Companies today are dealing with a range of vulnerable customers that is increasingly broad and complex. To deal with these challenges, they should remember that seemingly small changes can prove significant – such as refocussing their strategy around the word ‘how’. 

The fact that we’re going through both an energy crisis and a cost-of-living crisis is, by now, well known. Capita’s own research has revealed that 6.5million people are struggling with debt and 15 million are concerned about the rising energy prices, meaning many more customers are likely to get into financial difficulty.

This has increased vulnerability as previously unaffected consumers are now being pushed into ‘fuel poverty’ – where after housing costs have been deducted, more than 10% of a household’s net income is required to pay for their reasonable fuel needs. 

This so-called ‘income shock’ is an example of a transient vulnerability, where a consumer’s circumstances are changing in a way that’s now making them struggle where they previously were not. Other examples include affluent pensioners, who have a set income and no ability to earn more and so cannot adjust to their bills going up.

Providers want to help, of course, but the situation is complex, needing the joint efforts of government, regulators, companies and individuals. But even a slight change in mindset can lead to big impacts. Here, I’m going to argue that companies can make a difference by simply reframing their strategies with one word: ‘how’.

Focus on how to use data better

Companies already have a huge amount of data – getting more is certainly not the solution. Instead, more effort must be put into using data in ways that are going to help their teams and customers. 

In the energy sector, for instance, companies now have huge amounts of data on consumption patterns, customer behaviour and requirements. Proper utilisation of this data has tremendous potential to give better outcomes for customers at this unprecedent time. Now is the right moment to use this data intelligently: firms must be more proactive and start taking the onus off customers to contact them, instead bringing payment solutions to the customer, using data to develop a more proactive service. Used properly, data can help organisations identify people’s needs, and earlier – which can help create personalised payment plans. 

We can also open up ways for people to agree to share more data so we can help them further. Many are becoming a lot more open to this, providing, of course, that GDPR regulations are met. For instance, United Utilities has seen 50% of its customers sign up to an open banking scheme it launched last year, as its chief executive recently told Utility Week.

Focus on how customers are feeling

This is especially true when it comes to those who are ‘transiently vulnerable’, people who have never struggled before – we can’t be so broad about how we are categorising everyone. It's not about creating ‘personas’ forcing customers into broad, rigid categories; it's about identifying people’s characteristics, noticing how our vulnerable customers vary. 

We need to listen with empathy, focus on emotions, and treat people as individuals. Be led by their feelings, not by the ways we may have already pigeon-holed them. Understand their individual circumstances, their challenges, life moments. And perhaps we need to stop talking about vulnerability altogether and instead talk about inclusion – particularly as most of us, ourselves, may not consider that we’re vulnerable or like to be described in that way.

And it’s a great idea to make use of partnerships, such as with charities like StepChange, to better aid our understanding. 

Focus on how to use tech to support people

It is of course essential to give people options of contact - an omni-channel experience. But sometimes we need to take a step back and actually consider how people feel, which could mean challenging some of our preconceived notions. 

It’s often assumed that people always want to speak to another human being when they have a difficult and complex problem. But actually, speaking to someone about sensitive matters can be embarrassing and make people feel exposed. They won’t have necessarily spoken to their loved ones about their issues – why would they speak to a company?

So the distancing that a person can get from tech, like just typing to a bot and being guided through questions, perhaps anonymously, can be helpful to avoid stimulating any negative emotions, such as shame.

Remembering everyone and changing the conversation

We mustn’t forget that just because there are many new people who are vulnerable, there are still millions who have been suffering in the long term and will continue to do so. Similarly, we must start with equipping our front-line staff: helping them lead with empathy and giving them more training on handling distressing calls. 

Finally, if providers can use data to be more proactive and help match customers to payment solutions, the conversation changes when customers do get in contact. The focus can be less about using data to identify ‘who’ the customer is and ‘what’ they want, and more about ‘how’ they can receive a better service and support – and so reduce credit risk, debt, complaints and instances of frustrating contact all at the same time. 

Reframing thinking with ‘how’ in these ways could make all the difference in someone’s life – at a time when more and more of us are needing help.

Read our article on listening to customers

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Written by

Fran Fish

Fran Fish

Partner and Industry Strategy Lead at Capita

As a leader in our Consult & Transform team, Fran is responsible for helping our Energy & Utility clients grow, and help them achieve their digital transformation, CX, Sustainability and Net Zero goals.

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