What images come into your head when you think of a vulnerable person or customer?  Across the public sector and regulated industries such as energy, finance and water, increasingly dynamic, multi-dimensional definitions of vulnerability are being developed to help ensure services are fair and accessible to all. The initial image we may have of someone who is frail elderly or severely disabled no longer covers it.

Factoring in circumstance as much as physical or mental characteristics is one of the recent shifts in understanding vulnerability. Circumstances such as sudden illness, bereavement, job loss or divorce, mean that vulnerability is as likely to be a temporary situation as a permanent one.

Vulnerability is not something that affects other people.  We are all likely to be in a situation of vulnerability at least once in our lives.  This is why many organisations are avoiding the term ‘vulnerable customers’, preferring ‘customers whose circumstances make them vulnerable’.  This definition immediately avoids putting people in a box. It makes vulnerability not a permanent label, but a recognition that life has its ups and downs.

So, how can organisations be confident that they are supporting their most vulnerable customers, regardless of their circumstances or characteristics? Researching vulnerability and really understanding what it means is a vital first step in designing good support services. Each organisation and each area of the country will have different and shifting drivers of vulnerability. For example a water company might recognise that the closure of a major local employer in its area could mean that thousands of households could suddenly find making payments difficult.

We are about to start working with Anglian Water to help them re-think their definition of vulnerability.  We will be talking to a wide variety of customers to gather personal portraits of their circumstances and the issues they face when dealing with their water company. By understanding their stories, we will be helping Anglian to re-examine their assumptions and indeed their definitions of vulnerability and about how easy it is for people to seek help when they need it.

Have you done any similar exercises?  We’d love to hear your experiences. You can also read our 11 tips on engaging with vulnerable audiences in research, engagement and consultation. 


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