Piggy bank drowning in water

Cost-of-living impacts on CX

How to handle increased customer vulnerability (continued)

A staggering 1 in 3 UK households are now struggling to pay bills1, and so are classed as vulnerable customers. It is critical that organisations and their employees are prepared to deal with interactions from vulnerable customers and how to navigate emotive conversations.


In our previous blog, we discussed how both organisations and individuals alike will have the responsibility to identify potential vulnerable customers and to ensure that they receive the necessary support and guidance.

So, with a changing landscape, how do you identify a “vulnerable” customer? Many of your customers that are experiencing issues may not be easily identifiable as vulnerable and, similarly, some individuals will not want to be identified as this. The fair treatment of vulnerable customers is not a tick-box exercise; rather, it is something organisations need to integrate into their teams and processes.

1 Identifying vulnerability through technology

To support vulnerable customers, it is first essential that you can easily identify who these customers are.

Traditionally, vulnerable customers have been met with an empathetic human; however, this was when it was a simpler task to categorise vulnerability.

Identification of vulnerable customers has evolved over the years to use technology, but there is a tendency toward the binary. The ideal answer for categorising, for us, is the perfect mix of using technology and human interaction.

The collecting and analysing of data can support organisations in the identification of vulnerability; however, we need to understand that one characteristic does not automatically mean a customer is vulnerable.

Utilising software that looks for specific words or phrases (e.g., job-loss, illness, etc.), or even picks up on what is deemed as a sensitive situation, can support teams in identifying and providing the right service for vulnerable customers.

Once a vulnerable customer or sensitive situation is identified, you must ensure your agents are equipped to deal with this. The coaching and development of your agents to listen as well as ask the right questions at the right time is key in providing a good experience for vulnerable customers.

customer-looking-for-help-via webchat

2 Providing channels that allow discreet communication

Given customers’ potential unwillingness or embarrassment to talk about debt or financial concerns, it is important that organisations provide the right environment and the right channels to engage through.

According to Stepchange.org, “thousands of people are dealing with their debt alone and have no one to talk to about it. This can make debt an even bigger burden to carry.”2

It is key that when a customer reaches out for advice that they not only feel listened to but also heard, they receive empathy from the organisation that they are dealing with, and are offered solutions that help them deal with their current situation.

Channels such as webchat or WhatsApp gives your customers a more discreet way to interact, limiting the risk of friends or colleagues overhearing personal information. However, with digitally vulnerable customers, they still need a form of communication that works for their situation. The best approach to navigating this for organisations is to look at an “opti-channel” approach rather than “omni-channel”. Yes, all channels can be turned on, but which channels provide the optimum service for your customers?

3 Increasing agent training, empowerment, and specialist teams

Agents should be empowered to engage and support potentially vulnerable customers. Training needs to be adapted to help agents identify, support, and engage with vulnerable customers regardless of communication channel used.

Aside from initial training, agents need coaching and development to support them in navigating the ever-changing “vulnerability” landscape.

Vulnerable customers can be reluctant to disclose details, due to the highly personal and sensitive nature of the issues. For organisations to best support their customers they should have agents that have effective listening and questioning skills. This will help detect potential issues and provide the relevant support and reassurance to the customer.

It is essential that there is a culture of sensitivity and empathy in dealing with customers to help create a more positive customer experience and a positive outcome.

Customer service teams will be speaking or interacting with vulnerable customers and should be prepared for the fact that the agent might be the only person that the customer has spoken to that day. This is going to be challenging, so we need to provide both the customer and agent with the right level of support.

For teams engaging with vulnerable customers, organisations should ensure that the right wellbeing and support channels are in place to provide the necessary care. Some conversations can be challenging and emotionally draining, which is where agents may need the support of mental health advisors and direct management support.

Organisations need to be aware that vulnerability can be in many different scenarios and the wellbeing of your employees must be number one.

Within these specialist team’s traditional metrics or KPIs, such as average handle times should be relaxed or removed.

4 Relaxing of time-sensitive metrics

Key metrics measuring agent performance, like AHT (average handle time) or ASA (average speed to answer), need to be reviewed in the overarching approach to vulnerable customers. Providing a dedicated team to support vulnerable customers where the measures are on customer experience and satisfaction, will drive the right results for vulnerable customers.

Vulnerable customers with more complex enquiries need to feel like they are being listened to, understood, and not made to feel that they are being rushed during interactions.

Agents may find that vulnerable customers need longer to go through their options. Removing time-sensitive metrics means that agents can take longer to exhaust all options with the customer.

As mentioned earlier, 1 in 3 households are struggling to pay bills. That means that potentially 1 in 3 of your employees are also struggling. In addition to their own struggles and concerns with the cost-of-living crisis, they also will be having emotionally challenging calls with your customers. So, what can organisations do to support and retain their employees during this challenging period? We will discuss our thoughts on this in our next blog, which focusses on the “Increases Employee Vulnerability.”


  1. Report reveals one in three UK households is now struggling to pay the bills (inews.co.uk)
  2. Talking About Debt. Sharing Your Worries. StepChange

Colleen McCann photo

Colleen McCann, Business Development Director, HGS UK

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