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How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted on customer vulnerability within the UK?

As we are edging back towards normality it is important to take time to reflect on how the COVID-19 affected vulnerable customers. We caught up with Elaine, from Reynolds Busby Lee, to look back at the past year and how vulnerable customers have been impacted and how businesses can go about implementing and finding solutions.

A Bit About Elaine

I started my career working client side working for organisations in roles that focussed on improving the customer experience to drive real relationships and build revenue. I've worked in energy (Manweb), before moving to the world's largest home delivery wine company (Direct Wines which is behind the Laithwaites Wine and The Sunday Times Wine Club plus other), then I moved into mail order hosiery at HCI and then Time-Life where I was responsible for our European customer experience across inbound and outbound sales as well as customer service. My final stint client side was at IMP where I was responsible for customer experience globally.

In 2005 I co-founded the Reynolds Busby Lee consultancy with two partners who eventually returned to client side roles and for the last 5 years I have been Managing Director running the consultancy. Our specialism is in Customer Experience and the inclusion of customers who for one reason or another find themselves in vulnerable circumstances. We work with clients across a wide range of sectors from Direct to Consumer to charities and public
sector, enabling them to hear the voices of their customers and prioritise their focus to improve the customer experience and bottom line.

Life Before Lockdown

The significance of customers living in vulnerable circumstances has been a considerable concern for well over a decade and something I began working on in 2010. Back in the early days it was a difficult subject and not many of us wanted to stick our head above the parapet for fear of getting things wrong and being ‘shot down’. However, since we opened the discussions, it’s become clear that this is a subject that affects many of us and is one that those of us working in this arena are hugely passionate about. I was, therefore, delighted to be asked to write this piece for Recite Me.

Much of the focus over the last 10 years or so had been around financial vulnerability with the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) leading the way for the regulators. However, the spectrum of vulnerability within the UK is wider and further reaching than just the risk of harm or detriment coming from organisations regulated by the FCA. In more recent years we have seen different sectors, from fundraising to energy and communications, getting to grips with this issue and releasing their own position papers, launching charters and guidance.

Vulnerability has never been a small-scale issue, affecting only small proportions of our customer bases or employees. It is widespread but for many years has been ignored or gone undetected. How we recognise vulnerability and adapt our products and services to better suit our customer / employee needs are a core challenge that we must now rise to.

Before the pandemic, our mental health charities advised us that 1 in 4 of the UK population was living with a mental health concern at any one time, Cancer charities confirmed that 1 in 2 of us would experience a cancer diagnosis during our lifetime and over 800,000 UK adults were living with dementia. When coupled with other stressful life events such as moving to a new house, getting married or divorced or being made redundant, you can quickly see that the figures can mount, and we are not talking about small numbers.

In 2019 The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) estimated that 50% of the UK adult population could be demonstrating characteristics of vulnerability at any one time, that may be caused by one of the FCA’s four recognised drivers of vulnerability

  • Health: health conditions or illnesses that affect the ability to carry out day-to-day tasks
  • Life events: life events such as bereavement, job loss or relationship breakdown
  • Resilience: low ability to withstand financial or emotional shocks
  • Capability: low knowledge of financial matters or low confidence in managing money, and low capability in other relevant areas such as literacy or digital skills

Earlier this year, The FCA published an update to their Financial Lives survey. The survey data was collected in October 2020, just before the nation entered Lockdowns 2 and 3 and then released in February 2021 and there was a substantial increase in the estimated numbers of UK consumers showing one or more characteristic of financial vulnerability. This report estimated 27.7m UK adults could be considered to be living in vulnerable circumstances, an increase of 15% in just a few months, with 2021 expected to show a further increase. This equates to 53% the UK adult population – that’s more than half.

(The energy regulator) OFGEM’s definition of vulnerability also links customers’ personal circumstances with aspects of the market which can create situations that lead to a customer being “significantly less able than a typical customer to protect or represent his or her own interests in the energy market and / or are significantly more likely than typical customers to suffer detriment, or detriment that is likely to be more substantial”. For example, low-income families, often placed on pay as you go energy tariffs requiring them to pay with coins in meters, found accessing coins almost impossible during the lockdowns and, therefore, energy companies had to make adjustments by changing customers’ access to enable them to remain connected to the energy network. Without making these reasonable adjustments, many of their customers could have been left without power.

In its definition, OFCOM (the regulator for communications services) references that other circumstances such as “low income or a sudden reduction in regular income, job loss or living in an isolated or rural area” can create vulnerabilities. With millions of workers placed on furlough, others made redundant and others living in remote areas unable to access super-fast broadband speed or relying on Pay As you Go Mobile data to stay connected, you can quickly see how the pandemic will have created vulnerable circumstances for the UK’s Communications companies customers.

Vulnerable circumstances are something that I believe can affect us all at any stage of our lives. We may not recognise ourselves as being in a vulnerable circumstance at the time or even for many years afterwards, if at all. Whilst others feel acutely vulnerable to exposure to harm and detriment most of the time.

Therefore, we cannot rely on our customers and employees self-identifying and asking for additional support, as organisations serving the public. I believe that we must take responsibility and recognise the impact that vulnerable circumstances can have, inducing shock and impairing our usual ways of processing information or assessing risk and harm.

The Impact of COVID-19

Firstly, Covid-19 has only added to the numbers affected. We have a new segment of the population who now identify themselves as ‘clinically vulnerable’. They shielded through Lockdowns and have had their ‘normal’ lives significantly affected with their usual habits and behaviours changed substantially. But we mustn’t be fooled into thinking that this is the only group affected.

In the latest Financial Lives report, The FCA noted that “Covid-19 has had a profound impact on adults’ financial situations but has not affected the finances of all groups in society equally.” “Covid-19 has had a disproportionate impact on those of working age. The largest proportional increases in vulnerability since February 2020 – by more than 40% –have been among younger adults aged 18-34 and the self-employed. In contrast, retirees have seen a small proportionate decrease in the numbers who have characteristics of vulnerability”.

Covid-19 has also had a significant effect on the nation’s mental health. Mind’s ‘The Mental Health Emergency’ Report (June 2020) identifying that more than half of adults (50%) and two thirds of young people (68%) have said their mental health has got worse during lockdown. A report from the WHO (World Health Organisation) in Oct 2020 recognised that “Bereavement, isolation, loss of income and fear are triggering mental health conditions or exacerbating existing ones. Many people may be facing increased levels of alcohol and drug use, insomnia, and anxiety”. This will create more anxiety. The same report also informed us that “meanwhile, COVID-19 itself can lead to neurological and mental complications, such as delirium, agitation, and stroke. People with pre-existing mental, neurological or substance use disorders are also more vulnerable to SARS-CoV-2 infection ΜΆ they may stand a higher risk of severe outcomes and even death”. I think we can all identify people within our family units, friends or colleagues that have experienced a loss, isolation, have been furloughed or made redundant or have had a planned health treatment delayed.

There is huge concern that our physical health has also been negatively affected with patients not reporting changes in their health to GPs in their usual numbers leaving an expectation that we will see a surge in physical health diagnoses coming this year, with many coming too late to be treatable.

I’m in agreement with Mind’s view that “the effects of this pandemic will continue to have lasting effects long after lockdown is over” as the nation comes to terms with the widespread impact this pandemic has had. Having experienced PTSD myself, aged just 18 (when many teenagers think that they are invincible and immortal), it took many years to come to terms with the reality of my situation and learn how I could function and move forward. There will be hundreds of thousands of lives affected by a late diagnosis of ill health, some will be treatable, others unfortunately, will have already become terminal. Therefore, I propose that the solutions we implement now and the Reasonable Adjustments we offer must not be considered as a short-term fix, instead they are here for the long- term and should be incorporated into our BAU (business as usual) ways of working.

Implementing Solutions

So, how do businesses go about finding and implementing solutions? I recommend starting by getting a foundation level of understanding of what vulnerable circumstances are and how they can impact your customers and they interactions that they have with you. Once you have grasped the scale and scope for your organisation, the next step is to develop your organisation’s position and strategy on how you will support your customers through Reasonable Adjustments, then assuring that your business processes and practices can and do support your aims – usually this is formalised in a Vulnerable Peoples Policy.

Your staff will need to be trained initially and then supported on an ongoing basis through your learning and development programme, regular coaching sessions and gathering customer feedback to ensure you are following the plan, and that it is having the desired impact. At Reynolds Busby Lee we design and run training programmes bespoke to our individual clients’, so please get in touch if this could be useful to your organisation. In addition, you will need to understand how the new ways of working are affecting your workforce and whether they are inadvertently or otherwise creating vulnerable circumstances for your teams.

During the pandemic, we’ve seen thousands of organisations accelerating their plans for digital solutions to enable customers to self-serve and lighten the load on the customer service and support teams. Offering self-service via a fully accessible website can be very useful for customers. Where websites are not accessible, driving customers to a site they can’t use, only serves to increase frustration, disempower your customers and create vulnerable circumstances. Remember that this is not a small-scale issue that only impacts a few customers, as discussed earlier, this is an issue affecting the many not the few.

The good news is that accessible technology does exist and can be rapidly deployed. Here at RBL we have been working with ReciteMe for almost 4 years and have their tool built into our website. With very few lines of code (less than 10!), we’ve integrated a new tool bar into the website that will allow our readers and users to personalise the site to their own specific needs from increasing font size and colour, removing images, adding reading rulers, changing the language from our default English to one of over 100 languages should English not be your first language. In addition, the language tool will read the text aloud for you in English or one of the supported alternative languages. As a website user you set your preferences and they are retained for each subsequent website visit until you decide to change them.

I’ve also been introduced to the ‘Interpreter Now’ service where a person with a hearing impairment can book BSL sign language support to help them during live face-to-face meetings online via MS Teams, Google Meet or Zoom.

Live Transcribe is another useful tool. I was alerted to this by paramedics who use the tool to provide real-time subtitles to their face-to-face conversations when wearing face coverings which can negatively impact lip readers and those with hearing loss. You don’t have to think too carefully to see how this could be deployed at retail checkouts, bank counters or in job centres where staff are now sitting behind Perspex screens which can reduce the transmission of their voices.

In the more mainstream solutions, Microsoft now has accessibility check tools in built to their core programmes, Outlook, Word, Excel and PowerPoint and speech analytics tools are becoming faster and more accurate in their work of sentiment analysis which can support staff who are handling contacts with customers remotely. I was delighted to see one tool working in real-time and providing coaching tips and loading guidance to a contact centre agent during, rather than after, a call with a customer. The service delivered was significantly improved with the customer getting the support they needed from the outset, rather in response to a complaint.

So, whilst the issue of vulnerability is a big challenge, I am more optimistic than ever that the UK’s businesses and organisations now have solutions available and at hand that will help them to recognise and address customer needs quickly and effectively. To find out more about how ReynoldsBusbyLee can help you in your journey please visit our website www.reynoldsbusbylee.com where you can trial the Recite Me solution for yourselves. Alternatively give us a call on 020 3637 0966 and we would love to help you to support your customers.