Reflections on the need to support vulnerable customers - and how organisations, customer service agents and Capita can all make a difference.

Over the past few years, the understanding of vulnerability has evolved. Vulnerability can come in a range of guises and can be permanent, sporadic or temporary in nature. It’s no longer just about people with disabilities; customers are now also recognised as being vulnerable for example, if they have mental health issues, can’t access or use the internet (which can put them at a disadvantage when they can’t check terms and conditions or get the best deal),  are in debt or have suffered a change in circumstances such as bereavement or job loss.

Over the past few months, the COVID-19 pandemic has created a new kind of vulnerable customer – the ‘newly vulnerable’. These are people whose livelihoods are threatened by the lockdown and, unexpectedly reliant on state support, they face unforeseen financial challenges.

The pandemic is an opportunity for organisations to step up support for all their vulnerable customers.

Being too inflexible to help people when they need it

It was just after the 2008 credit crunch that the spotlight began to shine on how banks and other financial service providers failed to support customers who were facing hardship. People were losing their homes, perhaps unnecessarily, because of the inflexibility of policies and processes that didn’t let them recover from a short-term difficulty.

This inflexibility meant that organisations couldn’t tailor their responses to individual customers and their circumstances. Regulators, the Government and the media all felt it was wrong – people who were in vulnerable situations, and who could be helped, weren’t getting the support they desperately needed. What could be done to help them?

Helping them was worth doing a decade ago, and it’s worth doing today as the UK faces warnings of the sharpest recession on record. Our experience shows that if you can get a customer to keep making payments, even if they’re smaller than you would like, they’re more likely to right themselves and continue paying.

Doing the right thing for vulnerable customers

Companies are more aware of vulnerabilities and the need to make their processes and policies more flexible. New developments such as retailers selling financial products have blurred the lines of competition within industries, and that’s also helped the approach to vulnerable customers evolve more quickly.

Most companies know the right thing to do. If you ask them whether it’s right that their policies unintentionally make life even harder for customers, they would naturally say that it’s not. The challenge is to treat customers fairly while still maintaining business models and delivering for stakeholders – and I do think Capita can help there.

We’re very fortunate in having clients from multiple industries that have worked very hard to develop ways to support vulnerable customers. We’ve helped them to create these approaches, and we can contribute a lot of knowledge to the training, systems and everything else that needs to be in place for other organisations to offer the same kind of support to their own vulnerable customers.

Do companies want to do it? Yes, they do because, ultimately, treating people unfairly becomes a wider reputational issue especially with the power of social media  – and that’s when they lose customers. People want to buy products and services from responsible organisations. They want to know that, if something happens in their personal life that affects their ability to pay their mortgage, their bills or repay a loan, they are going to get some level of support and understanding from the organisations they’re spending their money with.

The current lockdown situation has further brought the way organisations manage their vulnerable customers to the fore, as the future for us all becomes more uncertain.

Training employees to recognise vulnerability

Where companies are finding it difficult is providing their frontline teams with the training they need – and they absolutely do need it. They have to be able to recognise a scenario in which someone is vulnerable or newly vulnerable and deal with it appropriately the first time, because that first interaction is crucial to the experience of and outcome for a vulnerable customer.

We can help them to do that by providing in-depth training for customer service teams, from the advisors through to the senior leadership. The programme is developed in collaboration with the mental health charity MIND. It covers how to have vulnerable customer conversations, including mindset and conversation approaches with team leaders also completing Mental First Aid training.

Beyond that, companies are setting up stand-alone teams with more in-depth training that can cover a broader spectrum of interactions, who have the flexibility to tailor their response to individual circumstances. These teams are given the time to fully investigate the situation, and come up with solutions that make it easier to deliver a mutually-beneficial outcome.

To make this work, you almost need to have a pause button on some of the KPIs around call handling time and so on. We need to trust our people to recognise that a customer is calling because they’re vulnerable and spend the time needed to work out the best solution for them. But that’s a commercial conversation that requires both parties to be seeking the same outcome and the best solution for customers.

We support these conversations by investing heavily in driving the right culture and people-focused leadership at Capita, supporting them with systems, processes and training. This allows us to deliver excellent customer service to all, with our people particularly well equipped to deal sensitively with customers whose emotions may be running high.

Helping employees to be resilient in difficult situations

But as good as our people are, it’s difficult for them to speak to someone who’s describing a scenario that’s uncomfortable to hear. It’s hard for them to maintain their professionalism when they’re hearing about a situation that may have a deep and affecting personal resonance in their own lives.

They could be dealing with people who don’t want to talk about their circumstances, or don’t even recognise themselves as vulnerable. They need an enormous amount of empathy and care to respond to them in a way that doesn’t make them feel bad for being in that situation.

I have to give huge credit to our people that they manage to do that. I think that part of the reason why they’re so successful at it is because our training isn’t just about helping customers with vulnerabilities – it’s also about helping colleagues to be resilient and have the emotional capacity to deal with what can, at times, be distressing calls. Team leaders and managers receive dedicated Resilience Training to help them to monitor and look after their teams’ wellbeing. This is even more vital at the moment as customer service agents may be working from home for the first time.

Creating better outcomes for those who need it most

There is clearly an opportunity for those organisations who can be seen to treat vulnerable customers with greater care, empathy and expertise – serving them better as a result.

In a world where the concept of equal opportunities is widely accepted to mean that we all have a duty to adapt our customer communication and offerings, any companies that fail to rise to this challenge will be left behind. We need to collectively ensure that those suffering with vulnerabilities, however temporary, can still be fully included in society.

Thinking about your organisation?