The topic of priority customers is a growing talking point amongst regulators across sectors – particularly in Utilities and Financial Services.
Recent research by the Financial Services regulator, the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA), cites that 50% of UK consumers currently show one or more characteristics of potential vulnerability. And that figure is likely to grow. The UK population is getting older: in 2016, 18% of the population was aged 65 and it’s projected to increase to 20.5% by 2026. It is also estimated that one million people will have dementia in the UK by 2025.
Both the FCA and Ofwat and Ofgem, who regulate the Water and Energy sectors respectively, put particular emphasis on the fluid nature of vulnerability, stressing that anyone can become vulnerable at any time, and that vulnerability can be temporary, sporadic or permanent.
The regulators also acknowledge that customers whose circumstances make them vulnerable may not always be willing to make their circumstances known, or realise that they are in a situation of vulnerability. In fact, Ofwat estimates that only 10 per cent of customers who are struggling with their bill currently receive help from their water company via a social tariff – with bad debt adding £21 to each customer’s water bill every year.
So where might digital help?
If customers are reluctant to acknowledge, or discuss their circumstances, there is clearly an opportunity for businesses to be more proactive – and harness data to identify this audience, instead of the onus being on the customer to reach out.
Data enables businesses to build detailed pictures about customers, their lifestyles and their priorities. It opens the door for a conversation, and allows companies to offer personalised advice and information, as well as sounding out specific customer segments on new initiatives.
There’s a lot of insight to be gained from web data; confused or illogical movement around a website, long dwell times, repeated password resetting, or repeated unsuccessful search attempts are all indicators that someone might be struggling.
Having triggers in place to identify signs of vulnerability would allow businesses to personalise the experience accordingly; displaying call-to-actions to the help section or to sign-up to the Priority Services Register, or even prompting an agent to pop up on web chat, for example. It could help initiate a conversation long before someone feels ready to ask for help.
Digital can also be a key facilitator in getting customers to engage and request support. As Jake Beavan of Citizens Advice pointed out: “At Citizens Advice our USP is the value of face to face, but those preferences can flip round in certain situations. We’ve done work on mental health and people can find explaining their situation on the phone and face to face to be really distressing and off-putting. Digital channels can help them communicate without them feeling put under pressure.”
Whilst there’s a lot to be said for an element of human touch, the anonymity that digital can provide can be essential in getting customers to engage, particularly over sensitive issues. Services like web chat and chatbots - that don’t require a sign in – allow customers to explore their options - whilst maintaining a sense of privacy – before entering a formal route to get the help they need.
The sense of anonymity also helps break down the trust barrier between customers and companies. Just 36% of British consumers trust banks to work in their customers' best interests, whilst over half of those questioned in a survey of 10,000 UK residents said that they do not trust any energy supplier today. So there are clears benefits to offering people a means to seek advice anonymously and build up a level confidence that a company can and wants to help.
More than that though, it’s simply about offering people the ability to engage on their preferred channel of choice. Customers increasingly expect to be able to reach companies 24/7 across multiple platforms – through social, messaging platforms, or websites - on a device of their choosing. Circumstance doesn’t change that.
Mando have decided to take a look at priority customers to learn more about the challenges they face and explore the potential of digital technologies to solve them. If you would like to learn more about our research, or contribute, please get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org