The customer is always right.

This clichéd phrase serves to remind us time and time again of the integral importance of customer service across all industries. While product and price are vital components of the service triangle, in some industries customer service is actually the biggest driver of loyalty.

Providing good customer service can be a challenge, especially when dealing with vulnerable customers who may need additional support and sensitivity. The potential to offend or provide poor service is heightened among vulnerable audiences. Failing to deal with these customers appropriately can not only destroy personal relationships with the company, but it can also have disastrous PR consequences. This summer Emirates airlines went viral after refusing to allow an epileptic and autistic teenager and his family on their flight despite medical clearance to fly. The cost of dealing with vulnerable customer in the wrong way cannot be underestimated.

As such, it is vital that companies can adequately provide for vulnerable customers. However, there are three core challenges to consider when developing a programme of assistance for vulnerable customers.

The majority of vulnerabilities are invisible

Most causes of vulnerability lie beneath the surface and can be invisible to companies. Many vulnerabilities cannot be physically or administratively identified meaning that it can be challenging to cater for such customers.

Figure 1: Intersection of vulnerabilities amongst GB population

It is important for companies to develop a sensitive and inclusive method of identifying potentially vulnerable customers which does not over-rely on demographics and disabilities. This is to ensure that invisible vulnerabilities are not overlooked, and also that individuals are not offended by presumed needs – not every old or disabled individual would consider themselves vulnerable and in need of support.

Vulnerability can be permanent, or transitory

Everyone is likely to be a vulnerable customer at some point in their life. Life events, both joyous and mournful can have a powerful effect on how we process commercial interactions. Imagine an expectant bride dealing with a late floral delivery, a recently redundant employee receiving an urgent bill notice, or a divorcee’s experience buying new furniture.

While these events may be transitory, the memory of these interactions can be permanent. How companies deal with customers at such times can make or break the relationship. The volume of transitory vulnerabilities should not be underestimated – a third of the country have experienced at least one within the past year.

Figure 2. Life events experienced by you, or someone you live with in the past year. Amongst GB population.

Vulnerabilities can snowball

Multiple vulnerabilities often coincide and combine to create significant challenges for people and tend to exacerbate one another. For example, someone with a mental illness can get into a vicious cycle of debt and financial vulnerabilities. Life events can similarly impact someone’s financial stability and their wellbeing.

Figure 3. Intersection of vulnerabilities amongst GB population. Size of circles is approximate. 

Identifying vulnerable customers is a potential mine field.

Firstly, their vulnerability may be invisible, secondly their vulnerability may no longer be relevant given its potentially transitory nature, and thirdly they may be experiencing multiple vulnerabilities where the least visible may need the most attention. Great care and sensitivity should therefore be taken when developing tools and training to identify vulnerable customers.

In responding to this important issue, companies should develop their own industry and business   specific best practice models. However, some components of best practice, such as those developed by the Chartered Insurance Institute, can and should be observed by all industries. Customers should be treated as individuals as everyone’s experience of their vulnerability is unique. Customers should be given their choice of communication method, and front line staff should have appropriate training to recognise and deal with vulnerable audiences.

Populus survey. 14th – 16th September 2018. UK Nationally Representative Survey of 2,089 respondents

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Florence Douglas

Florence is Research Manager at Populus, having joined in 2016. She has worked on a range of projects involving ad and brand trackers, event testing, new product development, product trials and usage and attitude testing. She particularly enjoys delivering projects that help clients overcome the challenges presented by changes in the law and new regulations. She holds a degree from the University of Sheffield and an MSt from the University of Oxford, both in Classical Archaeology.