Voices: Why do we need 500k followers to cancel a dead person’s phone contract?

·4-min read
I was accused of fraud for not making my dad’s death ‘clear enough’  (Getty)
I was accused of fraud for not making my dad’s death ‘clear enough’ (Getty)

I was accused of fraud when claiming for repairs on my dead father’s boiler. Unlike George Monbiot, a prominent writer on the environment, I achieved precisely nothing by criticising the offending business on Twitter. The difference? Monbiot’s half a million followers.

Confronted with awful customer service while trying to cancel his late mother’s phone contract, Monbiot took to Twitter with the intention of “shaming Vodafone into action”. The resulting thread struck a nerve: hundreds of bereaved people reported feeling bullied by heartless companies determined to extract every penny.

The tweets also forced Vodafone’s hand, and their customer services director issued Monbiot with a public apology. But it’s because of his social sway and knowledge of how to apply pressure that they sprang into action: in Monbiot’s words, “they couldn’t move fast enough”.

I’m glad things were eventually fixed for Monbiot’s family, but unfortunately this isn’t the typical resolution.

After my dad’s death in 2017, I was solely responsible for closing down every aspect of his life: bank accounts, household bills, car insurance, gallery memberships. For every cancellation, I waited on hold in an automated queue before being transferred to a customer service rep who inevitably asked to speak to the account holder. For the most part, explaining my bereavement was simple enough – but sometimes it was hellish.

I’d moved home to care for my dad, so when his boiler broke (during the “Beast from the East” winter, no less), I dug out the plastic wallet containing his insurance documents. So began a month-long back and forth with BSW Heating, wrapped in duvets to stave off the cold.

After five cancelled appointments and no fixed boiler in sight, they suddenly landed on an unexpected clause: they claimed that the boiler’s warranty had expired when my dad had died. I saw no evidence of this in the paperwork, but when I kicked up a fuss they got nasty, accusing me of fraud for not making my dad’s death “clear enough”. My then partner insisted I get the ombudsman involved, but I was too mired in grief to tackle yet another challenge. And I have a sneaking suspicion BSW knew that.

Instead, I angrily tweeted about my late dad’s boiler, but it was just an impotent shout into the internet abyss. Naming and shaming companies publicly online always feels like a potential recourse – but unfortunately it’s only those with a significant following who manage to make any waves.

Stacey Heale, wife of the late Delays singer Greg Gilbert, spent hours on the phone to Virgin trying to cancel her internet service after her husband died. Virgin claimed it was sorted – until debt collectors began harassing her for money she didn’t owe. “It took me using my Instagram platform and tagging Virgin in a post, because I was desperate and beyond stressed. When it got traction, Virgin started phoning, emailing, texting me at 10pm at night – because they didn’t want to have such bad publicity. It’s outrageous to think this was only resolved because I have a platform.”

So why are these companies only willing to resolve such horrendous customer service when they’re lambasted online by those with social media clout? Why isn’t their customer support simply better?

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According to Cruse, most businesses use bespoke policies to determine what information they ask for from relatives of deceased customers, and these are rarely designed with the needs of bereaved people in mind. This disconnect is causing additional pain at an already difficult time.

Monbiot calls Vodafone’s behaviour “predatory”, and I’m inclined to agree. It’s also wilfully ignorant. Any business with contractual services must know that customers will die and their accounts will need closing by someone else.

As one Twitter commentator puts it, “Just stop blatantly rinsing bereaved people for money after the account holder has died. No one expects a telecoms company to offer therapy – just decent human behaviour.”

Commendably, Monbiot has facilitated a meeting with Vodafone’s chief executive – no doubt a scrambling attempt on their part to avoid further damage to their reputation. He’s listed 21 demands to be addressed.

I’d add a further demand to his list: bereaved customers should not need to resort to public criticism on Twitter – nor require 500,000 followers – to achieve the simple cancellation of a deceased person’s contract.

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