30 November 2022

How tech can help councils handle customer vulnerability

How tech can help councils handle customer vulnerability  image
Image: LEDOMSTOCK/Shutterstock.com.

As a result of the chancellor’s latest statement, the continuing cost of living crisis and rising inflation, the average person is heading into winter worse off. Overall, more people than in recent years will find themselves financially vulnerable.

Not long ago, the term ‘vulnerable customer’ was reserved for a much smaller group of people. Now though, the cost-of-living crisis has meant that the definition of ‘vulnerable’ has extended to include people with low incomes or household food insecurity.

As a result, local government should prepare for an increase in call volumes from vulnerable citizens and should ensure that they are equipped to effectively support them. It is critical that organisations and their employees are supported in handling more complex interactions with the most vulnerable and can confidently navigate emotive conversations.

Using tech to spot vulnerable individuals

There is no one size fits all solution to effectively handling calls from vulnerable citizens; instead, it is something local government employees need to integrate into their teams and processes to ensure effectivity. Identifying individuals facing difficulty is a complex task for a variety of reasons. Many people will look to mask their vulnerability and, similarly, some individuals will resist being identified in such a way.

To assist vulnerable citizens, it is essential that employees are first supported to be able to feel confident in identifying them. Identification of vulnerable customers is a process that can be supported by technology and works most effectively when coupled with human interaction and judgement.

Collecting and analysing data from conversations can support organisations in the identification of vulnerability. 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 required service.

The art of discretion

Some individuals will inevitably be unwilling to talk about their debt or financial concerns. It is key then that when citizens reaches out for advice that they not only feel listened to but also heard, and have an empathetic experience from the organisation that they are dealing with.

Utilising alternative communication channels such as webchat or WhatsApp can provide a discreet way to interact, limiting the risk of friends or colleagues overhearing personal information. The best approach to navigating this is to look at an ‘opti-channel’ approach rather than ‘omni-channel’. This means utilising available data on past channel choice on a case by case basis to offer citizens their preferred choice, rather than offering vulnerable individuals a list of options that don’t work for them.

Empowering agents to act

Advisers should be empowered to engage and support potentially vulnerable customers. This means that training should be designed to help advisers connect with vulnerable customers regardless of communication channel used.

Aside from initial training, advisers need continuous coaching and development to support them in navigating the ever-changing ‘vulnerability’ landscape. For local government departments to best support their customers they need advisors that have effective listening and questioning skills. This will help detect potential issues and provide the relevant support and reassurance to the customer.

Customer service teams will be speaking or interacting with vulnerable customers and should be prepared for the fact that the adviser might be the only person that the customer has spoken to that day. It’s important to provide both the customer and advisor with the right level of support.

Key metrics measuring advisor performance, like AHT (average handle time) or ASA (average speed to answer), should be reviewed in the overarching approach to 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. Removing time-sensitive metrics means that advisors can take longer to exhaust all options with the customer.

Moving forward

While pressures on customers look set to continue, there is a strong need for an empathetic and considered approach to dealing with those living through difficult circumstances. Local government leaders and their employees have the responsibility to identify potential vulnerable customers and to ensure that they receive any necessary support and guidance for the foreseeable future.

Paul Mander is public sector partnership director at HGS UK.

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