Let’s talk about ‘vulnerability’

  • 23 September 2020
  • Blog | Professionalism and Ethics | Blog

By Joanna Finlay, Sustainable Banking Manager at Virgin Money.

At the risk of stating the obvious, to serve vulnerable customers well, we need to know who they are. You can have the most helpful solutions in the world, but if you don’t know who needs them, they’re of limited use. So we need good data – good disclosure of vulnerabilities. The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) suggests that half the population are potentially vulnerable, which I’d guess is more than banks’ records indicate. The trouble is that many people don’t want to be labelled as ‘vulnerable’. And research also shows that it may not occur to people to tell their bank about difficult circumstances. So how can we find out who needs extra support?

First up, enabling customers to tell us about vulnerabilities. Effective disclosure is often said to depend on the professional capabilities of our frontline colleagues: their knowledge, their soft skills. But to me it’s also about seeing the world through the eyes of a vulnerable customer: why would they want to tell a bank about their struggles? How could we motivate them to reach out? How can we ensure this doesn’t add to their worries?

Without doubt, empathetic frontline teams can offer customers a really supportive disclosure experience, but there will still be some who prefer not to talk about it. And actually, why should they have to talk to a stranger? It might be inconvenient or even impossible for them to find time, or words, to talk about it. Surely customers should always have a choice – and that includes how they disclose vulnerabilities and access relevant help.

Imagine Jane. She’s just got out of an abusive relationship and is suffering from insomnia and depression. Practically, she needs to change her address and sever all financial connections with her ex. However, she can’t face explaining it all again and again. Jane probably thinks she doesn’t have a choice; she needs to phone each bank, go through it all, help them to help her.

What if there was a sector-wide, digital tool to guide Jane through disclosing her circumstances, how that impacts on managing money and what support she wants to receive? Jane could access this on her phone, on the bus to work, and update it as and when things change. A centralised solution has been shown to work for retailers prioritising grocery deliveries for people who are ‘vulnerable’ during coronavirus, so why not for banking too?

The Holy Grail would be if this tool was omni-channel, and sensitively navigated customers through the whole spectrum of vulnerabilities. That makes it sound easier than it is, of course – the FCA identifies four indicators and at least 26 types of vulnerability as a starting point. But if we crack this and make it easy for customers to talk about vulnerabilities, then we have the insights we need to really serve them well, whatever they’re going through. And as with other aspects of financial inclusion, I’d love to see this fixed across the sector, so it’s easier for people like Jane to disclose vulnerabilities and access help.

As for the question of whether the word ‘vulnerable’ is itself a barrier, my hunch is that, if it was clear how that label gave you access to genuinely helpful solutions – as in the case of supermarket deliveries – the label itself might be less of an issue. However, research shows that people can be quite polarised on the language of vulnerabilities. Moreover, our efforts to use more friendly alternatives can sometimes make it harder to navigate. I’m not sure what the solution is, other than to take time to understand how these words sound to people with vulnerabilities – the misconceptions, the way it makes them feel – so that we can find a common language that enables us to give people help and hope.

Lastly, what about when customers aren’t aware of their vulnerabilities – or it doesn’t occur to them to let us know? If we suspect someone might need help, from our interactions or their account behaviour, we face some ethical dilemmas: where is the line between proactively offering help and being intrusive? Is it more important to protect customers’ data or to protect them from detriment relating to vulnerabilities? I know I’m not alone in thinking about these things and hope that, again, we can share insights and make sense of the challenges in a way that matters most: making financial services more inclusive.

The new FCA guidance on vulnerable customers gives us a huge opportunity to shift the narrative around banks and how we serve our communities. The pandemic has made us realise that vulnerability is not a niche thing – it’s about our neighbours, our colleagues, our families.

As we think about ‘building back better’, I hope that one of the things we all choose to get right for customers will be to ensure that talking about vulnerabilities isn’t a barrier to getting the help they need.

Find out about the Chartered Banker Institute’s free, comprehensive e-learning module on vulnerable customers and how to support them.

Joanna Finlay is Sustainable Banking Manager at Virgin Money and was Young Banker of the Year 2017. Hear more from Joanna in the Summer 2020 issue of Chartered Banker magazine.


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