Bob Champion: Getting it right for vulnerable customers

Vulnerable customers are a high priority and we can all expect to hear a lot more about them, writes Bob Champion

How we deal with vulnerable customers is a real matter of concern. Many companies will by now have policy documents and staff training programmes in place – they may think they have solved the problem, but have they really?

The stereotype of a vulnerable customer is someone who does not appear to be on top of their affairs and who may be susceptible to things that are not in the best interests. The elderly and those suffering from reduced mental capacity, for example, those with learning difficulties are obvious candidates. But as we all know appearances can be misleading.

Many of us will know a 90-year-old who is as sharp as a whistle. Others will know highly intelligent people who have speech and other impediments that send out completely the wrong impression of their abilities. These people are not vulnerable customers.

But what of people who on the face of it would appear to be the last people you would expect not to be able to make rational decisions?

I thought I would share with you the details of two individuals who I am very familiar with, to provide an insight into how on the face of it a person can appear to be perfectly able, but get themselves into difficult situations.

One suffers from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), the other is Bipolar.

During ‘up periods’ the person with ADHD can – on the face of it – appear very confident. In fact, they are over-confident. In several sales jobs, over the short term they exceed their targets through determined energy and gusto. Customers love their personable nature.

If life could just be a routine of call, sell, place order, move onto next call, then all might be well. But life doesn’t work like that, and therefore what happens when that routine is broken?

Well, simple things, such as a motorway closure or missing a crucial appointment, can cause a reverse in confidence resulting in their world going to pieces. This then creates a ‘down period’.

During the ‘down period’, if they are lucky, they will go through life’s motions. On the surface they will appear to be coping but many things that should be done will be overlooked – the post will not be opened, for example; in essence, they move into an ostrich syndrome. If I don’t think about it, it cannot be happening; they overlook the boring things such as paying bills and so forth.

It is during these times I often think about the efficiencies of modern life processes. A simple traffic penalty of £60, which if ignored, can result in bills of over £1,000, a few months down the line. The problem is determining whether the person is deliberately trying to avoid the £60 penalty or are they going through a vulnerable period?

How would you react, for example, if a client ignored all your communications?

I referred to the outcome of their ‘down period’ above, coming if they are lucky. A bad ‘down period’ can result in several days or more in bed hiding from life.

The person concerned is generally lucky as they a good circle of friends and relatives. This helps to create routine; helps to solve problems that have arisen during the down period; and get them back onto an even keel. Having that support system is vital to their well-being and the time it can take to get them out of this type of ‘period’.

I will now turn to the person who suffers from bipolar. If you met them, they would come across as very competent, sensible and organised. They would be your ideal office manager.

You would not believe the same person has a history of self-harming and has been sectioned three times for their own safety after suicide attempts. In their case, it is never easy to see what triggers a sudden transition from one extreme to another.

Due to their ailments, both individuals have had periods when they’ve not been in work – this has gone on intermittently for all of their adult lives. Currently both are on their longest periods of stability I have known, which is undoubtedly good news, and long may it continue.

However, what’s your view on whether they should be entering into long-term financial commitments? Perhaps, given the current stability, now is the best time to ‘sign up’ for these?

They may come into your office as a potential customer tomorrow. Both will be in an ‘up period’. But, is that the whole story? For instance, the person with ADHD will be vulnerable to the extent that during an ‘up period’ they may overstretch themselves. The bipolar person may convince you their problems are now manageable, if the problems get mentioned at all.

Identification

The big question for you and the advice you provide is whether you’ll be able to even identify them as vulnerable customers? And, if you can, how will you treat them differently to any other customer? How will you be able to prove you did everything in your capacity to identify and handle them – after all, it involves a lot more than developing policy documents and a staff training programme.

This is by no means easy, but it is becoming ever more important, especially if you have an ageing client base, and even if you do not. As a start, understand what the regulator is saying about this area, and be prepared to develop your offering in tune with it. Also, anticipate a great deal of further work in this area – vulnerable customers are a high priority and we can all expect to hear a lot more about them, and how advisers can deliver the best service possible to them.

Bob Champion is chairman of the Air Later Life Academy