Helpful tips from Reynolds Busby Lee’s Elaine Lee on how to identify vulnerable customers

by | May 10, 2022

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Elaine Lee, Managing Director and Co-founder of Reynolds Busby Lee, talks to Rebecca Tomes about her important work on how businesses can improve their client experience and, in particular, support the needs of vulnerable clients. Elaine says that vulnerable clients are “everywhere” and shares her tips on how IFAs can identify those at risk.

RT: Can you tell our readers about Reynolds Busby Lee and your role in the company?

Reynolds Busby Lee is a consultancy specialising in customer experience and that includes the experiences of customers in vulnerable circumstances. I’m one of the co-founders and now the Managing Director, we began trading in 2005 and over the last 17 years have worked with businesses and charities that are predominantly direct-to-consumer focussed. My co-founders Joanna Reynolds and Paul Busby left the business in 2016 and 2011 respectively, both returning to client-side roles. Since then, I have led a small team of experienced consultants across a wide range of projects.

A key part of our work is helping our clients to hear the voices of their customers more loudly and clearly. We do this through our Customer Experience Audits (a better version of mystery shopping), consultancy and through our hands-on training sessions.

The Customer Experience Audits work through recruiting panels of ‘shoppers’ who reflect the client’s own customer base. We set them objectives relevant to each client for example enquire about a particular financial or insurance product or to purchase a case of wine for home delivery from our client.  Our ‘shoppers’ choose how they will achieve that objective and keep a real time diary of not-only what steps they took, but also about their attitudes and emotions as they travelled each step of the customer journey. Our clients tell us it’s more helpful to understand customers attitudes, feelings and emotions so they can better understand why customers took the actions they did.

For many clients that may include customers who are in vulnerable circumstances for example a visual or hearing impairment. As those circumstances can impact on both how effective the clients service is delivered and received.

We also provide consultancy and training for clients on recognising customers in vulnerable circumstances and how to make reasonable adjustments. Our work helps our clients to achieve early identification of vulnerable circumstances which allows them to deliver their products and services with the appropriate reasonable adjustments made which significantly improves the customer experience, and improves customer engagement and loyalty.

RT: What tips can you give financial advisers in helping them identify potentially vulnerable clients?

EL: My first tip is that whenever you enter any conversation expect and be ready to interact with a vulnerable customer. There are 67 million people in the UK and the latest FCA Financial Lives survey reports that over 53% could be considered to be in vulnerable circumstances. Therefore, it’s more likely that you will be dealing with a vulnerable client, than not.

I also think it’s important that advisers build a trusting relationship environment in which their clients feel comfortable and confident and can see the relevance and value of sharing information about their vulnerable circumstances with their adviser.  

Advisers also need to think about their clients as individuals; they need to consider 1.) what life stage the client is at, 2.) what life events the client has experienced, 3.) what vulnerable circumstances the client is most likely to have faced or be facing. For example, a 70-year-old client is much more likely to be dealing with dementia than an 18-year-old. It’s crucial to think from a client perspective in order to identify potential vulnerabilities and then to consider what actions can best support that customer at that time.  

This leads me to my next point which is signposting. If an adviser has identified that a client is vulnerable and has particular needs, where do you, as the adviser, direct that individual to ensure they feel listened to and can access the support they require? The adviser needs to do all ‘they’ can do first, before signposting to additional or specialist support and make sure that the signposted organisation is ready and able to support the client.

An easy way to address this is simply by having practical information to hand. Therefore, for example if there is an element of financial hardship, for example, you are able to highlight services that can help – such as a service that gets people out of debt, etc. It’s important that you don’t try and take on the role of ‘counsellor’ or try and diagnose your clients’ particular situation; signpost and gently encourage people to access the appropriate support and reassure them that help is available.

Another top tip is to harness lived experience within your organisation. There is no doubt that people within your team will have been through vulnerable circumstances and you can use that experience to inform internal policies and procedures. Assessing company policies and procedures through the eyes of a vulnerable client, rather than an ‘ideal’ client, is beneficial because, as mentioned, the majority of people will be considered vulnerable in some way at some time in their lives

Advisers can utilize their lived experience by asking themselves the following questions:

  • What did it feel like when I was going through vulnerable circumstances?
  • What were my behavioural traits when I was experiencing vulnerable circumstances?
  • How might my vulnerable circumstances have affected conversations I had with others at the time?
  • How could the services I was offered be improved to better support my needs at that time?

In addition, by adopting the perspective of a vulnerable client, advisers can 1.) gain a deeper understanding of those susceptible to vulnerable circumstances and 2.) identify those at risk more easily as a result.

I also believe firms should provide soft skills training and support to staff. All members of staff should be trained on what soft skills are and how/when to use them appropriately and with due care and diligence.

In addition, I think it’s extremely important to have support mechanisms in place for staff. Dealing with vulnerable people can sometimes be distressing, therefore, organizations should provide staff with a space safe to allow them to deal with any emotional burden following difficult conversations.

My final tip is to get an external view. It can be really enlightening to have an objective individual, who doesn’t share your knowledge, biases, or prejudices, look in at your organization from the outside and then share that objective ‘outside-in’ perspective.

RT: What is the key message that you would like our readers to take away from this article?

EL: Vulnerable customers are everywhere, and it is essential that advisers learn how to recognize them and support them efficiently and effectively with reasonable adjustments. In addition, it might seem obvious, but don’t expect a client to tell you, firstly, that they are vulnerable and secondly, what help they need. The challenge – and your job as their adviser– is to help them work that out. If done right, it’s a hugely rewarding experience but it takes skill as well as the integration of effective processes in order to achieve the best outcomes.

If you would like to talk to Elaine or the team at RBL about how they can help your organisation, feel free to contact them via telephone: 020 3637 0966 or email:

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