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The rise of vulnerability and exclusion: supporting customers through challenging times

Talking to members, I know I am not alone in feeling concerned for the future of our nation. We are faced with a catalogue of issues: skills shortages after pandemic layoffs, supply chain shortages linked to international conflict, and now spiralling price inflation. Already we are seeing cracks in service provision in the travel sector as skills shortages and strikes bite hard. Looking ahead, further supply challenges and rising prices are likely to put a squeeze on households across the country. Is it any wonder that added stress and anxiety are on the rise, and a growing number of customers are reporting a deterioration in personal wellbeing?

All of this serves to accelerate the increasing polarisation in our society. The gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ – a gap of not just wealth, but health and wellbeing. Levels of exclusion and vulnerability are on the rise, and how we as an industry support our customers really matters. This isn’t about being seen to do the right thing by those in need – it is about the long-term success of business and society which in turn links to brand reputation both in companies and the brand of Great Britain.

The business requirements attached to “vulnerable customers” may vary according to sector, but viewing these responsibilities as an opportunity to really understand your customer base rather than simply ‘serving’ them can be helpful.

Cementing loyalty through effective understanding and servicing of vulnerable customers requires adhering to a set of service and product principles. These include making it easier to contact the right person, faster speed of response or resolution and providing clear lines of communication – and offering different solutions and listening hard to the issues being raised. It also requires a sense of empathy, tact and consideration. Rising inflation and chronic illness linked to Covid are seeing many more customers slipping into this category for the first time. It is vital to consider the tone of communications to avoid them feeling excluded or alienated.

Hitting the right tone of empathy requires frontline service professionals to be armed with an extensive and complex mix of skills. The best of them can simultaneously spot subtle potential indicators of vulnerability, handle issues effectively and creatively and be armed with the knowledge to provide practical advice and support. Not to mention being skilled in operating an ever-growing number of digital touchpoints, whilst also identifying when an issue needs a human touch and balancing the needs of the customer with the commercial realities their organisation is facing.

In stormy business conditions, it is important that when we batten down the proverbial hatches we do not inadvertently exclude vulnerable customers. Rising numbers of vulnerable customers will require greater numbers of trained service professionals, and the workloads and stress levels of these individuals also need to be carefully monitored if they are to perform their roles successfully.

It is our responsibility as business leaders to look after, protect and develop our people, who are likely to be burdened with the additional weight of others’ difficult situations. As a customer service industry, if we are to continue to weather turbulent times, we must take the time to address our service offering, understand who we are serving, and equip our people with the skills they need to perform their roles effectively.

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