6 Tips for Supporting Vulnerable Customers Online

Our intern, Mirjam Perkmann, has been sharing her fantastic thoughts with us during her Realise placement. In her own words, she describes what financial brands can do to support vulnerable customers. 

Customers are at the heart of everything you do as a business. The customer is king and needs to be treated fairly. But especially one type of customer may need more consideration – vulnerable customers. 

A vulnerable customer is defined as a person who, due to his or her personal situation, is especially prone to detriment. This means that these people have to be treated with special care – otherwise their vulnerability can be made worse.

Everyone can become vulnerable, even you and me. Well-known reasons for vulnerability are: illness, disability, language barriers, caring responsibilities, age and low income. 
You can categorise them as personal characteristics and personal circumstances. In more detail, it can lie in financial and psychological issues. For example you are financially vulnerable if you lose your job, but you are psychologically vulnerable if you are struggling with mental health problems. 

This categorisation shows that especially in the financial sector the duty of care is high. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies adults with a household income of less than £20,000 have a significantly higher rate of financial vulnerability. This number is a red flag, especially if you take into consideration that the median household income is estimated as £23.972.

And what’s more 20% of the UK population would struggle to pay an unexpected bill of £300. 
These figures confirm the importance of providing a high level of care for financially vulnerable customers, especially for legal, moral and commercial reasons.
What does a vulnerable customer really need?

Tips on how to support vulnerable customers online
These days support for vulnerable customers can be barely found online. Most of the support is based on offline activities, like phone calls or special events. 
Online content on the other hand seems to just be there to tick the compliance box, not easy to find or genuinely useful. So if you are wondering how to support vulnerable customers online start with these tips:

1.    Online presence
Make sure that support material is available online on the main business website and the most important information, e.g. debt and bereavement, is available. The customer should be able to self serve information that meets their circumstances – because one size does not fit all. 

2.    Usability and accessibility
Usability and accessibility play an important part in responding to vulnerable customer needs. Any supporting information online is great, but what if nobody is able to find it? The best information is worth nothing if it is not presented in an easily accessible and user-friendly way. Never hide information like this in the footer or neglect it by listing it at the very end of a long webpage. Also take into consideration that English might not be the customer’s first language or they might not be familiar with the web. 

3.    Meet the customers on their level
Especially for vulnerable customers it is important to speak to them on their level. For example the language should be as simple as possible, so that even non-native speakers can understand everything. And the tone of voice should make them feel safe and not special in a negative way. 

4.    Interaction
Automated systems can be a barrier – personal interaction is key. Vulnerable customers need attention and every single one of them is in a slightly different situation. What better way would there be than just talking or chatting with them e.g. via a live chat. Customers can be flagged as ‘vulnerable’ to support them better in future conversations. So if a customer calls the service centre, the associate will recognise the flag and forward them to a specialist straight away. 

5.    Flexibility
The FCA is looking for one thing in particular: flexible systems and processes. For example it is very important that if your customers are seeking help they really get it. Many customers are in many different situations, which need many different pieces of advice and support. There is no single recipe for advice; it all depends on the circumstances. Especially online it is impossible to address every single vulnerable customer and their unique case. But what can be done is offering flexibility, different ways to interact and help.  

6.    Review policies
Reviewing policies has nothing to do with online support, but is still very important to ensure that vulnerable customers are not neglected in the company’s strategy. The FCA provides guidelines for reviewing company policies and offers support to rewrite them.