The University of Bristol’s Personal Finance Research Centre has published a new guide on vulnerability and debt collection which addresses 21 questions raised by dealing with vulnerable customers and 21 steps to take to improve practice.

This guide is a follow up to the ‘12 steps’ work done in 2015 and is based on new data from a study on debt collection and vulnerability carried out by lead researcher Chris Fitch and his team with a representative sample of nearly 1,600 staff in 27 firms and in-house teams. We’re proud to have facilitated this research which many of our member companies were involved in and have been thanked by the research team for enabling them to gather so much valuable insight.

There is a lot of guidance on dealing with vulnerable customers out there, so why is this new guide so important?

Well, first and foremost, it is based on first-hand experience of real collections professionals dealing with real customers. It therefore takes a wholly practical and realistic approach to vulnerability, which, most importantly, is commercially viable. It is something that we as the debt collection sector can and will implement and it will have a profound impact on customer outcomes across the board.

As we know, the identification and support of customers in vulnerable circumstances can be incredibly complex and open to much interpretation, which is why it is so important that we have a robust set of consistent standards that we work to. The guide’s 21 steps are not just recommendations – they are practical strategies to help staff deal with specific and often challenging vulnerabilities, such as serious or terminal illness, bereavement, addiction and mental health issues. These are things that credit and collections professionals deal with on a daily basis, including examples as serious of disclosure of thoughts of suicide, and require specialist training.

The guide acknowledges the progress that has been made across the collections, creditor and advice sectors since the launch of the FCA’s work on vulnerability two years ago. We have encouraged members to make vulnerability a part of the fabric of how they deal with customers, and they have done so, with vast improvements in customer outcomes being seen. This new research has demonstrated how far we’ve come but also looked at new challenges we face in terms of the range of vulnerable situations customers may find themselves in.

So, what are the 21 steps to addressing vulnerability in debt collection?

  1. Sharing what is happening
  2. Identifying vulnerability
  3. Starting conversations
  4. Handling a customer disclosure
  5. Handling a carer disclosure
  6. Understanding vulnerability
  7. Gathering further information
  8. Supporting the customer
  9. Working with partner organisations
  10. Ending conversations
  11. Recording data
  12. Mental health problems
  13. Suicide
  14. Serious and terminal illness
  15. Bereavement
  16. Addictions
  17. Supporting staff
  18. Developing training
  19. Monitoring quality
  20. Working with advice agencies
  21. Putting principles into practice (21 case studies)

I could go into detail about the importance of all of these steps, but you can read about them further in the full report.

Supporting collections staff in dealing with vulnerable customers

The one I would like to focus on in this blog is step 17: Supporting staff. With the mental health of customers top of the agenda, it is easy to overlook the impact of difficult calls and interactions on collectors.

This is a key issue raised by the research team and a welcome one from our point of view as the UK trade association for the debt collection sector. As the report highlights: “Working with customers in vulnerable situations can affect staff emotionally, physically and professionally. With an emphasis often placed on empathy, active listening and connecting with customers, this can impact over time on staff wellbeing. Clearly, staff affected in these ways will be less able to effectively support the customers they work with, or to contribute to the teams that they work within.”

Step 17 is all about ensuring that vulnerability strategies consider both the prevention of detriment for customers but also the staff working to support them. This is something that we as the CSA are now exploring further with the researchers.

Specific issues highlighted by staff as part of the research included dealing with one distressing call after another, making an emotional investment in customer discussions, and dealing with issues that ‘hit home’ personally.

To support staff more effectively, organisations should:

  • Recognise the potential impact on staff
  • Speak to staff about the specific challenges they’re facing
  • Ensuring that there is a team support network
  • Offering one-to-one peer support sessions
  • Providing access to both internal and external personal support

As with anyone who is responsible for ensuring the wellbeing of others, collections professionals cannot effectively help others if they themselves are negatively impacted. As organisations dealing with vulnerable customers, we should be putting the wellbeing of our staff first and recognising its importance for achieving the best outcomes for the customer.

John Ricketts is President of the Credit Services Association