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Are you ignoring your vulnerable customers?

Stop pursuing the myth of the “ideal” customer

Do you have a strategy for vulnerable customers? If not, then you could be missing out on an opportunity to create a little bit of WOW for customers who need it more than most. It is often a neglected component of genuine customer centricity.

I’ve been working with organisations on their approach to what are – misleadingly – termed “vulnerable customers” and have become a bit frustrated by the terminology as it tends to marginalise groups of customers. This can be a serious mistake – as I will illustrate.

So, what do we mean by a vulnerable customer?

Put simply, it’s a customer whose life circumstances or abilities are compromised in some way and, as a result, run the risk of not being treated in the same way as those customers without such disadvantages.

Vulnerabilities can cover physical impairments such as mobility, sight or hearing as well as less visible ones such as mental capacity or learning difficulties. Life events (stuff that happens) can create vulnerability which may be short or long term: think of the effects of bereavement, for example, which can stretch for a year or more and may impair a customer’s ability to make decisions about, say, a financial product.

Companies should have strategies in place to accommodate the needs of vulnerable customers – in the UK and there are already existing legislative requirements around disability (the Disability Discrimination Act) and in the financial services area it looks like it will soon become a regulatory requirement.

This is all well and good but treating this as a box-ticking compliance exercise is the wrong approach. The right approach is to stop talking about vulnerable customers completely.

Forget vulnerable customers

A quick look at some statistics tells you that vulnerable customers occupy a much larger section of any market than you might think. For example:

  • There are currently 850,000 people with dementia in the UK, with numbers set to rise to over 1 million by 2025 and 2 million by 2051. One in six people over the age of 80 have dementia. (Alzheimer’s Society.)
  • One in every two adults has the arithmetic capability of an average 11-year-old or younger and one in three adults cannot work out the change from a shopping trip.
  • One in four people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year and in England, 1 in 6 people report experiencing a common mental health problem (such as anxiety and depression) in any given week according to the charity Mind.
  • In England, 7% of adults in England regularly drink over the low-risk guidelines and there are around 600,000 dependent drinkers – of which the majority do not seek treatment (figures from Alcohol Concern) – more than 1% of the population.

Put simply, your customers are quite likely to have problems that could affect their ability to make decisions about buying or using the products and services you provide. But marketing departments and product developers continue to develop products that are aimed around an idealised view of a customer untroubled by the hand that life has dealt them.

Calling a group of customers “vulnerable” exacerbates the problem as it implies that there are a small number who we can adapt products and services for and then the rest who we can blithely leave to get on with enjoying our products in the way they were designed.

This is the wrong approach!

In genuinely customer-centric organisations, products and services should be designed from the customer’s point of view, which means designing and testing – co-creating – with a range of customers not just the ideal ones.

Once that becomes a norm you can find yourself well on the way to genuine customer-centricity.

Nick Bush

Nick is a business advisor and non-executive director who helps organisations improve their focus and performance by developing customer-centred strategies and business plans. He has helped companies transform the way they do business through better strategies, change management and technology, with a relentless focus on the customer. Nick has worked across all kinds of business sectors from telecoms to banking, chemicals to charities - as owner of Open Chord his current focus is on helping arts and non-profit organisations to be more successful by creating a solid planning foundation that will help them grow.