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Why you should make vulnerable customers your priority

Explore the importance of treating vulnerable consumers well and uncover practical steps to ensure the right processes are in place to do so.

Organizations often apply non-discrimination and equality initiatives internally in the workplace but in this interview, Matthew Scott, a Client Manager at BSI, explains the benefits of offering inclusive services for vulnerable customers too.

Read on to understand:

• How understanding customer vulnerability can benefit your organization.

• The role senior leaders can play in creating a culture of trust.

• Practical steps you can take to create inclusive services.

• How the international standard on Consumer Vulnerability can help.

What does it really mean to be ‘vulnerable’ as a customer?

Matthew Scott: “Vulnerability can affect anyone, at any time, and all customers are different. There are so many factors that affect people’s circumstances, from their health, wealth, or abilities to one-off events that happen in their lives.

“A customer’s vulnerable state might be permanent, temporary, sporadic, long- or short-term. It might also change rapidly in an extreme or complicated situation.

“During COVID-19, people who would not previously have considered themselves vulnerable found themselves suddenly ill, unemployed or isolated.

“No matter what the reason is, when people are vulnerable, they are potentially at greater risk of experiencing harm when they are dealing with organizations. Humane treatment is the common goal.”

Why is it important to provide inclusive services?

Matthew Scott: “When an organization understands customer vulnerability, it is much better placed to meet a diverse range of needs.

“There are organizational benefits too, including the potential for:

• A larger customer base because services are accessible to more people.

• Improved customer interactions, satisfaction, and trust.

• Staff feeling valued, supported, and confident handling difficult situations, with their loyalty growing in return.

• Compliance with legal obligations related to non-discrimination and equality.”

How can organizations create fair, respectful, and inclusive services?

Matthew Scott: “To turn ambition into action and offer fair, respectful, and inclusive services, organizations can benefit from international best practice guidance on doing so.

“BSI has helped to develop an international standard in this area called ‘Consumer Vulnerability’. This British Standard (previously known as BS 18477) was adopted internationally in 2022 to be known as BS ISO 22458.

“The standard sets out requirements and guidelines for the design and delivery of inclusive service, a little like a ‘how to’ guide.

“It covers the underlying factors behind customer vulnerability and shows how organizations can overcome barriers to greater inclusion.”

Which sectors or organizations currently use this standard?

Matthew Scott: “UK utility providers and their regulatory bodies are currently leading the way, having already adopted the standard. They recognized the importance of vulnerable customers in their sector and have compliance targets set by regulators like the energy regulator OFGEM.

“Since the standard became international in 2022, other industries are also starting to see its value. These include debt collection, enforcement, mobility and transport, retail, and financial services such as banking and insurance.”

How can senior managers create the culture needed to offer inclusive service?

Matthew Scott: “One of the most important things senior leaders can do is show their clear commitment to improving the outcomes for vulnerable customers. This begins to influence the culture needed to provide inclusive services.

“Following the principles laid out in our Customer Vulnerability standard is a strong foundation. Through ongoing engagement, staff training and communication, managers can then embed their approach across the organization.”

What are your top tips for prioritizing vulnerable consumers?

Matthew Scott: “There are six steps that have the potential to bring significant benefit to individuals, organizations, and society:

1. Assess your products and services. Where could potential harm arise for a vulnerable customer?

2. Consider your employees. Have they had the right training in this area, and do they have the tools they need?

3. Work in partnership. Charities and local groups often have plenty of great advice and first-hand knowledge of vulnerabilities in the local community. They may be able to offer awareness training at your organization.

4. Get the basics right. Make sure that your product offer is strong and comes with excellent customer service.

5. Make it simple. Unnecessary complications in products, services and tariffs can make navigation difficult, especially for someone in a vulnerable situation.

6. Understand customers. This is the key to offering the right products and services, satisfying customer needs, and addressing vulnerabilities.”

Applying for accreditation against BSI’s vulnerability standard was one of the best things we have done at British Gas. It is a really tough assessment process and focuses on the things that really make a difference. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
— Steve Crabb, Consumer Vulnerability, Centrica