The coronavirus pandemic has made the last 18 months very challenging for many people. Consumers are potentially more vulnerable than before and it is important that businesses remember their obligations to treat customers fairly and decently. The Chartered Trading Standards Institute ("CTSI") has issued helpful guidance on how to spot potentially vulnerable customers which will assist businesses to comply with their duties.

Understanding vulnerability

14.1 million UK residents have a disabilityOne in six adults experience common mental health problems every week318 consumers per day in the UK are declared bankrupt or insolvent
2.5 million consumers in the UK are living with cancer1 million consumers in the UK are living with dementiaOne in four consumers experience mental health issues each year
23% of UK consumers suffer anxiety when dealing with service providers792 million consumers worldwide are affected by mental health issuesOne in six working age adults have symptoms associated with mental ill health

In an earlier blog post, I discussed four of the main drivers that can lead to customers becoming vulnerable (health; life events; resilience; and capability). Although your customers may be vulnerable for a wide range of reasons, mental health has become a significant issue. Customers with poor mental health are at an increased risk of experiencing poor outcomes. For example, they may be less likely to get a good deal from a supplier through shopping around because of the challenges they face in those forms of engagement and may end up paying more than they need to for goods and services. They are also more likely to experience financial harm by being behind on their bills or suffering financial problems.

The CTSI's guidance divides vulnerability into two large categories:

Situational This category encompasses vulnerability arising as a result health, life events, resilience, and/or capability reasons. The effectiveness of tools made available to the consumer by businesses can also have an impact on their ability to make decisions.Market context Markets can create vulnerability, for example, when a consumer is faced with a difficult decision between complex offers or alternatives or has to make a decision on the basis of imperfect or unclear information. A lack of familiarity or inexperience with a particular market, or the way in which a customer has to communicate or contact a business (such as using particular technologies) can lead to vulnerability.

What can businesses do?

The Chartered Trading Standards Institute is asking businesses to be REAL when talking to customers:

  • Retain Is the consumer able to retain and repeat the information you give them? Do you have to repeat what you have said over and over again?
  • Explain Is the consumer able to properly explain or communicate the decision they have made? Are they joining in the discussion or just agreeing with what you are saying? Are they asking questions that aren’t related to what you are saying?
  • Able Is the consumer able to understand what they are being told?
  • Listen Is the consumer able to listen, follow and understand the discussion taking place, or are they just repeating what you say?

Once a customer has shown signs of vulnerability, steps can be taken to support them. Each case should be assessed on an individual basis and assumptions should not be made. Consider how the customer would prefer to communicate. Ask what they need and how you can better help them. Show empathy and sympathy without being patronising. Try asking questions in a different way and summarise what has been decided or agreed in plain English.

Other things to consider include:

  • Design Products and services should be designed with vulnerable customers in mind to make sure that they meet the needs of as many consumers as possible
  • Communication As many different communication channels as possible should be offered. Customers with mental health issues may prefer online or electronic methods of communication. Older customers may prefer a letter or a face-to-face discussion.
  • Training Staff should be trained to understand the nature and scale of vulnerability within your market and how to recognise and react when issues arise.
  • Vulnerable Customer Policy A policy can set out what a vulnerable customer is and how they can be helped to achieve a fair outcome, what support is available, and how staff will be trained to identify vulnerability so that customers get a fair and positive experience.

The CTSI's guidance includes a handy checklist to assist businesses in recognising and supporting vulnerable consumers.

How can Brodies help?

Brodies has extensive knowledge and experience of helping business devise strategies to support vulnerable customers. We can delivering training to your staff, review your products and processes, advise on documentation and correspondence, and assist with the implementation of monitoring processes.