How businesses can help vulnerable people when they need it the most

4 min read
April 30, 2020
Vulnerable Customers

Guest expert, Caroline Wells on how businesses can help vulnerable people when they need it the most

In the last few months, complaints about customer service have rocketed. That’s perhaps inevitable as businesses struggled to deal with both an onslaught of complaints and the challenges of managing helplines and other ways of communicating with staff working from home.

But Resolver is seeing an increasing number of complaints from people who are shielding or are considered to be vulnerable, who aren’t getting the help they need. So we turned to consumer rights and vulnerability expert, Caroline Wells, for her tips on how to help those who need it the most.

[Caroline says]

For three decades now I’ve worked in industries where my role has been to champion the consumer and employee voice. I’ve worked in a lot of different jobs over the years; a customer insight professional, complaints handling and consumer vulnerability expert to name just a few – across a number of business sectors. I’ve also been shouted at quite a bit and dealt with every aspect of customer service, from taking calls to mediating face to face. This has given me an excellent grounding in what makes for a good customer experience.

Because my role means I’m regularly working around UK, speaking to people and businesses, I listen to a lot of speeches where we are told that complaints are a gift. They may well be the case – complaints certainly can help you to improve your product or service – it doesn’t always feel that way when you are at the receiving end of an unhappy customer.

When looking at complaints it’s important to see them from a human behaviour perspective and how what they’re saying applies to your organisation.

Part of this is looking at not just what makes your customers complain, but what stops them complaining. Having an issue but not being able to discuss it can cause challenges that lead to financial difficulty and problem debt further down the line.

This is a particular issue for people in vulnerable or crisis circumstances, or who have a medical condition or disability that is worsened by the situation they find themselves in. Any barrier to complain can mean customers in these vulnerable circumstances are not identified at an early stage.

These barriers could be:

  • Having to repeat their situation to a complaints handler because that member of staff doesn’t have access to the same records as colleagues in, for example, the collections department.
  • Complaints handlers not understanding or knowing a business’s responsibilities under the Equality Act – and not always seeing what’s gone wrong. Also known as defending the indefensible.
  • Customers not being updated – businesses can take a while to investigate and respond to a complaint which can feel like an eternity. This can have an impact on customers’ stress and mental health.
  • Not being proactive in responding to a customer’s needs: e.g. complaints handlers could give people more time to reply without the customer having to ask for it.
  • Not talking to the customer. Relying too much on email and letters to instead of having a conversation.
  • Businesses asking for evidence that a customer is unlikely to have. Organisations tend to ask customers questions such as, “Do you know who you spoke to and at what time?” when it’s likely the organisation could source that information from their own records. The customer says they don’t have that – and immediately feel that their integrity is being questioned.

When a disabled customer finds it hard to get in touch, barriers to complaining are amplified further. With 12 million disabled people in the UK it’s important that organisations implement the right approach in handling complaints. These can include:

  • Ensuring your complaint handling process is accessible to all customers and that your teams of complaints handlers are able to identify and respond correctly, quickly and well to customers who need extra assistance.
  • Having joined up systems: so customers don’t have to repeat their situation to the complaints handler when they’ve already been through it with a colleague in another department.
  • Knowing how your customers really feel about your handling of their complaints: by asking them. A customer being silent doesn’t automatically mean they are happy.

Above all else, it’s vitally important to remember that people don’t fit easily into categories. You can be hugely articulate and have a severe learning disability. You can have a registered disability but might not want to be considered as ‘disabled’. You can struggle to find words despite giving the impression you’re okay.

So it really does matter that we all don’t view vulnerability as a box ticking exercise. Good customer service means looking beyond the angry or distressed person on the phone, the person who’s underlined every word in their complaint letter, the individual who keeps tweeting the same question. We need to train ourselves to look at the bigger picture so we can find the most effective way to help those who need it most.

Caroline is an adviser to everyone from the Money Advice Trust to police boards and local councils and is currently the Advisor of the Year award from the National Centre for Diversity. She’s also a regular TV and radio guest and commentator. Contact her here:

If you need help sorting out a problem with bills, debts or money you owe Resolver can help you for free at

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