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Financial sector needs to get creative in considering the needs of people experiencing vulnerability


Many financial services organisations are rethinking how they connect with people experiencing vulnerability amid increased public scrutiny and regulatory pressure. Meanwhile data-driven insights are giving these organisations greater capacity to create shared value for customers, service providers and the rest of the community.

Some financial services providers have made progress in how they interact with people experiencing vulnerability, but there is a lot more to be done.

When we talk about people experiencing vulnerability, we include people with a long-term vulnerability, such as some people with disability, and people with a short-term vulnerability, such as those going through relationship breakdown, unemployment, a death in the family, drought or a major illness. The common factor is that people in these groups are marginalised in a way that makes it more difficult to interact with financial institutions, and may have special needs that can compound their circumstances if neglected.

Definitions vary, so financial services providers need to think about what vulnerability means in its context. By combining the data these providers hold with external understanding of issues impacting people experiencing vulnerability, a cohort of customers can be identified. If current information is inadequate, providers may need to collect richer information to get a fuller picture of these customers, while fulfilling privacy obligations.

The circumstances faced by people experiencing vulnerability mean financial institutions need to find ways to meet their needs. For example, a lender may need to consider how it adjusts the mortgage repayment schedule for a customer with a major illness. Or a bank may need to consider access arrangements for joint accounts for a customer experiencing domestic violence. In some cases these customers may require particular products to meet their needs, while in others they may need processes that are easier to navigate.

Thinking seriously about these customers is an imperative for financial services providers. It can improve outcomes for customers experiencing vulnerability, benefit society through prevention and protection, lift employee engagement and productivity, and strengthen customer acquisition.

Processes need to be grounded in ethical principles

Financial services organisations need to develop processes that are attuned to the needs of customers experiencing vulnerability to deliver them a quality experience.

Developing these processes requires a principles-based approach grounded in sensitivity and ethics. Based on Nous Group’s experience across more than 200 projects working with vulnerable people, we have developed seven principles that organisations can use to guide their own work:

  1. A ‘do no harm’ mindset. Every action, interaction and solution should avoid compounding existing trauma or hardship, given people experiencing vulnerability often endure secondary trauma through poor service systems.
  2. Ensure safety. Clear consent, anonymity and privacy is paramount. Activities should be hosted in a warm and safe environment where everyone can participate.
  3. Focus on what is good for the customer and for the organisation. Focus on what can be done, rather than what cannot, and listen carefully to customers and employees to discover fresh approaches that fit the unique situation.
  4. Design with not forEnd-users are the experts of their own experience. Work with them to solve complex challenges: go beyond consultation and use co-design to develop, test and implement solutions.
  5. Be prepared to change direction. Insight from customers experiencing vulnerability can often be surprising, so plan for unexpected findings and be prepared to adapt research and methods to get to the root of a problem.
  6. Do not waste people’s time. People lead complex lives, so research and services must value the time of everyone involved, not just the service provider.
  7. Bring the organisation along. Implementing and scaling solutions requires bringing people on the journey while keeping customer needs front and centre.

Design processes can make services easier to use

With these principles in mind, financial service providers are well placed to design proactive services that consider the circumstances of their customers.

This can manifest itself in many ways, including improving complaints processes, an area of particular concern to people with complex needs. Several characteristics underpin a complaints process suited to people experiencing vulnerability:

  • The process should be easy to navigate.
  • The organisation should be contactable through multiple channels and at extended hours.
  • Customers should be able to nominate family or supporters to act as representatives and advocates.
  • The complainant should be able to develop a strong relationship with a representative of the institution.
  • Robust and practical policies should be in place for working with customers who have more complex needs.
  • Appropriate sensitivity training should be in place for all staff who handle complaints.
  • There should be consistent principles to guide the complaints process.
  • Systems should capture relevant data and report on the quality of a customer’s service experience and complaint.

The reality is that changes that will improve services for customers experiencing vulnerability will often improve services for all customers. Making processes more straight-forward, communicating in accessible language and building strong relationships are valued by a wide range of customer cohorts.

Human-centred design can guide action

Recently Nous worked with a major social insurer to reshape its service offering for its customers, many of whom had complex needs due to disability and mental health issues following road trauma.

Using human-centred design, Nous worked with the insurer to identify and articulate clients’ wants, needs and expectations. Through extensive user research with clients, service providers and employees we developed archetypes for each cohort that helped the organisation understand its customers’ needs in new ways and redesign services around them.

At a workshop, improvements were co-designed and tested with customers, which built confidence in the solutions and challenged the organisation’s assumptions about what customers wanted. We then prepared an employee playbook that described the principles to deliver the target state customer experience. Co-locating external consultants to work hand-in-hand with the social insurer helped it to understand the reason for design decisions and advocate for customers afterward.

Each organisation needs its own approach that suits its circumstances. But every approach demands quality interaction with the people most impacted, followed by sustained improvements in processes. The alternative – of lumping customers together and ignoring their individual needs – is likely to hurt customers, society and financial service providers themselves.

Get in touch to discuss how we can help you to understand the needs of customers and develop processes that satisfy all stakeholders.

Co-authored by Kirsty Elderton during her time as a Principal at Nous.

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