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Tips for dealing with distressed & vulnerable customers

It’s a fact of customer service life: no two customers calls are precisely alike, and some are more challenging than others. While your staff may have several stories of, and ways to handle, angry customers and complaints, they may not have as many tools for recognising and serving vulnerable or distressed customers.

When high unemployment and economic uncertainty from the pandemic are forcing more people than usual into vulnerable positions, and exacerbating the disadvantages experienced by others, customer service staff need to be confident in their ability to ‘handle with care’.

Below is a quick guide to help you and your staff identify customers who need extra care and provide them with a positive customer experience.

Who is a vulnerable customer?

Firstly, labelling customers as ‘vulnerable’ can be problematic, as

  • people may see the label as unfavourable or disempowering as it insinuates weakness or inability and
  • vulnerability is a changeable and complex concept that doesn’t necessarily indicate a lack of competence or comprehension.

There is no regulation around what constitutes a vulnerable person. However, the Consumer Policy Research Centre for energy regulators described ‘consumer vulnerability’ as a set of individual or market-based circumstances that make it difficult for a person to adequately access or receive products and services and create a risk of harm or disadvantage.

People may be vulnerable if they are:

  • Chronically ill
  • Elderly
  • Unemployed
  • Financially distressed
  • Non-native English speaker
  • Hearing or speech impaired
  • Intellectually impaired

Larger organisations like ASIC recognise that the term vulnerability encompasses temporarily disadvantaged people because of external circumstances (financial difficulties, unemployment, illness, abuse or bereavement) and those with permanent disabilities, conditions, and communication barriers. Deloittes’ Risk Advisory believes that the definition is more expansive and can include people with a knowledge gap around products or services – particularly in the financial sector.

Although you may only use the word ‘vulnerable’ for internal purposes, you may find it more appropriate to refer to people who need additional assistance or who are distressed as ‘Extra Care’ customers or similar.

How do you know if you are talking to a distressed or vulnerable customer?

The CARE protocol, often quoted in magazines, reports and by training consultants here and abroad, can help customer service staff identify a person who may require additional assistance:

C: Comprehend – is the customer able to follow the conversation and understand what is being said?

A: Assess – is the customer able to weigh up the information and give you a decision?

R: Retain – is the customer able to retain and remember information? Can they repeat it at a later point?

E: Evaluate – is the customer able to explain and communicate their decisions? Are they asking questions, or is the conversation one-way?

While working through these questions, a customer service team member may spot signs that a person is vulnerable. The Direct Marketing Association in the UK suggests someone may be vulnerable if:

  • They sound distressed, flustered or agitated.
  • They repeat themselves often.
  • They become confused quickly.
  • They are unable to articulate their problem or query clearly.
  • They say ‘Yes’ to every question, even when it isn’t appropriate.
  • They take a long time to answer a question.
  • They ask you to repeat phrases and questions several times.
  • They cannot speak clearly or without syntax errors.
  • They say phrases like “My partner/mother/son always did this for me.”

Customer service staff must be mindful that these factors don’t necessarily indicate a physical or intellectual disability, as trauma and grief can affect communication. For example, if someone is trying to close their deceased partner’s account, their grief can make contact and comprehension more difficult.

Occasionally, a customer may offer information that indicates vulnerability, for example, that they have a disability. In this case, the TEXAS protocol, developed by The Royal College of Psychiatrists (UK) and the Money Advice Trust for financial institutions, can help.

T: Thank the customer for the information and advise them that it will help you deal with their issue better.

E: Explain how you will use the information the customer has provided.

X: Staff must obtain explicit consent to use and record the information they have disclosed.

A: Ask questions to get information that will help you understand their circumstances relating to how they communicate with you and if they need help from a carer or relative.

S: Signpost the customer to internal or external help when appropriate, e.g. audio-description services or written material in different languages.

How customer service staff can respond to distressed or vulnerable customers

Responding to customers that you know, or suspect, are vulnerable or distressed requires empathy, respect, patience, and sound active listening skills.

The following tips aren’t just good practice for customers who need extra care; they underpin clear communication and a positive customer experience for everyone.

1. Practice empathy

Empathy: Endeavour to tune into, understand, and be sensitive to your customers’ experiences and feelings. While your experiences may not mirror that of your customer, it’s likely you’ve been in a vulnerable position before, too. Remembering that experience can help you approach the customer in a more empathetic way.

2. Set expectations for the call

If you are already aware that the customer is vulnerable or likely to be distressed, it can help for them to know what to expect on the call. Tell them how long the call will take, what information you need from the person and why.

3. Ask about communication preferences

An excellent way to put vulnerable customers at ease is to ask whether they require assistance on the call from an interpreter, carer or relative. Knowing that they don’t have to go through the call themselves can be a huge relief. Furthermore, inquire whether the conversation would work better for them via email, webchat or text.

Many people, vulnerable or otherwise, appreciate written confirmation of what transpired on a call, so if possible, offer to provide summaries via email or text.

Finally, when a person speaks English as a second language, offer them materials such as product disclosures in their native language (if you have them available).

4. Practice active listening techniques.

It can be tempting to race to a solution – after all, customer service is about providing an answer to a query as quickly as possible. However, handling calls from distressed or vulnerable people requires more time.

  • Give the customer enough time to describe their query and focus on hearing each word they say. Avoid interrupting the person or pre-empting what they will say – you might be wrong, and they may lose their confidence.
  • Repeat the problem back to them as you heard it. For example: “I hear that you’re saying that you’d like to close the account. Is that correct?”
  • Ask short, clarifying questions to help both of you get to the root of the query.
  • Summarise critical points and reiterate any decisions or any actions that result from the call.

5. Speak clearly without being patronising

People know if you are speaking down to them, so don’t oversimplify or speak louder or slower than you would normally. Being mindful that you enunciate each word and avoiding acronyms or jargon is sufficient.

6. Validate the customer’s feelings but don’t react to them

Regardless of the size of their query, customers have a right to feel concerned or upset. If the person sounds distressed or agitated at any point, acknowledge their feelings and reassure them that you will help them find a solution.

Recognise, also, that their emotional state may not be related to you, your company or the query at hand.  They may be enduring financial uncertainty, caring for sick children or elderly relatives, facing stress at work or suffering a long-term illness. The reason they are calling you might be the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back.

Be aware that if they get irritated or angry, reflecting their mood in your voice is a sure-fire way to send the call into a downward spiral of dissatisfaction.

7. Avoid putting them on hold or through to another staff member

You can significantly reduce customer stress levels by ensuring that the same customer service representative handles the entire call. Directing their call to someone else may exacerbate their frustrations and can cause anxiety if they must repeat their query.

8. Ensure the person isn’t emotional when answering questions of consent

For queries where consent is required for using personal information or for a financial transaction, they must understand their decision. If the person is distressed or flustered, ask if there is a suitable time to continue the call when they feel better.

How to support your staff to respond to distressed or vulnerable customers

Providing your staff with adequate support, in addition to the tips above, will give them the confidence to handle challenging calls with ease.

You may wish to:

  • Offer training for staff on what may constitute a vulnerable customer and the challenges they face, how to identify them and, crucially, how to help them effectively.
  • Develop and distribute written protocols and policies about vulnerable customers.
  • Consider appointing ‘champions’ in your team who have experience in this area and are comfortable guiding others.
  • Use predictive routing to send calls through to customer service staff experienced in handling these types of calls.
  • Consider the customer journey from a vulnerable person’s point of view. What could you change to make it easier for them?

All organisations have a moral responsibility to act with respect, care and integrity when serving vulnerable customers. Following these tips will help staff deliver appropriate customer care and put them on the path to building trust and rapport with your customers.

Create a customer experience that suits everyone with Premier Contact Point

Your team members and vulnerable callers don’t need the added pressure of grappling with technology. Our Premier Contact Point customer service solution contains features to help you deliver a frictionless customer experience in a seamless, efficient manner. These include intelligent call routing to the most experienced/appropriate agent, ability to easily connect 3rd person into the call to provide expert help, and visual IVR to mobile so you can send info to people during and after the call.

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