By Adele Lomas, General Manager – Recoveries, Ascent

It’s thought that around half of UK adults display one or more characteristics of being potentially vulnerable, with those under 24 or over 65, the unemployed, and those with no formal qualifications most at risk of vulnerability.

It can also be argued that anyone experiencing problem debt should be classed as potentially vulnerable. Indeed, at Ascent, we have recently taken this view to the next level – that it is best practice to look for evidence that a customer is not vulnerable, rather than look for clues that they are.  

If there are warning signs there, our representative could for example ask a customer if are they opening and reading their mail, and check if they understand both the letters themselves and the risks involved in continuing to ignore them. If our representative is physically present rather than on the phone, they can both hear and see the answer.

That’s where I believe that field visits are invaluable. The expertise of the field representative is in their interpersonal skills, and nowhere are these skills more valuable than when they’re being used to identify where they may be dealing with a vulnerable customer.

When we’re instructed by a client to visit one of their customers at their home, it’s usually because they’ve not responded to letters or phone calls, perhaps because they are worried about doing so. Often these are people who struggle to face up directly to their debt problems, so are even more likely to be particularly vulnerable.  

There are many advantages to a field visit. Even if the customer is not in or doesn’t answer the door, there’s still a lot of information that can be gathered just by physically being present at a property. For example, does the property have an overgrown garden or is it in a poor state of repair? Is there a build-up of post that suggests someone is avoiding opening any communications?

Sometimes our field visits are ‘reconnect only’, where our job is simply to put the customer back in touch with their lender by telephone. This can be very daunting to a vulnerable customer, so the reassurances that our representative can provide, to explain that they shouldn’t be concerned about speaking to their lender and that it will always result in a better outcome for them, can be very important.

When a customer conducts a  full financial and current circumstances assessment with a field representative, feedback from our team suggests that most of the time the customers are grateful and relieved to have someone to talk to face to face about their situation. For certain clients, we ask their customers to complete a short survey at the end of a visit, and the overwhelming majority give a very positive view of the visit and the help they’ve received from us. In this age of ever-increasing digital communication, customers – especially vulnerable ones – often seem to genuinely appreciate the reassurance of face-to-face human interaction.

In a customer’s home, our representative might see evidence of a physical vulnerability, such as a wheelchair or mobility aid, or notice that the customer is struggling to move around. They may notice warning signs that the customer isn’t coping well mentally, such as poor hygiene, a very untidy house, unusual levels of clutter, or medication lying around. Our reps can only work on factual information rather than their opinion, but with a customer’s consent, they can gather evidence of vulnerability.

We find that customers tend to open up more about their debt problems if an empathetic, friendly face is sitting right in front of them, than they would to a distant voice on the end of the phone.

Customers who are burying their heads in the sand may open up and share information when they realise the field rep is there to help them – and that is why there is sometimes no substitute for the human touch.

If we do feel a customer is particularly vulnerable, we alert the lender immediately, in advance of our report. This gets the account to their experts quickly, which is clearly a benefit to any customer.

Of course, our representatives can also encourage a vulnerable customer to seek support from friends or family, or signpost them to relevant charities or independent advice organisations that can help them. Often this gentle encouragement to seek help can be the first step towards a more positive future.

The advantages from a lender’s point of view are that field visits often provide them with information they didn’t know before. All lenders want to do the right thing by customers, and the more they know about a customer, the more they can meet their own internal standards and objectives when it comes to treating them fairly. This in turn should help them to protect their brand and reputation.