Inclusion: Supporting your vulnerable customers in a digital age

‘Vulnerable customer’ is now a commonly used phrase and many organisations are working hard to develop policies to support their customers and service-users. But, do we really understand what this term actually means and how we can provide the best customer support online?

It’s quite hard to pin down an actual definition of a vulnerable customer, but the Financial Conduct Authority vulnerable customers consumer duty uses this one: “a vulnerable consumer is someone who, due to their personal circumstances, is especially susceptible to detriment, particularly when a firm is not acting with appropriate levels of care.”

And, according to the Essential Services Access Network (ESAN), which looks after the interests of vulnerable consumers across the UK’s 4 main industry sectors (energy, water, financial services and communications), a person’s vulnerability can be caused by a wide range of life events such as becoming unemployed, getting divorced or losing a loved-one. Also, there are a number of other risk factors that can play a role:

· Poor literacy, numeracy and financial capability

· Low or insecure income, zero-hours contracts

· Caring responsibilities for another person

· Disability, mental health condition, or long-term illness

· Living in social rented housing or in a lone-parent household

A quick review of some of the key diversity statistics we have published previously shows that the numbers of people who are potentially at greater risk of vulnerability are significant and in many cases on the increase. Businesses and public services are realising that we need to develop a better understanding of the diverse needs of more vulnerable consumers and how to support them.

The trade association for the energy industry, Energy UK, which represents over 90% of both UK power generation and the energy supply market for UK homes, has set up a Commission for Customers in Vulnerable Circumstances, which is exploring how standards of care and support for vulnerable customers can be improved.

We were keen to share our insights on supporting vulnerable consumers online with the Commission as we are proud to be working with a number of utility businesses, including Western Power, South East Water and United Utilities, and we submitted our evidence to the Commission.

The number one challenge our clients report to us in relation to providing online assistance to vulnerable customers is that of identification – people don’t like to think of themselves as being ‘vulnerable’.

There is a conundrum there that many organisations struggle with. How can we provide additional or specialist support for our digital customers if they don’t (want to) tell us they need our help? How do we know if we’re getting it right for them?

In our opinion, great online customer service is all about being flexible and understanding; by treating each of your web visitors as an individual you make sure their needs are catered for.

Our software enables website visitors to customise content so that it can be accessed and consumed more easily by people with many different communication needs, including people who are partially sighted, have dementia, dyslexia or autism and those with English as a second-language.

Importantly, when it comes to disclosure, these adjustments can be made within the individual’s web browser without them having to tell you anything about themselves that they don’t want to. By enabling your customers to customise your website the way they need it to work for them, you are solving the conundrum.

The Commission for Customers in Vulnerable Circumstances will report by the end of 2018 and make recommendations for industry, Government and other stakeholders. We look forward reading the report and continuing to work together with our clients to make the digital world more inclusive for vulnerable customers.

100’s of organisations already use Recite Me to make their websites more accessible and inclusive – call 0191 4328092 to find out more or book your free demo now.

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