Jonathan Warren
With COVID-19, we are all vulnerable customers
Written by Jonathan Warren on
If you stop to consider the impact of COVID-19, it has thrust all of us into the vulnerable category.

It is with great sadness that as a nation, and indeed a global community, we now tackle one of the greatest health emergencies in modern history. The Coronavirus has had a profound impact on our way of life, and I hope anyone reading this is keeping safe and well in these difficult times for everyone.

I’ve spent the last couple of years immersed in the Financial Conduct Authority’s (FCA) ongoing vulnerable customer agenda. The Financial Lives Survey in 2017 found that up to 50% of people in the United Kingdom (UK) show at least one characteristic of vulnerability. A quite staggering statistic with higher proportions of vulnerability found in some regions of the UK and in higher age groups. Subsequent FCA papers and guidance has challenged the industry to respond to the challenge of delivering better outcomes for the most vulnerable in society.

If you stop to consider the impact of COVID-19, it has thrust all of us into the vulnerable category: the closing of physical access (e.g. bank branches), financial resilience impacts (e.g. continuing income-related activities), access to basic needs and the mental health challenges connected with isolation - not to mention those falling ill or caring for loved ones.  All these and much more has created a climate where we all now fit the widely accepted definition of vulnerable.

I recently attended an industry conference and it was good to hear most people recognise that financial services is at the start of a long journey. A journey that could take a decade until effectively supporting vulnerable customers becomes central to our culture and a natural part of business as usual. But the COVID-19 outbreak is shining an early, unexpected light on the industry’s capability to support a nation thrust into vulnerability. The FCA itself has paused all non-urgent work to deal with the outbreak but protecting vulnerable people remains a focus, albeit with reduced resource allocation.

This is not to condemn financial services; from air travel to supermarkets, no industry has shown a level of preparedness to navigate the outbreak unscathed, not least in customer detriment. However, it is in our control to decide how we respond. I was particularly taken by the Chancellor, Rushi Sunak’s comments that “we want to look back on this time and remember how we thought first of others and acted with decency.”

Ten years after the financial crisis, two-thirds of British people do not trust banks to work in the best interests of society (YouGov) and financial services more widely do not enjoy a very positive public perception. So, whether it’s payment holidays, ensuring staff are trained to support customers remotely, or avoiding an over-reliance on digital channels, perhaps Covid-19 is an opportunity for financial services firms to harness the spirit of the Chancellor’s comments and act with decency, empathy and to do the right thing.

If they do, we could really shift the perception of financial services, get greater insight into and expedite our understanding toward helping people cope with those events that happen in life, and those that many of us would never have expected.

If anyone is struggling with aspects of their financial wellbeing, there are charities and Government support services to turn to, not least the Money Advice Service, which you can find at https://www.moneyadviceservice.org.uk or contact on 0800 138 7777. Meanwhile, a business wishing to check its preparedness to support vulnerable customer can access the free online tool developed by TISA and Altus, the Vulnerability Radar, by going to https://www.tisa.uk.com/tisa-vulnerable-customers-self-assessment/. The tool launched in February and it has been wonderful to see how many businesses have started using it as we begin to work toward together toward a common standard to make a critical difference in vulnerable people’ lives and it couldn’t be more timely.

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