Protecting Vulnerable Customers in a Digital World

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In recent years, while the safety of customer service via traditional face-to-face channels has improved, protections for customers in digital spaces have weakened.

Driven by the need to improve shareholder returns year-on-year, the vastly different cost economics have naturally led companies to mine the rich seams of low-cost acquisition and service offered by their websites and apps. In the process, being detrimental to those in society with vulnerabilities. It is the curse of the optimization bell curve.

One of the great superpowers of humans is the ability to read other humans intuitively and effortlessly. It’s a skill we forget we have – even though we use it every time we interact with another human being. We have evolved to detect the subtlest of anomalies in those we encounter and react accordingly.

This ability to read others plays a huge role in customer service face-to-face and by phone.

When a customer enters a garage, say, and asks to buy an expensive sports car with finance as their primary medium of purchase, a sales representative will perform hundreds of intuitive checks without being conscious of them. Beneath the skull, there is a subconscious weighing of all subtle signals that could distinguish a genuine customer from a chancer: dress, posture, the assuredness of movement, pace and tone of speech, non-verbal signs of affluence, tics and gaze. They could not talk you through their process of judgment, but their ‘gut’ guides them, often with great accuracy.

The problem comes when the human disappears from the buying process and the fact-gathering becomes a digital field-based undertaking. The transition from reading all the tiny behavioral cues of a human in front of us to reading 20 entries on a web form is one where the complexities of insight disappear.

Adding alarm bells into highly efficient digital buying journeys becomes clunky at best. Unfortunately, for the tens of millions of people who have a chronic or transient vulnerability in our society, clunky and optimized are very poor bedfellows.

Digital journey optimization is a process skewed to the proclivities found within the largest area on the target market bell curve – the center. The goal is to make the funnel as slippery as possible for this cohort, to reduce drop off and increase the numbers who make a purchase, relative to those landing one the starting line. If, however, tricky questions are needed to spot the specific needs of those on the fringes of the curve, then this can slow the process down for everyone. Drop-off rates rise, conversion dips and a product owner KPI’s on their conversion is more likely to come to regard this fringe as expendable.

That sounds harsh. There are rarely (we hope) conscious decisions to view vulnerable customers as mere collateral damage in the optimization process. More likely, the pure digital efficiency of the whole makes it easier to accept the costs of restorative action for those who fall through the net and suffer detriment.

The inevitable effect of this digital optimization process is perhaps most keenly felt within financial services, where the stakes are particularly high for vulnerable customers. And against the backdrop of an increasingly regulated (and thoroughly correct!) obligation on companies not to marginalize or cause detriment to these customers, it’s clear that digital inclusion must become a priority for the marketing industry.

What would happen if we developed an approach to customer journeys that centered protection and inclusion as much as optimization? That’s the question we asked ourselves 18 months ago, prompting us to launch a project to investigate developing a robust methodology for identifying vulnerability within digital spaces. Our research highlighted the nub of the issue: vulnerability has to be observable through behavior or no-one could be identified as vulnerable. Are behavioral residues of vulnerability observable during digital interaction? Would the edginess of a worried mind translate to that mind’s interaction via a mouse, keyboard, or touchscreen, and how?

We thought so – and found scores of academic papers that backed this hypothesis. However, each tended to look at discrete elements of digital behavior, so the goal became the creation of a methodology that – given the right IT framework – could be used to detect digital evidence of vulnerability wherever on the broad spectrum it fell from serious gambling addiction through to the transient financial vulnerability of a new baby.

Here’s a concrete scenario: a vulnerable customer applying for a high-interest loan online, their vulnerability rooted in the financial detriments of a shift in the rules on Universal Credit change for their newborn third child. They’re under extra financial strain on all sides and this loan effectively ‘kicks the can down the road’. It’s highly likely to be inappropriate, and the customer knows this – but the application is borne of necessity and anxiety.

Within this application, there’s a clear threat to the customer’s future wellbeing, and under threat, our sympathetic nervous system – the fight/flight center – is activated and we become more agitated and tenser. Meanwhile, blood flow to the ‘rational’ corridors of the brain – in the prefrontal cortex – is reduced and our smooth muscles tighten for action.

This reveals itself through less ordered task-management: fast typing and deletions, rapid scrolling, disordered field filling, back and forth navigation. The customer’s ‘outputs’ in terms of human-computer interaction start to reflect the inputs of their personal stress. The tech rests in the monitoring of the digital artifacts resulting from that stress.

It is a shift of behavioral monitoring from holistic to granular and, in the future, we see this methodology filling one of the most serious holes in the digital world: the one that vulnerable customers frequently fall down.

As an industry, we must work together to ensure that we put the humanity back into digital journeys so that the most vulnerable in our society don’t become victims of the optimization bell curve. In many digital environments, inclusion needs an active strategy, which this methodology can facilitate.

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