Last year the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) put vulnerable customers at the forefront of their planning, offering advice and guidance on how financial services companies can communicate with vulnerable people.

The FCA defines a vulnerable customer as “someone, who due to their personal circumstances, is especially susceptible to harm, particularly when a firm is not acting with appropriate levels of care”. For example, an elderly person or someone who has recently experienced bereavement.  According to their recent survey, 27.7million people are now considered vulnerable.

The FCA has even introduced measures whereby it can fine businesses significant sums for failing to support vulnerable people correctly when they fall into arrears. Such as Barclays which was fined by the FCA for £26Million for “not treating customers fairly.” Barclays failed to identify the struggling customers and didn’t put a correct plan into place to support them. But why is any of this an issue for your business?

It’s not just the finance industry dealing with vulnerable customers. All businesses need to be prepared and have the right tools in place. Whilst many businesses will have ways to handle angry customers or complaints, many don’t have the right training or technology to serve vulnerable customers.

Moving into 2022, and given the ongoing impact of the pandemic, it’s vital that businesses get this right and adapt their CX to treat vulnerable customers fairly.

The case for speech analytics

An images person analysing speech analytics.

Given the scale of the challenge, businesses need to use all the tools at their disposal. These range from prepared scripts for customer-facing staff to the latest technologies for identifying vulnerable customers.

Many businesses are turning to speech analytics for help. A modern speech analytics platform doesn’t just capture words spoken; it can also capture how they are spoken. The system can automatically highlight the uncertainty in a customer’s response.

For example, a customer may agree to a payment schedule but sound uncertain or hesitant about whether they can keep to the schedule. This might indicate vulnerability and a higher risk of default. Speech analytics software can also identify these potentially vulnerable customers so the business can track their interactions with customer service teams and take action to help if necessary.

This technology can be applied to analyse phone calls, emails or web chats, etc. so if a customer uses words such as ‘concerned’, ‘anxiety’ or ‘help’ these conversations can automatically be routed to specially trained agents, who are experienced in dealing with vulnerable customers, then prioritised.

The best speech analytics platforms use an emotional index which is gradually refined by machine learning as the software automatically feeds more and more data through the system from the analysed recordings. The index is a rating mechanism based on how words are said by customers over the phone, including the pitch, pace, tone and articulation to give an indication of emotions.

The solutions are built drawing on millions of UK call centre voice interactions to set accurate benchmarks. A pre-deployment tuning process, looking at thousands of calls from each business using the software, ensures that differences across clients and departments are taken into account.

Example of an emotional index during a phone call

By scoring every single interaction, you can track a specific customer’s emotional experience. This provides businesses with information to tailor the customer journey or identify and support where vulnerable customers aren’t getting the service they need.

As the sample size of analysed calls builds up, the better equipped the system becomes to spot vulnerable customers. This technology is already rolled out across millions of UK call centre interactions and setting accurate benchmarks for spotting customers in need of extra support.

However, vulnerability is a spectrum; being able to constantly refine and edit a speech analytics solution’s ‘vulnerable’ identifiers means that companies get better at identifying customers and avoid falling into the trap of mis-categorizing or incorrectly labelling vulnerability.  

Manual adjustments can also be made to provide further levels of refinement. Still, no system is perfect, and staff must be properly trained to ensure customers aren’t wrongly labelled and receive the appropriate care. 

The importance of empathy training

An image showing a group of employees attending the empathy training on the topic of vulnerable customers.

Providing staff with empathy training, and ensuring that this is reviewed and reiterated, is critical in putting vulnerability front-and-centre within the business.

If vulnerable customers are highlighted by speech analytics software, their cases should be escalated to a dedicated team who are trained to deal with these situations and understand customers’ complex needs.

With particularly sensitive data being handled, only relevant roles, e.g., quality assurance, management, and agent wellbeing staff, within an organisation should have access to case specifics. The staff should only see information that appropriately addresses a vulnerability.

For example, in the utility industry, if a customer relies on a continuous power supply for medical equipment, the staff member should know they need an uninterrupted power supply. However, they do not need to know that this is due to a medical condition. Each business will face their own unique challenges handling sensitive data. It’s vital that a business have a carefully assessed policy in place to manage this.

Empathy training is also key to dealing with vulnerable customers. There is no better way to help than showing you understand the person’s position, reassuring them there is a solution and informing them of their options.

This kind of training should be compulsory for all customer-facing staff but also ingrained within the culture of a workforce. Businesses need to face the reality that there may be an empathy gap when employees are dealing with customers with different situations from their own and introducing unconscious bias training should also be a priority.

Adapting your CX for vulnerable customers

Whilst there’s been a huge amount of noise from businesses around identifying vulnerable customers, the proof is in the pudding when it comes to companies adapting their CX procedures to customers’ needs.

Spotting a vulnerable customer should lead to a different approach being taken. For example, chasing the customer on late payment should be less forceful and marketing communications should be toned down.

A customer’s preferred communications channel should always be taken into consideration. Proactively asking vulnerable customers how they would prefer to chat, e.g. via webchat, WhatsApp, phone or SMS, etc. will help them feel more at ease.

In 2022, all businesses should be doing more to support vulnerable customers and embedding this within their workplace culture. Also, if businesses want to do right by their vulnerable customers, they must do right by the front-line staff charged with this responsibility too. Staff must have the right tools and training, as well as the emotional support needed to support all types of customers.

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