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EditorialMajor companies put a lot of resources into their 'Retention' departments.  These departments are last-ditch efforts to keep customers from defecting to a rival company, and have the authority to offer sometimes spectacular deals to convince a customer to stay.  If you are really mad at your service provider and threaten to cancel your account you are likely to find yourself talking to someone in a retention department, even if they don't call it that.

I wish the companies would give as much attention to grieving spouses, recently widowed.  I know one young widow who, after caring for her husband through a terrible cancer and having to be the one to tell him he wasn't going to make it, had to suffer endless conversation with customer so-called-service representatives to get the bills squared away and have her utility accounts in her own name.  She actually had a conversation that went something like:

Widow: My husband died.  Please change the account to my name.

Customer Service: Only the person whose name is on the account can change or add a name.

Widow:  The person with his name on the account is dead.  He died.

Customer Service: Can you provide us with his current address?

Widow: Heaven.

A good friend here in Lansing lost her husband some years ago.  He was a prominent and successful faculty member at Cornell.  Naturally she was using her email account to coordinate the funeral and contact her children, one of whom was out of the country.  On the second day after he died her email stopped working.  She called technical support and was told she was not entitled to have Cornell email because the person who worked at Cornell was no longer living.

We provided her with a Lansing Star email address.  It took me about 45 seconds to create a mailbox for her at a cost of nothing.  That's right.  Our Web hosting account included unlimited email addresses.  We were already paying for the account.  Adding one address cost only the 45 seconds it took to set up.  When we switched to another Web server it took another minute or two to recreate it and copy her mail from the old server to the new.  In eight years since her husband passed away it took me about two and a half minutes of configuration, plus a few minutes to change her settings on her computer.

So I can't believe that Cornell couldn't send a nice letter saying the University is sorry for her loss, and unfortunately her email address will be shut down after 30 days, giving her enough time to get through the worst period of her grief, establish a new email address somewhere, and use the old one to inform her friends and relatives that she has a new address.

Recently another friend whose husband also worked at Cornell had the same experience, but it took the University about five days to realize he was no longer with us before they shut down that account without notice.

The only time it costs Cornell extra for an email account is when the holder needs support.  Not only would a letter plus a 30 day grace period be kinder to the spouses of the people who spent their careers bringing glory to Cornell, but it would obviate the frantic support call when email unexpectedly stops working.

And don't tell me their husbands signed something or read the terms of service before accepting their email accounts.  Seriously, do you know a single individual who has EVER read a terms of service document?  And you're going to throw that at a grieving widow or widower?

Utility companies (it is fair to include IT departments and Internet access companies in this definition) should be nicer to customers who are grieving.  The utility that tried to reach a dead man in Heaven to get permission to change his account to his wife's name may have actually retained the widow as a customer if they had been nice to her.  It doesn't take much - just a little common sense, condolences and making it easy for a person for whom nothing at that moment is easy.  

These companies do have policies for dealing with deceased account holders.  You may not like their policies -- for instance Facebook 'memorializes' a dead member's account, which means it is frozen with no ability to log in to make changes, but kept live on the Internet, presumably forever.  If a spouse wants to delete the account the company makes her or him go through a process to get it deleted.  But at least they do provide some sort of path for dealing with what will inevitably happen to all of us at some point.

Microsoft has a 'Next Of Kin Department' that requires four documents before they will delete an account.  Their policy reads like an instruction manual and is quite long.  It has letters and numbers like a legal document.  I am sure that if I found myself widowed my first choice for a fun activity would be to read through Microsoft's 'Next of Kin' policy.

My favorite is AT&T's policy for shutting down a dead person's account, because the company starts out with, "We offer our sincerest condolences during this difficult time."  That's actually very nice.

And because they provide some mild comic relief:

"The account cannot remain active under the name and Social Security number of the deceased person (with the exception of customers residing in Oklahoma)."

My guess is that Oklahoma is the only state in the Union that allows mail forwarding to Heaven.  Makes me happy to be an AT&T customer.

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