. The moment a blue-tick starts to shame them on social media, the issue goes rocketing up the chain of command.

Mr Brogan, perhaps intending to flatter, told me that my complaint (which could hardly be said to have gone viral) had caused a ‘stir’ in the company’s headquarters. Mr Monbiot – who has half a million followers – reported: ‘Oh boy, now they’ve jumped. Couldn’t get it sorted fast enough’ less than four hours after he took his complaint public. He has already rejected his first public apology from Vodafone and, when I last checked, was demanding a face-to-face with the CEO, which I expect he’ll get.

That says something about the priorities of these companies: they are vastly, vastly, more interested in defensive PR than they are in customer service.

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