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Identifying and Supporting Vulnerable Customers

Tue, November 07, 2023

Nobody can deny it’s been a tough couple of years. The pandemic might have ended, but it has left behind an ongoing health and financial crisis that many are struggling with.

In that context, it’s not surprising that two out of three UK adults identify as having at least one vulnerability. In a recent piece of research by the CCMA (Call Centre Management Association), 49% say they are health-vulnerable, either physically or mentally. In comparison, 39% have had a traumatic event in the last five years, and 20% are suffering financially.

Behind these statistics are real individuals facing complex challenges in their daily lives. Some are relying on dwindling savings after job loss. Others are living on the financial edge due to reduced hours. Many feel perpetual uncertainty about the future.

Industry regulators are recognising this growing need. Bodies like the UK’s Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) expect businesses to proactively identify and support struggling customers before issues escalate.

Even for companies that operate in non-regulated sectors, this sort of empathetic approach is becoming necessary due to the mounting numbers of their customers that are affected. Not only is it the right thing to do, but it also builds loyalty and trust.

Genuinely supporting potentially vulnerable customers requires a culture of understanding and empathy. Customer service teams need comprehensive training to handle sensitive conversations with skill and compassion. And they must have practical tools to offer customised assistance when it matters most.

Types of Vulnerable Customers

There are many categories of potentially vulnerable customers. These could include the chronically ill, the elderly, the unemployed or financially distressed, non-native English speakers, the hearing or speech impaired, and the intellectually impaired.

Just belonging to one of those classes does not necessarily make a person vulnerable. Vulnerability exists on a spectrum from low risk to high risk, and nobody has a permanent position on that spectrum. An individual’s vulnerability may fluctuate as their life circumstances change or new challenges emerge.

For example, sudden job loss can destabilise a once financially reliable customer. A health diagnosis can overwhelm someone who is already struggling. Life-changing events or the progression of a disability may make tasks that were once easy, difficult or impossible.

The FCA recognises four characteristics of vulnerability:

Health: Ongoing or temporary health conditions that affect a person’s ability to carry out daily activities and responsibilities. Illnesses, injuries, disabilities, and other medical circumstances that make everyday tasks more difficult.

Life events: Major life events such as the death of a loved one, job loss, divorce, or relationship breakdown, moving, or other emotional upheavals. These disruptive events can significantly impact financial and emotional well-being.

Resilience: Low ability to withstand, cope with, and recover from financial or emotional shocks and setbacks. They may lack the resilience or reserves needed to bounce back after crises, change, hardship, trauma, or other stresses.

Capability: Low knowledge of financial matters or low confidence in managing personal finances effectively (financial capability). Also, they may have reduced capability in other relevant areas like literacy, digital skills, health literacy, or other abilities that make navigating services challenging.

Identifying Vulnerable Customers

Businesses have essentially two tools at their disposal to identify vulnerable. The first is their frontline staff, who interact with customers on a daily basis. They need to use their intuition and empathy to pick on sometimes subtle verbal and non-verbal cues and understand what action needs to be taken.

The second tool is data, and fortunately, modern businesses have an overabundance of it. By analysing data from transaction histories and past interactions, it should be possible to spot patterns in customer behaviour that could indicate vulnerability.

Leadership must balance data-driven insights with human intuition to truly “see” their customers, which begins by viewing each person as an individual first rather than a series of transactions. While usage patterns and metrics provide part of the picture, identifying vulnerability relies on cultivating this more holistic picture, which blends data with emotional intelligence.

On the data front, shifts in purchase behaviour or service usage could indicate emerging hardship. Technologies such as speech analytics are also able to scan customer interaction recordings to unearth conversations which could suggest a customer is struggling. For example, certain key phrases might be more suggestive of a vulnerable customer than others.

When it comes to customer interactions, sentiment analysis tools can also listen to a customer’s tone of voice in real time and then flag any concerns to the agent that the agent might have missed. Teaching staff protocols like CARE can help them detect vulnerability cues by remaining mindful:

C: Comprehend – Can the customer follow the conversation flow and understand the key information being explained? Can they grasp what is being said, or does some communication need to be clarified or repeated? Assessing comprehension ensures the customer is not lost or confused.

A: Assess – Is the customer able to properly weigh options, assimilate details, and analyse information to make an informed decision? Can they consider multiple factors to determine the best course of action for their situation? Evaluating assessment capability avoids overwhelming the customer.

R: Retain – Can the customer retain essential details and remember the critical information provided? Or will key specifics need to be reinforced later or communicated through additional channels? Checking retention ensures crucial information is not forgotten.

E: Evaluate – Is the customer explaining their thought process and reasoning? Are they asking thoughtful questions? Or is the conversation very one-sided? Two-way dialogue demonstrates the customer’s ability to evaluate and engage with the information.

Repeated clarification requests, appointment no-shows, and expressions of anxiety - these and many other signs could signify that a customer is dealing with challenges. Training staff to slow down, engage their curiosity, and see the human behind each interaction will make you a more people-friendly organisation.

Techniques for Supporting Vulnerable Customers

Quite simply, the idea is to provide customer service that treats customers as individual human beings. Sure, your organisation will still want to process transactions quickly and efficiently but simultaneously build a human connection. Serving all customers, not just your vulnerable ones, with skill and compassion builds loyalty and trust.

The TEXAS framework, developed by The Royal College of Psychiatrists (UK) and the Money Advice Trust, provides guidelines for managing interactions with vulnerable customers.

T: Thank the customer for sharing relevant information. Express appreciation that it will help the company better understand and address their needs.

E: Explain how you will use the details they’ve provided to assist them more effectively. Outline what the next steps are for applying their insights.

X: Explicitly obtain the customer’s consent to record and use any sensitive information disclosed. Ensure they agree on how it will be used, with whom it will be shared, and what the next steps are.

A: Ask thoughtful follow-up questions to learn additional helpful information. This can include getting a clearer picture of the context that has led to their current vulnerability, such as lifestyle details.

S: Signpost or direct the customer to internal resources, external services, or support channels that may be helpful for their situation. For example, you could refer them to written materials in other languages or audio transcription services.

Fostering a Supportive Company Culture

An environment where staff feel empowered to devote time to vulnerable customers is critical. The culture should enable quality interactions instead of rushed, quota-driven ones. To achieve this, leadership must communicate that support quality outweighs quantity. Customer service metrics should reflect reasonable call times and targets.

Representatives need latitude to have more thorough conversations when required. This suggests, for example, that staff should be evaluated on overall customer satisfaction versus call volumes.

Asking customers for their communication preferences demonstrates respect for their abilities and needs. Tailoring your outreach style in this way builds rapport and enables customers to voice any concerns they may have accurately and comfortably. This is where omnichannel capability comes into its own, allowing customers to use the channel (or channels) they feel most comfortable with.

Establishing communication preferences

Many businesses have developed specific channels, or agent groups, to deal with different types of vulnerable customers. For example, the Priority Services Register enables utilities customers in the UK to register as having specific needs. These customers can then be flagged in the customer database and routed to particular teams or priority channels as required when they contact the business. These teams would have received additional training to deal with more vulnerable customers.

Empowering Agents to Support Vulnerable Customers

While advanced technologies like chatbots can efficiently handle transactions, they cannot replicate the power of human understanding. Vulnerable customers rely on compassionate care that only people can provide.

Agents first require genuine reserves of empathy to form meaningful connections with all customers, not just the vulnerable ones. Comprehensive training develops critical soft skills like mindful listening, communicating clearly and validating emotions.

When assisting distressed customers, rushing to solutions is tempting but counterproductive. Active listening techniques like summarising concerns, asking clarifying questions, and avoiding interruption better serve those navigating hardship. This attentive presence displays care beyond a quick fix.

Leading with engaged, patient listening gives advisers a comprehensive understanding of core issues. Solutions can then be efficiently tailored to address root causes. Though haste often hinders, mindful presence followed by swift support provides the best outcomes. With vulnerable consumers, a slower start enables a more effective resolution overall.

With proper skill building and organisational support, agents become powerful advocates, providing reassurance when it matters most. Though technology drives optimisation, heart-centred human connections sustain us. Investing in this irreplaceable asset will shape business success for years to come.

Modern contact centres and customer service teams extensively use technology to serve more efficiently and even automate some aspects of service. Retaining an element of personalisation when deploying technology at scale is challenging but crucial.

Technologies for Supporting Vulnerable Customers

AI-powered chatbots are now able to converse in an almost human-like manner using natural language processing. Their constant availability ensures a timely response and can be a boon to customers who prefer not to talk to a person – as long as there are pathways to quickly escalate these conversations to a human agent when necessary.

AI can also help non-native English speakers communicate by translating automatically from their native language or prompting them to provide information step-by-step with a series of simple questions.

Customer questionnaires or surveys, which can be sent out en masse via text or email, help your business to understand customers better and get a picture of their needs. This helps you to personalise products, services and customer journeys to customers’ preferences and abilities.

Finally, as we have already seen, analytics can help identify vulnerable customers, and routing technology can ensure that vulnerable customers are always connected to the appropriate channel or team that can best help them. Used strategically, technology becomes an extension of human insight, not a replacement for it.

Forward-thinking companies are realising that truly embracing their responsibility towards customers is not just ethically sound, it’s strategically smart. Weaving care for vulnerable customers into the cultural fabric of the company has many advantages – and it’s also the right thing to do.

The Right Thing To Do

Customers respond with improved loyalty and advocacy, creating a cycle of goodwill. The payoffs are immense for both your business and your customers.

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