Ask the experts: Q&A with David Lever and Kat Litchfield on vulnerable customers

Customer Experience Strategy Managers David Lever and Kat Litchfield share their insights from strengthening our services for vulnerable customers

18 May 2023

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Can we start by explaining what a vulnerable customer is?

DAVID: The Financial Conduct Authority provide a very clear definition of this, which we’ve used to keep us both compliant and working to the highest of standards in our approach to supporting vulnerable customers. That is “...someone who due to personal circumstances, is especially susceptible to harm, particularly when we don’t act with appropriate levels of care”.

Do you think that there has been a shift in the general awareness of what vulnerability includes?

KAT: Yes, I believe so. Whereas previously people might have solely thought of the elderly, or those with physical disabilities, the work we’ve been doing has opened people's minds to the fact that (especially during COVID) over half of us can be potentially vulnerable at any given time. We also were able to share that it’s rare for a person to live with only a single issue; that a vulnerability may create other vulnerabilities that are then at play. Also, they aren’t all permanent, there can be relatively transient inflection points, such as job loss and divorce.

We learned that we shouldn't assume that someone who's lost a family member or is going through a divorce is going to behave in a particular way. We were able to establish an understanding that every customer is different and will require a different level of support from us, if any at all. We just need to make sure that we recognise that there is a vulnerability at play and understand the impact that's having.

In addition, the thing that always resonates with me in the work that we do is that we talk about vulnerable customers, but we have also got vulnerable colleagues as well. This work is relevant to people on a personal basis, not simply with the customers that they deal with.

You’ve developed vulnerable customer personas as part of your work. Could you just expand on what a ‘persona’ is?

DAVID: A customer persona is a fictional character that we create on the basis of demographics, behaviours, typical interactions with our product and, in this case, the vulnerabilities that those individuals may be living with on a day-to-day basis. In a vulnerable customer persona, we felt it even more important to create a back story for our characters, so we can bring to life what they’ve gone through in their lives, living with the vulnerability, and how that affects their expectations and mindset now. We combined extensive demographic work with in-depth learning across the various vulnerabilities and validated the personas we created as a result with our various contacts across the charity sector.

These fictional character personas are then used to test our customer journeys to ask, based on the type of person, what frustrations might they have in dealing with financial services organisations? What barriers might they face? And how would they interact with this product and get the best use of the product offerings that we have. It's a fantastic way to test our customer journeys and products.

I was very aware of diversity across the vulnerabilities when I was pulling together the 10 vulnerable customer personas and hopefully, I’ve reflected that in the characters. It was both rewarding and upsetting to learn how such vulnerabilities impact people’s daily lives, but also how we might be able to support them when interacting with us. On a broader basis, part of the remit of the new customer experience team that I lead will be to look at customer personas across the business, not just in the vulnerable customer base.

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I imagine you would be good at writing fiction after this because you've been creating these characters in such detailed ways, perhaps they feel a bit like your family?

DAVID: Well, we named them all! We have 10. You do become quite attached to these characters. YouTube was a fantastic resource to learn directly from people that are living with these vulnerabilities. Some of them were quite difficult to write, such as the poor literacy and numeracy persona. I watched and researched quite a bit around how people find themselves in this situation of poor literacy or numeracy. There are of course people with learning difficulties, but we shouldn't make that assumption. There are also simply poor educational circumstances. I got quite attached to that persona. It was moving to write because you immerse yourself in what people are going through and I felt as a member of society that I've almost let these people down, because it is such a miscarriage of education and support.

In terms of the partnership with Plain Numbers, how did how did that come about?

KAT: Back in 2015, the Financial Conduct Authority produced some research that I found quite shocking. It showed that poor numeracy is the single most common vulnerability in the UK, affecting an estimated 20 million people. And the other interesting stats here are that almost half of UK adults have the numeracy skills expected of a primary school child with at least 1 in 5 adults experiencing maths anxiety.

While we’d captured poor numeracy in our Vulnerable Customers persona work, it doesn’t manifest in our data and we don't hear it in our speech analytics. Very seldom do we see complaints or people commenting that they don't understand, and that's because there's a certain amount of stigma.

Plain Numbers research found that, in the way some numbers are presented by different organisations, six out of ten customers said they understood the content, but when they were tested on their comprehension, the results where closer to four out of ten.

In June 2022, after an introduction from the Association of British Insurers, we signed up to a three-year partnership with them. This partnership is not only creating a group of Plain Numbers accredited Practitioners within RSA, but also enables the certification of key communications documents that we use with our customers. We’re focussing in on those documents where customers need to make informed decisions, as this also ties in directly with our obligations under the FCA’s new Consumer Duty. The Plain Numbers approach was acknowledged within the Consumer Duty guidance and rules as a recommended tool to ensure the improved understanding of numbers-based communications for customers, so we’re delighted to already be working with them.

We’re also keen to explore using Plain Numbers to improve how we communicate numbers to our colleagues. Things like pensions documentation and bonus calculations to ensure they are accessible and inclusive. We’ll be working on this with Emily Fraser as Neurodiversity Ambassador at RSA.

DAVID: Integrity is one of our core values as an organisation and sits at the heart of all this work. The biggest challenge for us is related to what people say they understand versus what they actually understand. In our business, it's critical that when people are buying insurance policies they need to be making an informed decision based on what is right for them, both from a cover and a price perspective, and the services that support them. If we're not providing information with clarity that enables them to make that decision, then that's not acceptable at all.