Do you feel vulnerable today?

By Christine Hemphill | 3rd January 2020

Vulnerability is a design problem, not a defined segment.

Lately we have been hearing more organisations refer to and ask us about “vulnerable customers”. They are interested in how they can identify vulnerable customers, skill staff and design systems to provide services that positively supports varying needs. To do this they need to establish processes that better identify needs and more flexibly manage risks, ensuring appropriate experiences for all customers, including those that for a range of reasons, may be defined as “vulnerable”.

The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) has catalysed a lot of this discussion in the UK through their increasing focus since their seminal Paper no 8 in 2015, recent research, and likely future regulations that were recently open for public consultation.

The FCA defines “vulnerability” as,

“Someone who due to their personal circumstances, is especially susceptible to detriment, particularly when a firm is not acting with appropriate levels of care.”  

This ‘susceptibility to detriment’ (risk of bad things happening to them) can come from personal circumstances that include physical, emotional or practical needs.

Some customers that may be more susceptible to poor service experiences or outcomes include people,

  • with lived experience of disability (permanent or temporary)
  • who are currently challenged by poor physical or mental health
  • who have additional caring duties (young children, ageing parents, unwell partners etc.)
  • with literacy, digital literacy or numeracy challenges
  • with low energy, emotional or financial resources
  • who are very old or very young
  • who live independently, without family or other community-based support

These characteristics are indicators of risk, and when multiple characteristics combine for one individual or household, potential negative impacts can multiply also. The FCA has estimated that half of all UK adults have characteristics at any point in time that mean they may be increasingly vulnerable to poor service or outcomes.

Personal characteristics are an insufficient condition for vulnerability.

Anyone who thinks that all older people are vulnerable never met my grandfather. He was intellectually and physically formidable into his late 90s! My friends who identify as disabled are usually only “vulnerable” when environments are poorly designed, excluding them in some way. We all experience vulnerability in differing ways and at different times across our day, year and lives after emotionally, physically, or practically (e.g. financially) difficult moments or periods.

The chain that exposes people to inappropriate customer service or outcomes is a combination of personal characteristics, a specific context and need.

For example, an exhausted parent of a very young infant (personal characteristics) buying train tickets online in the UK (context) and then traveling on the train (specific need) that runs as expected, isn’t exposed to a negative outcome despite being having vulnerable characteristics. Her resilience (the inverse of vulnerability) is lowered but is still sufficient for the experience in this context. Should the train be delayed or cancelled due to bad weather (changed context), she is less able to adapt and absorb this change without more significant consequences than, for example, a young university student who can wait at a café nearby without any real difficulty or significant inconvenience on that day within that same context.

Figure 1: Characteristics combine with context and a specific need to expose personal vulnerability.

Image of three circles. Two on the left say Personal characteristics and Context with a plus sign between them. An arrow connects them to the third. On the arrow "specific need" is written. In the circle it is pointing to it is written "Vulnerability to poor service or outcome

Vulnerability is fluid and context-specific, so design for a broad range of needs

It is the role of organisations’ to ensure that their products and services are designed and delivered so that they don’t unfairly impact some customers, providing them with inappropriate service or outcomes. We know people vary. As I often say, difference is our single greatest point of commonality. So design services that support these differences. Design, when paired with front line training so that it is consistently delivered as designed, can protect customers with vulnerable characteristics.

We are all on a spectrum of vulnerability and its inverse, resilience, at any point in time. Some needs are more pervasive or long-lasting than others. Most are context specific. 

We will all move along this spectrum both gaining and losing resilience over time and in certain contexts. These characteristics may be very fluid as individuals’ circumstances change and needs are exposed or supported through different service contexts.  Therefore grouping people with specific personal characteristics together and calling them “vulnerable customers” is not likely to be very helpful as a business.

Designing for personal variance

1/ Terminology

Our qualitative research with dozens of individuals last year showed that “vulnerable” or “vulnerability” are not terms that customers like being used about them or to them. Being vulnerable means that you have less ability to protect yourself from external impacts. Nobody wants to be unable to prevent harm happening to themselves. Vulnerability is also too big a “lump” of a concept to be very useful either. Specific personal characteristics can be designed for. Vulnerability can’t.

Some simple guidelines.

  • Don’t use the term “vulnerable” or “vulnerability”. It’s not useful or appreciated
  • Be as specific as possible about the need type
  • Keep within the context of your service that the customer is interested or engaged in
  • Tell customers what you will do with the information and why it may be helpful for them to share it with you
  • Don’t ask about medical conditions, ask about practical needs (e.g. “requires step free access” rather than “wheelchair user” or “using crutchers”)
  • Allow customers to remove, add or update the information very easily and as often as is relevent to them

Some examples of more or less useful questions.

More useful generic question – “Do you have any specific needs relevant to our service that you wish to share with us? We will use this information to point you towards service options that you may like or need.”

Less helpful or desirable generic question – “Have you got any vulnerabilities you would like to tell us about”

More useful specific question – “Have you got any preferences for communication? We provide English and Welsh versions, sign language, audio, braille options, or easy-read English. Please select any that apply. If you have other communication needs please note them here.”

Less helpful specific question – “Please tell us if you have any specific communication needs”

 2/ Customer service options

Questions, particularly when asked as a part of onboarding process, can be helpful for advising customers of service options that exist and that they may prefer, supporting characteristics that may be more pervasive. They could review and update these preferences periodically or whenever their needs change.

Other characteristics that are more fluid such as emotional resilience or vulnerability that arises only in a specific context are more likely to be picked up through the course of service delivery. These require designed service flexibility that are aligned across systems, processes and people.

An example of a more context-specific need could be a general insurance product that is sold as an extended warranty for a fridge at the point of purchase to a middle-aged woman. Let’s call her Jane. 18 months later when the fridge breaks down Jane rings the insurance company to repair or replace it under the valid warranty. She is clearly agitated and so the well-trained call centre operator asks “It sounds like this is very difficult for you having the fridge out of service. Is there any specific reason for this?”. By doing so he finds out that she is diabetic and requires medication and specific foods that need to be kept refrigerated to manage her condition.

Clearly, Jane is highly vulnerable to personal detriment in this context. If she waits the standard 1 – 2 weeks for the process to be completed, the consequences for her will be far more severe than for someone who has no health issues. Besides the risks to her, inflexible service design also exposes the organisation to reputational damage.

The overall service design with or without needs-based flexibility can be illustrated as follows:

Figure 2: Inflexible and needs-based flexibility in service design.

An image of two triangles each within rectangles marked "Standard Service Design". The corners of the triangles are marked "Emotional", "Physical" and "Practical" and each triangle is identical and named "Jane". In the diagram on the left, the triangle extends beyond the rectangle. The part that falls outside of the "Standard Service Design" rectangle is marked "Unmet customer need". On the right hand diagram there is an extension to the standrard service design marked "Needs-based service design". In this version all of Jane's needs are within the service design and are therefore met.

In the first version on the left, Jane’s practical and physical needs fall outside of the standard service design and she is exposed to a disproportionately difficult wait for her refrigerator to be replaced or repaired. She has been made vulnerable to this service outcome as a result of the design not being flexible enough to take into consideration her unmet, specific needs.

In the second version on the right, the organisation has designed in some flexibility for managers or customer service operators to use when such circumstances arise. It may be something like having some small fridges that can be quickly deployed to customers who have very pressing needs for continuity of refrigeration, or fast-tracking that specific case so a repair can be undertaken within a very different service period, maybe 48 hours rather than the standard 2 weeks. Needs-based solutions are not required to be offered to all customers. Cost or other logistical considerations will need to be considered. However, there is an agreed, designed and contollable approach that allows provision under certain conditions such as this.

It is worth noting that if no such approach is designed centrally, organisations will often find customer service staff or their front line managers are using any provided discretion or flexibility to create better options when the standard service design is clearly creating an unfair or undue impact on a customer. Designing this flexibility into the process proactively, allows it to be more consistently applied across the business as needs arise, as well as measured and improved over time.

Just like standard service design, customer service staff training, processes, and systems should all be aligned to take into account needs-based service options.

In summary

Good service design understands that people vary widely and quite fluidly. It provides a controlled and specifically designed process that can identify personal characteristics and circumstances that may allow for poor outcomes. It then flexes the service design including staff, systems and processes to these specific needs in a way that protects both the individual and the business from failure.

As the FCA moves from information and engagement last decade, to regulation and enforcement likely early in this one, now is the perfect time for businesses to consider how they fulfil their duty of care to customers, identifying and more flexibly managing those who have characteristics that may expose them to service failures or inappropriate provision.

In doing so, businesses are likely to design solutions that provide much more consistent and positive customer experiences for us all, increasing loyalty and value well beyond any specific segment. This isn’t a segment, this is all of us some of the time, and some of us all of the time. Managing difference is managing the reality of human-centred design. Humans vary. Services can be designed to support this efficiently and valuably.

Would you like to know more?

Open Inclusion has been involved in understanding and designing for varying customer characteristics that may increase vulnerability for more than 5 years now. We can help you with,

  • Customer insight: organisation specific customer research to determine how best to ask about specific circumstances and needs in your business context
  • Service design reviews: to understand how service is experienced today by customers with specific needs
  • Service re-design (which can include co-design): to ensure your duty of care is fulfilled and both customer experience and service value is improved
  • Staff training: helping them learn how to talk with customers about their relevant needs and circumstances and where service design flexibility should apply

If you are interested in speaking with us about how we could help your business with any of the above to make services more consistently appropriate and better for all, including those with specific needs, please contact us.

Wishing you all a fabulous 2020!