‘Bereavement calls to our pension centres have risen – but handling each one with sensitivity is key.’

Angela Knowles-Ellis, Head of Telephony at a Capita run contact centre in Darlington, explains how training from bereavement charity Winston’s Wish has helped staff deal with vulnerable customers during the pandemic.

Dealing with a bereavement is understandably upsetting, and having to manage practical aspects such as the deceased person’s pension can add to the feeling of overwhelm. During the pandemic, the number of calls to our pensions call centre has more than doubled at times as bereaved friends and family look to organise changes in a deceased person’s pension.

The importance of how this call is managed cannot be underestimated. Our staff are acutely aware that they are dealing with people in a state of grief and distress, and as such we organised for the bereavement charity Winston’s Wish to visit the site and train our staff.

The experience has been invaluable in terms of giving our employees the right skills to use. We learned about the right language to use – ensuring that it is simple and easy to understand, avoiding financial terms and jargon. Also making sure staff take as much time as needed to handle the call, so they can explain the next steps and acquire the relevant information.  And of course the importance of empathy and listening effectively.

Callers can respond in different ways depending on how they deal with grief. Occasionally the caller can seem a little sharp and so we’re trained not to react to this. Or if they’re tearful, we tell them to take their time. We stress that we are keen to make this as painless as possible for them. Sometimes daughters and sons call and tell us their life story, or about fighting with a sibling over money. Our staff take it in without commenting – we try to step back yet remain sensitive.

We also go to great lengths to take care of our employees. It can be tough dealing with these calls at the best of times, but particularly when working from home without people to talk to. We have an employee assistance programme, as well as a series of podcasts and hubs dedicated to our employees. We also offer counselling services - if we are worried about a member of staff, we will ensure they take some extra time to talk with fellow staff during lunch and breaks.

When Covid-19 hit, we had days to move almost 6,000 staff from office based to homeworking. This was a logistical and technological challenge that we’re proud to have managed without any drop in service levels to clients. But the people aspect of this move is something that cannot be underestimated.

As one of the largest administrators in the UK (we look after around 4.5 million pensions), we can bring economies of scale despite the new virtual workforce. This is vital at times like this when there is an unexpected surge in calls.

Callers need a quick solution – often a pension is their only source of income and can mean the difference in being able to pay the rent or mortgage or not. Our scale not only means we can handle these calls and achieve the right outcomes for callers, but do it in a sensitive and appropriate way.

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