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Vulnerable customers: from recognition to support

Vulnerable customers: from recognition to support
Melissa Cowdry
Melissa Cowdry Field Marketing Director – UKI

Stephen Yap Research Director at the Call Centre Management Association (CCMA) chats about their new research on supporting vulnerable customers from within the contact centre.

November 10, 2021 3 min of reading

Being vulnerable is quite simply being at greater risk of harm. Anyone can be vulnerable at one time or another. This can be for a myriad of reasons but has profound implications for vulnerable customers who might struggle with financial management or decision making. The CCMA has conducted new research, commissioned by Odigo, into the extent of vulnerability and its implications for customer services. Stephen Yap, the Research Director at the CCMA, joined Melissa Cowdry to discuss his perspective on the findings.

What led you to conduct this research into vulnerable customers and why is it so relevant today?

The recent world events and the release of Financial Conduct Authority guidelines early in 2021 on the fair treatment of vulnerable customers have created a stage where research can give weight to the momentum for change. The pandemic has created an environment in which many people are at an increased risk of vulnerability and not simply financially vulnerable customers. Furthermore, looking forward, these economic and social pressures could take years to return to a pre-COVID-19 level of stability, further perpetuating the issue. 

Wider social dialogues on tolerance and openness have also brought us to a position where people no longer feel stigmatised. Those who perhaps had previously not even recognised their own position have now been empowered to acknowledge their circumstances and potentially take steps to find help.

Were you surprised by what you found?

Yes, the extent of the issue was a surprise, two out of three adults self-identify as having at least one vulnerability. It is one thing to discuss topics on an anecdotal basis but quite another when faced with the reality of the numbers. More specifically the prevalence of mental health issues among the younger generation (18-34) was shocking. 40% experiencing mental health issues in the past 5 years. Even these stark figures do however provide a positive note in the sense that the recognition and commitment exist to acknowledge and provide assistance for vulnerable customers.

Is there a risk that by normalising vulnerability we become desensitised?

No. Throughout history, there have been many changes in social attitudes. In every case, these have been a hallmark of social development, diversity and a moral acknowledgement of fundamental human rights. Recognition brings with it open discussion. These findings do not simply present the numbers but also attitudes that can influence how contact centres can support health, life-event or financially vulnerable customers. As such, this is an opportunity to face the stark reality of the situation, but more crucially to make the necessary changes to customer care.

Is a tailored approach to vulnerable customers another form of personalisation of service?

Yes and no. Of course, providing for a customer’s individual needs is a form of personalisation but it is broader than this. Vulnerability can be due to many different factors (including health, life events and financially vulnerable customers), so in addition to inherent individuality, the roots of a customer’s vulnerability are also unique. To best cater to their needs, organisations need to look at what they can provide both generally for those at risk and also for more circumstance-specific needs.

For example, some vulnerable customers may require simple jargon-free bills, so they are easier to understand, or priority access, for those who are at increased risk due to delays in customer service. There will be times when this requires organisations to acknowledge that the most helpful thing, often for financially vulnerable customers, is to refuse services or products to someone for whom they may be unsuitable. Some sectors already do this, UK gambling businesses must participate in the GAMSTOP scheme which is an online multi-operator self-exclusion scheme for people concerned about their gambling habits. 

More generally, organisations should provide their advisors with training in empathy skills. One example of this is to conduct workplace Samaritan staff training, these courses can enhance conversational skills with vulnerable customers as well as resilience and wellbeing for the advisors serving them.

What are the implications for the contact centre agents in the customer service equation?

Having difficult, sometimes emotive, conversations can weigh heavy on advisors, especially when the work home separation is blurred by remote working conditions. Organisations need to recognise this and bolster the resilience of their advisors with training and support. It should also be understood how this can contribute to burnout and emotional fatigue, in turn creating circumstances of vulnerability in an advisor’s life.

Do more open conversations about client circumstances, like financially vulnerable customers, bring up privacy issues?

Privacy and data protection are very well managed by most companies. What may be more relevant to these circumstances is whether policies are so tight they actually limit a company’s ability to share data, identify and approach vulnerable customers. This is another area where open dialogue can help. We need to consider the concerns financially vulnerable customers have about their privacy. What would customers be comfortable with permitting, with respect to their data, then how do organisations incorporate that into privacy policies?

Final thoughts and a philosophical question

Are people suffering more today or is there simply more public recognition? The traditional British attitude of a stiff upper lip, also known as the “keep calm and carry on” approach, may be admirable in respect to fortitude and endurance in the short term but does not lend itself well to empathy and mutual support. How can you support someone without knowing they need it? It puts a massive burden on vulnerable customers to identify themselves, potentially contributing to a feeling of shame or inadequacy.

Fundamentally the question of whether people are suffering more is a moot point. Every generation has its own unique challenges and the spectrum of vulnerability is extremely wide. As such, a comparison is neither accurate, helpful or kind. What is of import now, is that in light of these findings organisations can not and should not turn a blind eye to the vulnerable within our society. A moral obligation then follows, to re-think how vulnerable customers are perceived and supported from within the contact centre. 

Many thanks to Stephen for taking the time out of his schedule to talk with Melissa and sharing his knowledge of the subject.

Are you interested in the full research including insights for applying this knowledge to your contact centre?

Melissa Cowdry
Field Marketing Director – UKI

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