Companies and utilities can spend millions on marketing, but reputations tend to be lost or made at the margin. In the past, this may have been a slip of the CEO’s tongue, or a data breach, or an error of judgement. Today the biggest risk is around how you treat the marginal customer.
As we enter an unprecedented economic environment, with a cost-of-living crisis compounded by rapid inflation affecting the most vulnerable disproportionately, large consumer-facing businesses should be thinking hard about how they are communicating with all their customers, but most notably, those that could be described as vulnerable.
Here are some basic steps for how to approach this sensitive communications challenge.
- How do you actually treat vulnerable customers today?
When dealing with a vulnerable customer base, integrity cannot be over-emphasised. There is no room for cynicism or expediency. What you say and how you act must be integrated from the start.
It can be a good idea to begin by taking an honest review and audit of your values and culture with regards to the attitudes towards, and treatment of, vulnerable customers.
If it’s not exactly where you want it to be, then your first challenge is one of internal communications.
If done honestly, this process may run up against hard commercial realities. But we have found that when approached strategically, there tends to be fundamental alignment between the profit-motive and the good and fair treatment of customers.
- What language will you use?
For instance, in this article, we use the word ‘vulnerable’, but when dealing directly with customers, this may not be appropriate. It may well be the case that labelling or categorising customers in any way is to be avoided in external communications. But you will still need to define a clear lexicon and tone-of-voice to inform both marketing communications and front-line staff interactions.
- Make yourself highly approachable
You may have realised that what is good for your customers is good for you, but they may have some very understandable reasons to be cautious about revealing their vulnerability.
By making your position crystal clear and presenting your company as a good corporate citizen and constructive partner to all customers, you are much more likely to identify people who may be likely to run into difficulties, and direct them towards the support and solutions they need.
- Listen to frontline staff, focus groups, pressure groups
This is a fast-moving situation. The economic environment is deteriorating rapidly and how this plays out in people’s homes and lives should not be left to armchair predictions. Messaging must be informed but what people are actually saying and experiencing on the ground.
For those in financial distress, the world can quickly become over-whelming. Make sure you aren’t contributing to this. For this customer segment, communication needs to be simple, clear and focused.
The worst case would be swamping them with inappropriate sales messages.
For regulated sectors such as financial services or energy, there will often be significant prescription around communications, but this is not a license to provide your vulnerable customers with a format that is anything other than simple, focused and clear.
- Informing your central market positioning
At the start, we referred to ‘marginal (or perhaps marginalised) customers’ – but financial vulnerability may become much more common than that.
How you treat people when it matters most, matters most. If you can develop a truly integrated response to vulnerability, whereby a strong communications toolkit is backed up by an operational reality, then not only will you have managed credit risk while supporting vulnerable people, but you will have a strong basis to develop a wider marketing message for all stakeholders – about how you treat people, and the type of company you aspire to be.
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