With one in 14 adults now reporting being in problem debt*, Emma Gibbons, Vulnerable Client Manager at free debt advice provider, PayPlan, explains how the industry can tailor its approach to identify and support vulnerable clients. 

The Guardian recently reported that people in debt are three times more likely than the general population to have thought about ending their life. The research shows that methods and language within communications can have a huge impact on an individual’s mental wellbeing. I believe that there are some positive changes that we can make to really make a difference to people’s lives and help to remove the stigma around debt. 

Who is classed as vulnerable?

The thing is, technically, anyone in problem debt could be identified as vulnerable. So it’s really important that each person who seeks debt advice receives compassionate support and those with extra needs are identified quickly to receive appropriate adjustments. Thirteen per cent of PayPlan’s client base identifies as being ‘particularly vulnerable’ and almost half of those people are aged between 35 and 55.  

At PayPlan, we work with clients to categorise vulnerabilities, such as health, addiction and employment status, into a temporary or permanent category, which is monitored and amended throughout their debt free journey. Identifying temporary vulnerabilities early in a client’s journey allows us to be mindful of any fluctuating conditions within our communications. 

Have dedicated support, but don’t forget to train other colleagues

PayPlan’s vulnerability team has grown significantly over the past two years from one full-time and part-time member of staff, supporting 950 clients, to writing off more than £1,014,150 worth of debt in 2018. We’re so proud of our achievements and we now support over 1,700 particularly vulnerable clients with a team of three full-time and two part-time colleagues. 

Having a dedicated team allows clients to have a consistent case worker who they are familiar with and who understands their background. Don’t forget that even if you have a dedicated vulnerability team, they probably won’t be your client’s first point of contact. So, I’ve devised ‘is my client vulnerable’ training making it available to every PayPlan colleague, no matter which team they work in.

The training combines best practice from experts like the Money Advice Trust, Mental Health Policy Institute and University of Bristol Personal Finance Research Centre and Money. The use of conversational models such as TEXAS and BLAKE help to guide the conversation and allow the adviser to ask the client appropriate questions. I have also developed a conversational model called REACH to support clients with gambling vulnerabilities and we are now seeing an increasing number of men and women voluntarily disclose these to us.

Even though 91% of our vulnerable clients self-disclose their circumstances without being prompted, every colleague needs to know the right questions to ask the remaining 9% so they get access to the extra support they need. 

Learn from what isn’t being said…

It’s really important to pick up on what the client is saying as well as what they aren’t saying. If they appear confused or if they reply ‘yes’ to an open ended question then delve a little deeper, ask if you need to make any adjustments. There is a lot of important information to go through working towards becoming debt free, so we find a way to give the information in a way that is right for the client. 

An income and expenditure budget is a good place to spot any figures that could indicate a particular vulnerability. High spending on food items or travel could indicate mobility or specific dietary requirements, or the client could be receiving benefits because of a serious medical issue, which means they can’t work. Use the information you are given as a route to open conversations to fully understand the circumstances around the figures.  

Record every detail – don’t make the client repeat themselves

When a client discloses a communication preference or explains their vulnerability then one of the most important things you can do is record it. 

Record every piece of information thoroughly and make sure that it is accessible by your colleagues in case they need to speak to the client in your absence. You must explain to the client why you need to record the details of your conversation and gain consent before you do so. At PayPlan, we do not share any information outside of our organisation unless we have the client’s full permission and it would help their case with creditors. .

The time of day can make a big difference!

All of these tips have a common thread – getting to know your client. If you know they are taking medication or that they are living with dementia, then find out if chatting in the morning is better for them, rather than the afternoon. 

Likewise, clients with carers or regular medical appointments may have certain days where they won’t be available. Some clients prefer for a family member to take a call with them – find out which days they are visiting and work around what is best for their existing routine. 

Build a picture and share appropriately 

If a client has an illness or condition that would allow them to benefit from the ‘breathing space’ scheme, then explain the reasons why you would recommend sharing the information with the creditor. Thousands of people who are staying in hospital or under the care of a crisis team in their local community are specifically protected by the scheme.

Breathing space means that creditors won’t contact the client about their debts for a period of time. The Government is currently consulting on the breathing space terms, campaigners, including PayPlan and more than 20 other industry organisations, have called for this period to be longer. 

Steps being taken in industry 

We aren’t working in isolation. The debt and creditor industries are constantly making changes to improve client outcomes and help to make people more financially capable.

Last week, Barclays announced its new mobile banking function to allow users to block payments to gambling sites and bars, among other categories. This will allow people who identify as struggling with addictions to have more control over their spending. 

Forty per cent of our vulnerable clients identify as having a mental health condition, so the fact that Barclays has specifically developed this functionality to support people with mental health issues and addictions is really positive for our industry.  

Know which organisations can help

Understand what you do well and where other organisations can add value. PayPlan works closely with a number of external partners such as Mind, GamCare and Samaritans to provide clients with a holistic support network. 

The ‘double stigma’ around debt and gambling means many of those who are struggling, often, do not tell anyone. Research with our clients tells us one in three wait two years before they get help with their problem debt. Our industry needs to continue to work together to highlight the importance of seeking help early and break down barriers to encourage people to talk about debt.

Emma Gibbons, Client Support Specialist, PayPlan