Business Transformation

How To Support A Grieving Customer

Monique Richardson

The events of this past week have triggered many conversations around grief and people’s very unique and personal reactions. Remaining non-judgemental and accepting people will respond differently is critical. How we support those that are grieving be it in work or in our personal lives, is vitally important.

I was recently asked to work with an organisation in the Life Insurance Industry to help their teams in empathising with customers who had suffered significant losses. I listened to some calls prior to the training and heard on more than one occasion when someone had expressed their loved one had passed away, “And what is the account number?”
While there are two certainties in life, death and taxes, as a society we can still be uncomfortable in dealing with grief and loss. This response I heard was of no fault of the team, providing teams with the space, skills and training in how to respond enables a much more human response.
While I am not a Grief expert, sadly I am an expert in Grief. Losing both of my sisters and my father at a very young age has given me a lot of personal insight into navigating the complexities of dealing with organisations during a time of loss. This also led me to train as a bereavement and loss volunteer to provide support to those who were grieving.
Given the types of products and services that some organisations offer and the human life cycle, there may be times you may be speaking with customers, team members or co-workers who are grieving or who have suffered a significant loss. During these conversations, the most powerful tool you can use is empathy. 
Grief is a completely normal reaction to a significant loss. The greater the loss, the greater the grief response. This however is not something we can judge. It is important to recognise that while no one can take away the pain and sadness, knowing that people care, is comforting and healing. Never underestimate the value of ordinary human kindness. You cannot “fix it”, but you can help the person by: 

  • Acknowledging their loss. Expressing empathy with a genuine, sincere empathy statement such “I am so sorry for your loss or” “I cannot even begin to imagine how difficult that must be for you”.
  • Listening to and accepting strong emotions. Customers who are grieving may be in shock, angry, upset, numb, or crying. Remember not to take anger or tears personally. It is their loss that has caused their response.
  • Avoiding unhelpful platitudes such as “They are in a better place”. These are not only not helpful, but can be distressing for the grieving person.
  • Not taking over and telling your own story, this should be avoided at all costs. While it may be a genuine attempt make a connection, it can minimise the other person’s experience and possibly shut down their grief.
  • Being patient and allowing silence. Give people time – they may need to stop, cry, or make a cup of tea.
  • Recognising some people have had complex relationships. Allow expressions of feelings (guilt, anger, sorrow,) without judgement.
  • Taking care of yourself. While your support can make the world of difference you are not expected to be a grief counsellor. These conversations are seldom easy. After particularly challenging calls and conversations, a de-brief or supporting leader or colleague can be very helpful as well accessing external support services.

From an organisational perspective, it is critical to look at making processes human and as easy and painless as possible for the bereaved. While issues such as privacy are important considerations, creating processes through the eyes of a bereaved customer will make a real difference. I recall having to make calls to support my parents and will always recall the kindness, care and support of those that made it a very easy and human experience and the organisations that made an already devastating time even more difficult through complex and unnecessary procedures.
Beyond customer service, this is also an employee experience issue. As an organisation it is also important to consider how to support team members through their grief. Providing the team with training around empathy and awareness of how to support anyone who is grieving, can make a significant difference in someone’s life.
These strategies of supporting a customer through grief are not isolated to customers, but also very useful for supporting a friend, colleague or team member. By allowing their pain and not trying to take it away through a listening ear and a caring heart can make the world of difference to someone who needs it most.

Written by Monique Richardson.
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Monique Richardson
Monique Richardson is the author of ‘Managing Difficult Customer Behaviour – A Practical Guide For Confident Conversations’ and is one of Australia’s leading experts in Service Leadership and Customer Service.

Monique Richardson is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. Connect with her through LinkedIn.