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Is Collaboration the Way Forward to Support Vulnerable Customers?

Author: Helen Pettifer

Lockdown is being lifted and for many, there is a sense that things are beginning to get back to normal. It may feel as though the worse is over, yet this is still an incredibly difficult time for many.

 How organisations treat their employees and customers has never been more critical. Genuine empathy and a solutions-focused approach are needed to help build trust and resilience. A collaborative approach can provide organisations with more resources to help those in greatest need of support.

Supporting a Growing Number of Vulnerable Customers

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, most organisations would have had vulnerable customers. Many had been taking steps to better identify and support these individuals. We were beginning to see some strong collaborations across industries and with third party organisations.

Since March, there has been a significant increase in those who are experiencing financial hardship, emotional distress, isolation, and serious health concerns. With limited access to the usual support networks, pressures can quickly mount and those who would never have considered themselves as vulnerable are now facing a new reality.

 The nature of interactions with customers will either help them to find their way through the challenges or add to their problems. As a lady in one of my facilitated discussions described, the attitude and approach of companies will deem them as either ‘unforgivable or unforgettable’.

Payment Holidays and Outstanding Bills

As lockdown came into force, many companies offered customers a payment holiday. At a time of uncertainty, many snapped up the chance to stop paying their mortgage, credit card and utility bills for 3-months. That respite period is either over or soon coming to an end, but the uncertainty isn’t. Customers who have cut payments now face a barrage of bills.

 None of us have been in a situation quite like this before. Yes, you need to get your organisation back up and running, yet protecting your team and customers is paramount. Yes, you need those outstanding bills and invoices paid, but it is important not to push people into greater financial hardship and distress.

 In many cases, compassionate communication can be more effective and helpful than demanding outright payment.

Could your organisation:

  • Provide practical assistance with budgeting (or could you signpost to a third party who can?)

  • Review payment plans to check that customers are not paying for a tariff that exceeds their needs?

  • Reduce payments by extending the contract period?

  • End contracts early if customers can no longer afford the product or service you offer?

  • Help customers to explore their entitlement to financial support, such as benefits?

These suggestions will be time-consuming, yet they could be of great value to customers, help you to get paid and reap long-term rewards.

Who has all of the Answers?

Many companies are trying to implement new ways of working, understand the shift in customer needs and spot opportunities. Their customer-facing teams may be having some very difficult conversations with individuals who are struggling. How is it possible to meet everyone’s changing needs?

Collaborate to Improve Customer Service

At this time, collaboration can bring benefits and insights which teams will struggle to deliver in isolation. No one has all of the answers, but by sharing resources, good practice, ideas and insight, it is easier to make a difference.

 To get things started, investigate:

  • Which other companies are also trying to serve and support the same vulnerable customers?

  • How could you collaborate for the benefit of all?

  • If there are third-party organisations that can help you to reach and engage with the most vulnerable.

  • If training would help your team to better understand vulnerability and gain confidence during customer interactions

  • What services are available locally and nationally, so you can signpost staff and customers to relevant support services?

At a local level, there have been great examples of community shops and pubs teaming up with Parish Councils and volunteer groups to deliver essentials to vulnerable people and keyworkers.

At the other end of the spectrum, Ofgem and Ofwat sought customer’s approval to collaborate and share data. This helped them to identify those in greatest need. These customers were added to the Priority Services Register and third-party services were engaged to provide support. Other organisations have now joined them to form the UK Regulators Network (UKRN).

If you are unsure of where to start, Helen Pettifer Training offers facilitated discussion around the topic of vulnerability. These hour sessions are free to attend via Zoom. Thoughts and good practice from different industries are shared and new connections can be made.

An Opportunity to Make a Difference

This pandemic has shaken things up. Along with the negative impact, there is an opportunity for positive change. We’ve shown that we can adapt and make things better than they were before. We can draw on our experiences to show empathy and we can work together to get things done. Let this be the learning that we take forward.

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