Comment

Dead man working

Is it really so hard for New Zealand’s supposedly customer-focused organisations to deal sensitively with grieving families?

Last week I got a letter from Inland Revenue. Not to me. It was addressed Mr Geoffrey Godden, but I opened it. “Dear Mr Godden”, it read.

The IRD had heard from Work and Income that Geoff, my husband, was no longer receiving a benefit. Could he please ring tax officials immediately so they could assess his income to see if he qualified for Working for Families tax credits.

No, I wanted to tell them. He can’t ring you. He’s dead. Three months dead now. Dead men don’t ring. Dead men don’t work.

“Yours sincerely, James Grayson, Customer Segment Leader”, the letter ended.

I wonder which segment they put dead people in.

I wonder too why they don’t know he’s dead. Work and Income know he’s dead. I told them so they could stop his benefit. The benefit he got when the untreatable brain tumour stopped him working; stopped him walking; stopped him thinking.

If WINZ knows he’s dead, and WINZ talked to IRD, why didn’t they tell James Grayson that other crucial fact and save themselves some postage?

He won’t be ringing you, James Grayson. Sorry. But it’s OK, you don’t need to worry about tax credits.

I wonder to myself how many other widows, widowers, partners, are getting the same, unbearable letter.

Then I remember I am a business journalist and do a back-of-the-envelope estimate.

Upwards of 30,000 adults die in New Zealand every year and presumably almost every death leaves someone, if not several people, in a state of grief for some time. Does this mean my experience is being shared by a population the size of Gisborne or Blenheim? Are hundreds of people receiving similar letters each week?

I hope not, as it amounts to a lot of anger, dismay and despair inflicted by faceless bureaucracy. Individually, I am sure all the James Graysons out there are fine people, but institutionally, my experience suggests they are unable to act with common sense or respond with common decency.

James Grayson of the IRD may well have contributed to the organisation’s customer strategy which says it “puts the customer at the centre of everything we do”. For example:

- We anticipate and proactively support key events in our customers' lives at the right time;

- We use customer insights to inform activities;

- Our services are seamless, and tax and social policy are integrated into customers' lives;

- We partner with others to deliver service excellence to customers - from policy design to education to audit;

- We make it easy for customers to get it right, and we reduce compliance costs and effort.

Sorry for the inconvenience

It’s not just IRD. The unwanted encounters with bureaucracy keep coming.

The same week I received the IRD letter, the Ministry of Social Development sent me a text asking me to ring them urgently. The text was from MSD’s “debt management” service.

This is the first I’ve heard about any debt, but just the words “debt management” make me think about burly repo men coming to take the furniture. I shut the front door, just in case.

I ring the number. Katie, the debt collector, is pleasant enough.

The problem she says is with the benefit I applied for and received on Geoff’s behalf when he got the diagnosis and I stopped work to look after him.

Unfortunately, Katie says, WINZ overpaid us. I owe a bit over $400. But I don’t have to pay it back all at once. Whatever I can manage.

She doesn’t mention Geoff’s death or offer any sympathy. She tells me that it’s normal practice for overpayments to be called “debt” and to be transferred immediately to the debt management department. She seems a bit surprised that I might be upset to receive an unexpected text from the debt management department of the Ministry of Social Development about my dead husband’s benefit, when until then I knew nothing about any benefit overpayment.

To talk about “inconvenience” after someone’s much-loved husband dies is so wrong it takes my breath away.

Is that really the best system for dealing with grieving people, I ask? She says she’ll get her manager to call me back.

The call from Harriet ends up in voicemail.

“Apologies for the inconvenience this has been for you,” Harriet says in her short message.

Now I understand Harriet isn't telling me my husband's death is an inconvenience. She's apologising for me having to call MSD to sort out yet another bureaucratic problem. But "inconvenience" still doesn't seem the right word. To talk about “inconvenience” after someone’s much-loved husband dies is so wrong it takes my breath away.

One of the most powerful things I’ve read about the death of a spouse comes from soaringspirits.com. It was sent to me by a friend whose first husband was killed in an air crash.

“The death of a spouse or partner is different than other losses, in the sense that it literally changes every single thing in your world going forward,” the post says. “The way you eat changes. The way you watch TV changes. Your friend circle changes (or disappears entirely.) Your family dynamic/life changes (or disappears entirely). Your financial status changes. Your job situation changes.

“It affects your self-worth. Your self-esteem. Your confidence. Your rhythms. The way you breathe. Your mentality. Your brain function. Your physical body. Your hobbies and interests. Your sense of security. Your sense of humour. Your sense of womanhood or manhood. EVERY. SINGLE. THING. CHANGES. You are handed a new life that you never asked for and that you don’t want. It is the hardest, most gut-wrenching, horrific, life-altering of things to live with.”

It is not an “inconvenience”.

I looked up the principles of the Ministry of Social Development, of which Work and Income NZ is a part. Under the section “How we work” is a subsection called “MSD people”, who should, according to the website:

- All own what we all do;

- Take responsibility for what we do;

- Understand our role in the big picture, who can help us and who we can help;

- Act with integrity, courage and transparency.

There's a team for that

In this world of automatum communication, I can only assume that the sort of thing that has happened over the last few days with WINZ and IRD happens all the time. And if it’s happening to me, it’s happening to grieving families all over the country.

The Public Trust sits you down and offers a cup of tea. They’ve dealt with grief before, that’s their business. And I’m grateful for that.

A few organisations handle death well. NZ Transport Agency wrote a sympathetic letter before they cancelled Geoff’s driver’s licence, telling me they needed to make sure the information they had (that he had died) was correct and hoping the letter didn’t upset me. It didn’t, because it was a sensitively-worded letter. Thank you NZTA.

The Public Trust sits you down and offers a cup of tea. They’ve dealt with grief before, that’s their business. And I’m grateful for that. It really helps.

But in my experience, most organisations don’t do it well. When I contacted Vodafone, they wouldn’t deal with me about Geoff’s account because I wasn’t named on the contract. Privacy. They told me they would refer the matter through to the team that deals with dead people’s accounts. Meanwhile our children, who were on Geoff’s plan, didn’t have data. The dead person team didn’t get in touch, busy talking to other customers who have ceased to be, I suppose.

Geoff cannot be the first Vodafone customer who’s died - they have a team dedicated to it. It’s just not good enough.

Happy birthday

I’ll give just one more example, but I have many more. Our bank. ASB. I went into our branch soon after Geoff first got diagnosed, when he stopped remembering how to use a computer; when he started using his mobile phone to try to change channels on the TV. An unbearable time.

I wanted power of attorney over Geoff’s business account, the only one I didn’t have access to. I hoped there was money there we could use. Dying can be expensive.

I told the teller I needed a power of attorney and she looked at our account details. She was cheerful. “Hey, it was your birthday yesterday,” she said. “It was mine the day before. Happy birthday.”

A birthday, yes. Happy, not.

I spent an hour in the bank. It took that much time for the teller to discover what the bank should have known already, that a power of attorney doesn’t cover your husband’s business account. Until I got angry and was ushered into a small office (where I couldn’t upset other customers), the woman kept up the happy chatter. I was lucky, she said, that new regulations meant someone with a power of attorney could use internet banking.

Awesome. Just what I needed.

At no time did she, or any of her colleagues, make any connection between someone walking into a bank and asking for a power of attorney over her husband’s account and the fact that something totally grim might be happening.

Human automatums.

That was a few weeks ago. ASB knows Geoff is now dead. And I know that they know, not because I received a letter of condolence from our bank of nigh on 25 years. Nothing like that.

I know because, unasked, they changed the name on our joint bank account. Now every time I open the app on my phone there it is: Ms N Mandow and the estate of GM Godden.

Just reminding you he’s dead, Ms Mandow, valued customer.

One more poke in the guts.  

Postscript

After making complaints, I have received apologies from ASB and MSD. Human beings at both organisations told me the treatment I’d received had been unacceptable, the result of mistakes, and not normal processes. MSD said when they looked further into my situation (after I contacted the media department), they discovered they’d done the calculations wrong. I didn’t owe them $400, they owed me $900.

Vodafone’s new CEO Jason Paris said (during an unrelated interview where we discussed customer service) that I could contact him if my problems weren’t resolved.

I haven’t heard from IRD, despite writing to them.

And it goes on. Yesterday morning I rang insurance company Sovereign to change the names on our life policy, and an unsympathetic young guy told me at the end of the conversation to “have a great rest of your day”.

They just don’t get it.

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