Howard Durdle recently contacted PayPal to let them know his wife had died and that her credit account should be closed.
Three weeks later, he received an unbelievable response, addressed to his wife.
"Dear Mrs Lindsay Durdle," the letter began.
"This is a default notice...You are in breach of condition 15.4(c) of your agreement with PayPal Credit as we have received notice that you are deceased. In accordance with condition 15.4(c), we are entitled to close your account, terminate your agreement and demand repayment of the full amount outstanding."
Incredulous, Mr. Durdle shared the insensitive letter in a Facebook post.
"What empathy-lacking machine sent this?" he asked.
Once informed, PayPal immediately reached out to Mr. Durdle to apologize.
"As soon as our teams became aware of this mistake, we contacted Mr. Durdle directly to offer our support, cleared the outstanding debt and closed down his wife's account as he requested," the company told the New York Times. "We have also urgently reviewed the company's internal processes and have made changes to ensure that an insensitive error of this nature never happens again."
This was surely an egregious mistake on PayPal's part, but there's a much larger lesson at stake here.
How emotional intelligence could have made things better
While PayPal's mistake is getting lots of press, the truth is companies send out similar letters all the time.
How can we do better?
Emotional intelligence, the ability to identify, understand, and manage emotions can help.
According to the Times, Mr. Durdle said he was informed by phone that the letter could have been due to a software glitch, a poor letter template, or human error. That simple information can be used as a catalyst to improve your own company's processes, and keep from making similar missteps in the future.
1. Fix your automation.
Most large companies use software to generate automatic responses to payment problems.
But as this story illustrates, not all problems are created equal: Sickness or a death in the family requires higher sensitivity and a human touch. By taking time now to make sure you're not using automated processes in such cases, you save customers (and yourself) pain in the future.
2. Fix your templates.
One of the things that sticks out about PayPal's letter is the attempt to use legal and corporate speak to intimidate. Large companies may need to use some type of form letter in various situations, but they don't have to be written like this.
Rather, make sure your form letters use empathy and sound like they're written by a real person, rather than a money-grabbing corporate machine. Doing so will help you establish rapport with the intended recipient, and have a much better chance of motivating them to positive action.
3. Fix your training.
The single most important thing you can do to prevent mistakes like this one is to train your people to deal with others with emotional intelligence.
For example, in this case the initial PayPal employee whom Mr. Durdle contacted could have flagged the case and made sure any follow through was appropriate to the situation. Doing so may have actually inspired customer loyalty, instead of outrage.
Additionally, with the right guidance, employees can be trained to catch and fix potential problem scenarios before they play out in real life.
Hopefully, PayPal learned its lesson--but it's a chance for your company to learn, too: In a world where few companies show emotional intelligence, following simple tips like these can help you connect with your customers and stand out for the right reasons.