Every customer deserves to be treated fairly and with respect.

It sounds simple enough, yet many company policies, procedures, and attitudes create unnecessary barriers – especially when it comes to vulnerable customers.

From plastic surgeons to bankers, there is a growing realisation that organisations are often falling short in good practice when it comes to vulnerability. Moves are underway to regulate industries in order to deliver services with a greater customer focus.

Who are your vulnerable customers?

Vulnerability is not set in stone. According to the Financial Conduct Authority, “Vulnerability can come in a range of guises, and can be temporary, sporadic or permanent in nature.”

Any of us might be fully capable today, but a sleepless night before a stressful job interview might leave you less able to focus tomorrow. Throw in the news that, for example, a close relative has been in a serious accident, and suddenly dealing with everyday tasks becomes a challenge. Emotionally vulnerable and unable to fully focus, it makes all the difference when others are understanding, patient, and respectful.

Identifying vulnerable customers is not easy, especially when it is a dynamic state. An organisation can better meet a customer’s needs if they are made aware. Being open and honest about a condition or situation can be helpful, but disclosure is not straightforward.

Assistance: An organisation can better meet a customer’s needs if they are made aware of vulnerabilities

Five challenges of disclosing a vulnerability

In order to inform others of the specific support needed to access and use their services, an individual has to:

Be aware of their needs: A person with dementia or impaired cognitive learning is not going to necessarily recognise that they are any different from anyone else. Equally, some conditions may not be diagnosed.

Admit their needs: Would you notice that your hearing has faded or that your habits have become addictions that impact on everyday life?

Understand how disclosure will benefit them: This is very personal information and most people would prefer to keep it to themselves, unless they can see the benefits.

Trust the individual and organisation: How will the information be used? Who will have access to it? Will it have a negative impact on the service received?

Have the right opportunity to share the information: If the frontline staff are unapproachable or the environment is not conducive to a private conversation, it is unlikely that disclosure will occur.

Vulnerability taskforce

The finance industry is proactively encouraging positive change and inclusivity. As an example, the BBA is working with consumer groups and charities, as a ‘Vulnerability Taskforce’. Their aim is to improve outcomes for customers in vulnerable circumstances.

One clear objective is that every organisation has smart data systems in place to record information that is disclosed. The focus is on ensuring sufficient continuation to support a ‘tell us once’ approach. Another focus is on building staff awareness through Vulnerable Customer Training. The aim should be to develop a customer-focused company culture, where the stigma of vulnerability is removed.

It is only when everyone is engaged in the process that consistency in approach can be achieved. As such, all employees should be equipped to spot the signs of vulnerability, respond appropriately, and ask the right questions in order to deliver the best outcomes. The awareness and skills can also come into play when colleagues are in need of additional support.

Disclosure and GDPR

If individuals share information, they expect it to only be available to those who need to know and only for the purpose of improving customer service. This throws up the question of how organisations store and protect personal information in line with GDPR.

Having researched good practice, my recommendation is to be solution focused. In most cases, it is not necessary to know the cause of the vulnerability.

Employees should be encouraged to steer the conversation to what an individual requires in order to access and use services. The data may simply say that this customer needs a longer appointment slot or should be provided with information in large font. This greatly reduces the risk of personal information being shared.

How can organisations encourage customers to disclose vulnerability?

Addressing all of the points raised in this article, I advise companies that wish to treat every customer fairly and with respect to:

  • Create and implement a vulnerable customer policy that can be responsive and flexible to individual needs
  • Train all staff to build awareness, competency, and consistency across all departments
  • Develop a supportive, solutions-focused culture that encourages disclosure
  • Be proactive in understanding the customer journey and remove the barriers to make their services more accessible and inclusive
  • Use data systems to effectively support customer service excellence

It should not be difficult for any individual to access and use the services they need. No matter what industry, being fair and respectful is simply good practice.

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