Empowering customer care: a guide to supporting vulnerable consumers 

6 min read
May 16, 2023

In our series on complaints and well-being, we created some resources for consumers who are struggling with making a complaint due to accessibility needs or who may need to seek further support for other forms of vulnerability. 

It is our mission to improve customer care for everyone, across all sectors. So we also wanted to think about this issue from the perspective of those who run a business or deliver customer care. 

As a brand that helps people raise complaints, we have a real insight into the complexity of customer needs. Beyond the customer themself, these needs impact the person responding to their complaint. 

When responding to consumer complaints, you may find yourself in touch with someone whose level of distress seems disproportionate to the issue at hand. There may be difficulties understanding a customer, or they may say that they are struggling with a particular method of communication. It may be that the customer indicates that they have underlying physical or mental health issues that make the process of complaining even more difficult for them. 

It can be hard to know how to respond sensitively and effectively to these and other complex issues. Helping someone access the extra support that they need may not be part of your job but it is fundamental to good customer care and ethical consumer cultures.

There are so many organisations out there that are there to help and assist vulnerable people. If you want to go above and beyond for your customers, it is essential to be aware of how you can sensitively direct someone to appropriate support. 

How to identify a vulnerable consumer? 

They have difficulty communicating

Whether you offer support via email, phone, or contact form, there will always be people who have different accessibility needs and will need extra support or help to get their issues resolved. 

For older people, those with a visual or hearing impairment, or someone with a disability, communication may be extra difficult. The same goes for those whose first language is not English. 

If you are struggling to understand a customer’s request for help, it may be a sign that they have significant issues with communication. You will not be able to help them resolve the issue at hand without removing these barriers. 

Our article on accessibility for businesses has a list of helpful tools and resources that you can direct people to that will make clear communication easier for everyone involved. 

They show disproportionate levels of distress

It is common for unhappy customers to use emotive language in their complaints as a way to get a company to understand how an issue is affecting them.

However, if the language of the complaint is extremely aggressive or catastrophising, or the customer’s level of distress seems disproportionate to the issue itself, it may suggest that someone is struggling a great deal with their mental health. 

Seeking support for mental health issues can make complaining much easier and more bearable for the customer. There are lots of charities and organisations you can direct someone to, where they can talk things through: 

  • The Samaritans are available 24 hours a day. You can call 116123 for free. Their Welsh Language Line is 08081640123 (7 am to 11 pm). You can also email jo@samaritans.org or visit a branch in person.
  • CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably) is contactable via 0800 585858 (5 pm to 12:00 am) or via their web chat service.

At the moment the cost of living crisis is putting a lot of strain on people’s mental health and new services have been created specifically for this. 

  • If you feel like the customer is struggling with their mental health due to financial pressures, Mind.org has a special set of resources focusing on money and mental health and staying well in the cost of living crisis. 

Remember to remind someone that their mental well-being is important and that they will not be wasting anyone’s time by seeking advice and support.

The responses can be inconsistent 

Long gaps between emails or phone calls can be a sign of a busy life. But it can also suggest that someone is struggling to stay on top of an issue, whether due to illness, other responsibilities, or anxiety. 

If you feel as though the customer you are trying to communicate with is struggling to stay on top of their complaint, you may need to suggest that they ask a friend, carer, family member or an organisation like Citizens Advice to help them. 

Resolver’s free service is designed to make keeping track of a complaint easier and may be particularly useful to customers who otherwise struggle to stay on top of communication. 

Our article on seeking further support also has a list of advisory services that can support people from particular groups making complaints. 

They show signs of financial hardship

In the cost of living crisis, there are many people struggling immensely to get a grip on their finances. This is likely to impact their experience of products and services and increase their likelihood of complaining about issues that have left them out of pocket. 

Only organisations regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority can give financial advice. So if you speak to a customer who appears to be in financial difficulty or crisis, you should suggest that they seek specialised support:

  •  Money Helper (previously known as the Money Advice Service) can provide tailored advice in regard to financial problems. As well as their website, they have a free phone line for advice about money and benefits. The number is 0800 1387777 and is available Monday to Friday, 8 am to 6 pm.

Directing your customers to support services

While we want to support our users, there are limits to what we can do: we cannot give extensive individual advice or manage people’s complaints for them. We also know that vulnerable people may need specialised support that we cannot provide. At the same time, we believe that all companies, including ourselves, can and should offer a high level of customer care, and that this includes identifying and directing vulnerable people to organisations that can offer extra help.

Even if you are not sure that you can help a consumer with all of the issues they are struggling with, you should always do your best to direct those who need it to the appropriate resources, regulatory bodies, or support networks.

When re-directing someone to other services, it is essential to make that person feel supported rather than fobbed off. You must also ensure that the support you direct them to is appropriate. This includes making sure that the means of contact and communication is accessible to them and that the service is not costly, ideally free of charge.

Across all sectors and types of issue, Citizens Advice do incredible work to support people from any background, in all kinds of circumstances. 

As well as being able to give extensive guidance about consumer rights, they can also direct people to further resources and forms of advocacy and assistance. So if in doubt, direct your customer to their helpline – 0800 1448884. It’s completely free and available Monday to Friday, 9 am to 5 pm. 


If you have any thoughts on this topic, or any other consumer issues you would like us to cover, feel free to get in touch with us at support@resolver.co.uk.

If you value our work and want to support our free and independent service, you can make a contribution that will help us ensure Resolver remains a free service for consumers in the future.

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