14 November, 2023

Vulnerable customers: Are you basing your digital transformation strategy on all your demographics?​



14 November, 2023

Vulnerable customers: Are you basing your digital transformation strategy on all your demographics?​

Vulnerable customers: Are you basing your digital transformation strategy on all your demographics?​

Lorraine, 72, stared in frustration at the screen in front of her, shoulders slumped. She had finally gathered the courage to try online banking, but she just couldn’t figure it out. The text was too small for her eyes, the tiny buttons on her phone screen impossible for her stiff fingers to manage. 

All Lorraine wanted was to check her account balance, something that used to be so easy. She’d walk to her local bank branch just down the street, have a chat with the kind manager who knew her by name, and get help with anything she needed. But that branch had closed last year, replaced by an ATM with its flashy touchscreen that she found baffling. 

Feeling defeated, Lorraine reached for the phone to try and speak to someone real…only to get trapped in an endless loop of robotic menus. The automated voice droned on as Lorraine’s heart sank. She set the phone down and sighed. Lorraine’s experience shows how organisations risk leaving vulnerable customers behind if their glitzy new digital strategies ignore certain groups’ realities.  

In the eager rush to digitise everything, are the needs of older adults like Lorraine being brushed aside? What about low-income families struggling to afford devices and data plans? Are people with disabilities unable to use all the digital tools? Rural communities lacking broadband access? 

Clearly, a thoughtful digital strategy is needed – one that makes inclusion a priority from the start. The goal should be to use technology to empower all people, not alienate already marginalised groups. Organisations must commit to understanding their full customer demographics so they can start designing their digital transformation strategies with empathy. 

Vulnerable customers still exist in a digital world  

Vulnerable customers like the elderly, disabled, economically disadvantaged, and digitally illiterate still make up a significant portion of the population. In the UK, over 1 in 5 people are over 65, and close to 14.6 million are living with disabilities. Financial hardship affects millions more families.  

While the digital revolution has transformed society, many vulnerable groups remain reluctant or unable to adopt new technologies. An Ofcom study found that only 55% of adults 65+ use a smartphone. They may struggle with small screens and buttons, learning new tech skills, or affording digital devices and services. As organisations shift online, these customers risk being left behind. 

The risks of exclusion 

When companies prioritise digital-only strategies, vulnerable customers can be inadvertently excluded. Lack of accessibility plagues many digital tools, shutting out people with disabilities. Customers with limited tech skills can’t navigate complex web and app interfaces. Rural populations may lack affordable broadband access. Without thoughtful design, digital solutions create new barriers rather than reducing them. 

Isolation and reduced autonomy 

This exclusion can isolate vulnerable groups, reduce quality of life, and diminish autonomy. As services like banking and healthcare move online, those without digital access lose options. There are ethical implications too. As digital transformation accelerates, organisations must recognise that technology-driven exclusion risks harming the most vulnerable members of society. 

Falling out of compliance 

The Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) defines vulnerable customers as “someone who, due to their personal circumstances, is especially susceptible to harm, particularly when a firm is not acting with appropriate levels of care.” When financial institutions fail to consider vulnerable customers in their digital strategies, they risk falling out of compliance with regulations meant to protect these groups. 

Business risks 

Exclusion also creates business risks. Abandoning vulnerable customer segments means losing a portion of the market. As generations age, organisations that aren’t meeting their needs will fall behind competitors who are more accessible. There are PR risks as well if companies appear insensitive to marginalised groups. 

Building a digital strategy for inclusion 

In our digital era, inclusion is not just an ethical imperative but also a business necessity. Financial institutions and companies across sectors must build truly inclusive digital strategies to serve their whole customer base. Turning the unique needs of vulnerable customers into design constraints inspires innovation benefiting all. Here are key steps for ensuring accessibility and adoption: 

  • Conduct in-depth research with vulnerable customers – Surveys, interviews, focus groups, and user testing will reveal pain points and needs. Include vulnerable groups directly in designing solutions. Dig deep into demographic data to quantify the size of vulnerable groups and identify areas of exclusion. 
  • Prioritise accessibility from the outset – Leverage guidelines like WCAG to ensure digital tools work for all abilities. Consider web, mobile, device, and content accessibility. Provide tools like screen readers, magnifiers, simplified navigation, and alt text. 
  • Offer training and support – Don’t assume digital literacy. Provide workshops, how-to guides, and help desks to boost skills. Offer personalised coaching to increase comfort levels. Hire patient, empathetic staff to assist customers. 
  • Take an omnichannel approach – Blend digital with human touchpoints like phone and in-person. Maintain physical branches with empathetic staff who can walk customers through digital tools. Some customers will need this flexibility long-term. 
  • Promote affordable access – Provide discounted devices, connectivity, and rates for low-income customers. Partner with government programs or seek grants to subsidise access costs. Consider a tiered pricing model. 
  • Practice inclusive design – Test with vulnerable groups when launching new tools. Plain language, read-aloud, and intuitive navigation aid adoption. Evaluate user feedback frequently as needs may change over time. 

Wrapping up 

As digital transformation accelerates across industries, organisations must recognise their ethical obligation to include all customers – not just tech-savvy ones. Exclusion threatens the autonomy, dignity, and well-being of vulnerable groups – many of whom are already at risk of marginalisation.  

This calls for digital strategies centred on understanding – understanding of demographics, needs, and barriers to adoption. With empathy, inclusion and innovation can go hand in hand. 

Richard Devine
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