The past year has been extraordinary; the pandemic has meant that everything you may have thought you knew about your business and the way you work has probably been turned on its head.
Meanwhile there has been a greater focus on the identification and needs of vulnerable customers by the Financial Conduct Authority. But, does the continued evolution of remote advice make it harder for advisers to identify vulnerabilities?
In the not-so-distant past, the process for equity release advisers was focused on face-to-face interactions with the customer. You would really get to know them by visiting their homes, meeting family members and explaining their options over a nice cup of tea. Likewise, valuers would always visit the property and the customer would receive legal advice in person.
However, Covid-19 has changed all that. With remote advice being essential during the first lockdown and rapidly becoming the norm, a lot of those touchpoints have changed.
So, we need to think again about the protections these interactions afforded our more vulnerable customers. Additionally, the pandemic has increased the numbers of those with vulnerabilities thanks to long-term illness, job losses and the associated financial impacts on adults of all ages and their families.
In its best practice guidance, released for consultation last year, the FCA stated that businesses should be doing much more to support vulnerable customers and ensure they are treated fairly.
In it, the FCA states that there are at least 24.1m people in the UK who show at least one characteristic of vulnerability. This guidance led on from a detailed consultation that included feedback from consumer organisations, firms, trade bodies and vulnerable customers themselves.
As it turns out, with many more newly vulnerable customers in 2020, it was certainly timely.
What has become clear is that working remotely means advisers face a greater challenge in spotting the signs of vulnerability. Throw into the mix that many people may not want to admit they are vulnerable and you have got a difficult situation. It is not easy for advisers.
So, what can you do? Well, doing the right thing for vulnerable customers needs to be something that is embedded in the culture, policies and processes of all businesses.
This may mean a rethink of your existing policies and procedures to ensure the right controls are in place to help these customers as the method of delivering advice changes.
It helps if staff are trained to identify potential vulnerabilities and how best to support customers. Support could be emotional or practical, such as providing communications in braille, audio formats or larger print for those with visual impairments.
It is important that advisers fully understand the impact that certain illnesses or situations may have on someone, so that they can adjust approaches accordingly – before it becomes a bigger issue.
If I were to look for something positive that has come from the pandemic, I would say that it has empowered more people to use technology so they can make face-to-face contact in a virtual way.