When you work in the ‘standards’ business it is sometimes easy to forget that for many people getting to grips with the nitty gritty detail of new standards and the implications of new legislation is no easy matter.
The reality is, of course, that meeting the demands of new and changing regulations is a hugely complex issue for service providers. In addition to the cost and resource issues faced, new Acts of Parliament or new Trading Regulations can directly affect how businesses target and interact with their customers. Similarly, there is sometimes a lack of guidance available explaining how businesses should tackle these new obligations and it is evident that many people simply don’t really understand what they should be doing.
In the financial sector for example, “treating customers fairly” is now supposed to be standard policy and is central to responsible and ethical practice – but where service providers often fall down is when dealing with individuals who are vulnerable or disadvantaged. These types of customer are very likely to need additional assistance or help but, like any consumer, will not want to be patronised, labelled or targeted with specific products and services.
Customer vulnerability can be caused by a wide range of factors including mental health issues, physical illness, limited knowledge or awareness of products or markets, or even a change in personal circumstances, such as a bereavement or redundancy.
In some cases, a consumer may be in a vulnerable state as a result of being previously mis-sold a product or service. This could even be a case of stress caused by debt from loan sharks or unscrupulous salesmen. This whole area can be a potential minefield for businesses and many come unstuck by unintentionally excluding consumers through jargon-filled communication or unclear advice.
In order to help organisations better market, assist and deliver services to all customers a new standard has been developed – called BS 18477. Identifying and responding to consumer vulnerability is the key theme of this new standard but it also tackles issues such as the provision of responsible business practices and accessible systems.
In principle, the standard sets out recommendations for identifying potential ‘risk factors’ and how to use unobtrusive questioning to understand the customers’ circumstances quickly and the appropriate approach needed. It pulls together best practice in terms of how services are marketed, sold and presented and the information requirements that different audiences or groups may be looking for. It also offers case studies and statistics that will hopefully highlight where bad practice has resulted in a negative result for both business and consumer. In the UK, the Financial Ombudsman Service and the Citizens Advice Bureau are early adopters of the standard.
The majority of organizations obviously don’t set out to discriminate against or exploit vulnerable consumers. It’s simply that they don’t always consider or know the most appropriate way to anticipate and meet their needs.
So BS 18477 has been designed to help service providers reconsider their approach and respond with greater sensitivity. The aim of the new standard is very clear – to ensure consumers are offered fair, flexible services and to increase customer satisfaction, retention and confidence in the brand.
I believe this is a good move. Not everyone copes with the small print easily and every effort to help the disadvantaged has to be a good thing.