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Talking about vulnerability: the impact of language on customer experience

Understanding the lifestyles, challenges and needs of ‘vulnerable customers’ is an area in which we are increasingly being asked to help clients. Through this blog series on vulnerability, we will explain why this is important for a vast range of businesses, share our top tips for excellence and provide a spotlight on our main learnings.

Standing in the public toilets on a recent trip to Valencia, I was reminded of how insidious and powerful language can be at defining the way we see the world and people in it. In Spanish, the disabled toilet is called minusvalidos, which literally means ‘less valid’ or ‘less favoured’. It shows the power of simple words to marginalise people and reinforce perceptions of weakness.

Are we doing the same with the term ‘vulnerability’? In our society, with its embedded bias towards strength, there’s a risk the language of vulnerability is used to emphasise weakness, incapacity and an inherent ‘less than’ others.

This perception of vulnerability as weakness discourages disclosure. Customers we’ve spoken to aren’t telling companies about their vulnerabilities, either because they don’t identify or recognise themselves as being vulnerable, or because they feel embarrassed, or assume nothing can be done for them.

In a recent project exploring customer needs, we spoke to Julia * who has a long-term illness and finds it hard to ask for help. She often feels embarrassed having to explain her illness and is sometimes faced with company staff who don’t take her condition seriously, creating additional stress. If she can, she will avoid mentioning her illness or asking for help.

But vulnerability is something that is experienced, not something inherent. The word vulnerable comes from the Latin word vulnus for a ‘wound’ which suggests it is something temporary. And certainly, customers have told us that vulnerability is present in certain situations or systems; it is not perceived as a permanent failing of the individual.

Kim*, who was born with an incurable visual impairment, describes how easy it is for companies to get the perception of vulnerable customers wrong: “It takes a lot of courage to share if you have a disability…when the response is just ‘Oh I’m sorry…’ it really makes you feel like that person is devaluing your life and your situation”.

We are encouraging companies to ask customers what ‘reasonable adjustments’ could be made for them. Making ‘reasonable adjustments’ has been a legal requirement for companies since the Equality Act of 2010, but we advocate making the language customer facing. We couldn’t put it better than Michael*, a customer we spoke to recently with dyslexia and PTSD, who said “Asking what reasonable adjustments could make this situation more suited to your needs is a question that opens it up to anyone who has any kind of condition and helps people to feel safe”.

This question is a non-discriminatory way of enabling customers to share additional needs without disclosing sensitive information. It’s also more inclusive, connecting with customers who may not recognise themselves as vulnerable and allowing for fluctuations in personal circumstance.

There are non-verbal options that companies can employ as well. The Hidden Disabilities Sunflower symbol is now recognised and utilised across the world to represent those whose disabilities are not visible.

Words, signs and symbols are small but powerful. With the introduction of the FCA’s Consumer Duty obligations, what small language changes could you make to transform your customers’ experience?

*names changed for confidentiality


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