Vulnerability: why the ‘what’ matters

4th August 2023

Firms often adopt a steely focus on their regulator’s definition of vulnerability.

And asking ‘what is vulnerability?’ makes sense – regulator alignment is good.

However, while our regulators provide documents, diagrams, and sometimes even maps to define ‘what is vulnerability?’, one question is often left hanging:

Just what are our vulnerable customers actually vulnerable to?

And answering this question is critical for three reasons.

1. Relevant knowledge = relevant support

If a firm does not know what harm, detriment or disadvantage a customer is vulnerable to, then supporting that customer is going to be a lot harder.

For customer-facing staff, this is key.

Here we need to ensure our contact with vulnerable customers works to establish the most relevant information to provide help.

This sounds obvious.  But without the right support and training it can be difficult to achieve this in practice. And this may mean our staff then miss insights with which to help the customer, end-up in lengthy conversations (when they could be helping others), and recording irrelevant information (which is not ‘data-protection desirable’).

Equally, ‘vulnerable to what?’ also applies to non-customer facing staff.

Here a failure to establish – through research or user involvement – what customers are vulnerable to, may result in the design of products that certain types of customers cannot access, use, or benefit from.

Or if a firm’s IT team does not consider the ‘to what?’ question, then a new database might have multiple ‘account flags’ describing the causes of vulnerability, but none to capture a customer’s support needs.

2. Cause is not the same as effect

Our second reason for ‘why what matters’ is that we’re only human.

Humans can’t help but put people in groups or boxes.  And then we often also assume that people in the same boxes have the same needs for support.

But this is a mistake because what makes a customer vulnerable is not the same as what they are vulnerable to.

Firms need to grasp this.  Knowing what caused a customer’s vulnerability helps.  However, just because two (or 200) customers have the same underlying cause to their situation, this does not mean they will have the same difficulties.

And this is why knowing what harm a customer is vulnerable to is absolutely key.

3. ‘Common harms’

Our last reason ‘why what matters’ highlights the importance of ‘common harms’.

In contrast to our second point above, we know that different causes of vulnerability can often have the same effects.

And critically, firms can use this to their advantage.

We know, for example, customer decision-making can be impaired by dementia. And this can pose challenges to firms working to help these customers.

However, we also know that decision-making difficulties can be caused by English language problems. Or the side-effects of some treatment or medication.  Or due to a urinary-tract infection leading to delirium.

Consequently, a firm can make a choice: it can focus its efforts on a single cause of a decision-making problem (such as just one health condition).  Or it can choose to tackle the wider ‘common harm’ of decision-making problems instead.

If it chooses the latter, firms can use this common harm approach like a ‘lens’.  They can run this wider lens over their journeys, products, services and policies. They can look for points or practices where customers with decision-making difficulties might not have been considered in their design. And they can make changes that both avoid foreseeable harm, and which help multiple customer groups, rather than one.

Real answers for the real-world

We live in a busy world.  And one where ‘short-hand’ often predominates.

Therefore the next time a work discussion goes round in circles with talk about ‘vulnerable customers’, perhaps pause and ask each other: ‘just what are our customers vulnerable to?’.

Asking this can:

help us evaluate the support we give to customers
remind us that what makes someone vulnerable, is not the same as what they are vulnerable to
helps us to think about common harms, rather than individual risk groups.

And that is why – when it comes to vulnerability – the ‘what’ really matters.

Chris Fitch, Vulnerability Lead Consultant at the Money Advice Trust

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