Speakers’ Corner: Providers can aid those in need by embracing ‘vulnerability by design’

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Considering vulnerable users is key, says communications ombudsman Jonathan Lenton (picture below) at Ombudsman Services

Vulnerability. It’s a hot topic in the communications sector and it’s only going to grow in importance.

But what is meant by vulnerability? How is it defined and what should the industry be doing about it? When does a consumer become a vulnerable consumer?

There are no easy answers to these questions. What’s clear, however, is that in 2019 communications providers should not only be thinking about vulnerability, but also taking practical steps to ensure they are serving such consumers effectively.

Consumer rules
Businesses in other regulated sectors, such as energy, have been faced with rules around their treatment of consumers in vulnerable circumstances for some time.

As a result, they are generally relatively well-versed and experienced in how to approach the matter.

In energy, for example, consumers in vulnerable circumstances can get extra support from their supplier under the well-established Priority Services Register (PSR) scheme.

In contrast, it was only on October 1 last year that Ofcom added a section on vulnerable consumers to its General Conditions – the regulatory framework with which all communications providers must comply to operate in the UK.

Under the new rules, all communications providers are required to have “clear, effective policies and procedures for identifying vulnerable customers – such as people with learning or communication difficulties or those suffering physical or mental illness or bereavement – to ensure they are treated fairly and appropriately”.

Prior to this, no explicit expectations were placed on providers about how services should be delivered to customers in vulnerable circumstances.

Ofcom’s decision to effectively state that providers can’t do business in this country without having a policy on vulnerability therefore represents something of a game changer.

Best method?
As can be seen from the above extract, the regulator hasn’t been prescriptive about how the new requirements should be put into practice. Instead, providers have been given the leeway to decide how best to deliver services to their customers.

We think that’s the right approach, but it does mean that providers may be unsure whether they are doing enough. So how can the industry ensure that it approaches vulnerability properly? Broadly, the answer is surely to listen to your customers, understand the pain points in their journey and then design services to help them overcome these issues.

Sharing knowledge
Beyond this, one idea is for providers to work together by sharing knowledge and best practice. This might be unusual in a competitive industry such as communications, but from the conversations we’ve had, there seems to be an appetite for collaboration on this important issue.

Gaining insights from other sectors that have had a head start on vulnerability, such as financial services and energy, may also be beneficial.

Among the attendees at fringe events we held at party political conferences last year, for example, was a former Financial Conduct Authority official who played a leading role in drafting the FCA’s highly regarded definition of vulnerability.

This definition states that: “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.”

This is a wide-ranging definition, encompassing many different groups who could be treated unfairly if a provider is not vigilant.

The FCA official was at pains to stress that vulnerability is a dynamic state that can apply to people at different times of life. Ofcom also recognises that it isn’t a fixed condition, stating on its website: “Vulnerability is about people’s circumstances, which can change over time.”

It adds: “Some people’s ability to participate in communications markets and society is affected by factors such as their age, disability, income or geographical location. Life events such as bereavement or illness can temporarily reduce people’s ability to participate in society and/or increase their dependence on certain communications services.”

Matter of circumstances
If we accept that vulnerability is a matter of circumstances, the logical conclusion is that anyone can be susceptible at some point and that providers should therefore build systems and processes that are vulnerability-friendly by default.

In the same way that the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) introduced the concept of ‘privacy by design’ in data protection, communications providers could look to embrace ‘vulnerability by design’.

This goes back to my earlier point about identifying pain points in the customer journey and addressing them.

Workshops
We’re currently hosting a series of vulnerability workshops for businesses and what’s clear is that the industry is determined to do the right thing about it.

Providers want to protect, serve and empower vulnerable consumers – they might just need some reassurance that they are going about doing so in the correct way.

For me, the communications sector has a real opportunity to become a leader on this issue.

Developing a robust approach to it isn’t just the right thing to do, it could also enhance the reputation and standing of individual providers – and build trust and confidence in the industry in general.

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