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Addressing customer vulnerability: When Banking goes digital

Time to read: 5 minutes to gain a different perspective 

'The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.' – Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi


I found myself in a High Street branch of a bank, and I was partially drawn to a conversation/transaction between an elderly couple and the bank cashier. It appeared to be a multi-account cash withdrawal.

It was obvious that this was not a trivial transaction; the elderly couple offered each other several verbal confirmations, re-confirmations, and reassurances. The cashier was polite and professional, and it was clear from that interaction that the cashier recognised and responded to the customers' vulnerability.  

Vulnerability comes in many forms, including socio-economic and mental (e.g., stress, grief, or depression). The UK Regulator, Financial Conduct Authority (‘FCA’), banks, and financial institutions are making inroads into recognising and supporting the financially vulnerable within our society.

However, as I observed this interaction through the lens of banking transformation and increased levels of digitalisation, I asked myself:

  • How well do we serve and service vulnerable customers within an increasing digital age?
  • Is what we are doing in the banking sector working, and
  • Are we doing enough to support the financially vulnerable?

Customer vulnerability within a digital society

'A vulnerable consumer is someone who, due to their personal circumstances, is especially susceptible to detriment, particularly when a firm is not acting with appropriate levels of care.'FCA Definition

Broadly, those that are vulnerable in our society are presented with challenges surrounding:

  • Access: Access to financial information and affordable lines of credit
  • Communication: The ability to communicate with banks and financial institutions
  • Literacy: Knowledge of financial principles and the ability to make sound financial decisions
  • Income: Lower levels of income are often coupled with higher levels of expenditure based upon a lack of self-sufficiency (e.g., individuals who cannot cook may spend more money on food; individuals without cars may spend more on public transport)
  • Health: Health issues, which may extend to mental health problems and short-term memory loss

The combination of these challenges is serious and requires sustained levels of investment to ensure that those who are vulnerable are not left vulnerable. Although I fully acknowledge that the UK Regulator and Banks/ Financial Institutions have an overarching vulnerability strategy, policies, processes, and training in place, I question whether these strategies fully consider the impact of branch closures and wider digital transformations.

According to a recent survey, a total of 757 branches will be closed over the course of 2018 and 2019, with over 2,000 having been closed since 2015; the figures for ATM closures are similar. Whilst branches and ATMs have closed, 71% of adults use online banking, and 22 million people use mobile banking applications. However, the vulnerable within our society will be significantly affected by branch closures and the movement to digital banking, if appropriate and tailored alternatives are not introduced.

I am an advocate for the digitalisation of banking in the context of the human—the customer. Our appetite to digitise sometimes appears to overlook the human-centric nature of digital, in particular in respect to those that are most vulnerable. Vulnerability is not confined to the elderly; the youngest within our society are also vulnerable. According to the UK’s Children’s Commission, in a typical classroom of 30 children:

  • 8 children will have a parent with mental health problems
  • 1 child will be living in material deprivation with a severely low family income (over 471,000 children total in 2016)

In addition, there were over 173,000 young carers in 2016.

As a sector, we have a choice and a duty to provide accessible services tailored to the needs of the vulnerable. We live in wonderful times, and it is within our gift to develop a customer-centric financial services marketplace that produces healthy financial and market returns.

Harnessing human-centric design to address vulnerability

Within the banking sector, digitisation, coupled with wider measures, presents an opportunity to speak to, and support those that are less vulnerable; the adoption of market- and bank-specific banking strategies and policies that are tailored to the needs of the vulnerable has the capacity to make a real difference. For example, influencers in the banking sector can:

  • Ensure that customer vulnerability is materially prompted at a Corporate strategy level
  • Develop an enterprise-wide channel strategy (e.g., branch, telephony, card, ATM, Internet of Things, etc.) that fully considers vulnerable customer-centric journeys and provides frictionless experiences
  • Create a channel design that fully leverages market and customer insight and foresight, in particular regarding web, mobile, ATM, and card design
  • Make tailored products and services that recognise vulnerability and proactively provide next best outcomes at points of maturity
  • Enhance fraud detection and use of intelligent card controls
  • Provide specialist support teams (e.g., customer, product, technology)
  • Offer care-giver assistance supported by home visits
  • Improve access to tools and calculators underpinned by specialist support
  • Deliver a greater degree of assessment when services are withdrawn or altered in respect to the vulnerable

From a sector perspective, there are welcomed signs of collaboration and mobility through the introduction of community-based/shared branches and mobile banking vans. However, there is significant scope for improvement within these areas.

Acknowledging the ongoing efforts of the HM Government and the Regulator, I hope that full consideration of the concerns expressed by charities and communities is incorporated into strategy and policy and thoroughly acted on. I believe that through industry collaboration and human-centric design, we are presented with an opportunity to significantly enhance the financial service offerings and service to those that are most vulnerable within our society.

'I believe that if you show people the problems and you show them the solutions they will be moved to act.' – Bill Gates

What opportunities do you see to that will assist the vulnerable - as banking goes digital?

Ambrish Parmar, Community Group Owner

What opportunities do you see to assist the vulnerable?

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