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Is There A Better Word?

Updated: Nov 3, 2021

What does the word vulnerability mean to you? For many people, it implies weakness, dependency, and fragility. Historically, it may have been used in conversations relating to individuals who are homeless or elderly. It was something that happened to others; it wasn’t something that the majority of people identified with.

Being Labelled as Vulnerable

The word ‘vulnerability’ has been more widely used during the pandemic. At the start, people were categorised due to their risk of becoming severely ill if they caught Covid-19. Anyone over the age of 70 was automatically classed as vulnerable. They were advised to self-isolate, along with those affected by a health condition.

I was one of them. I went from a week of face-to-face meetings and training to working out how I could fulfil my business commitments without leaving the house. If you were also deemed vulnerable, how did it make you feel? Did you take comfort from being able to use the word and access support or did you take exception to the vulnerability tag?

My feeling is that many people initially disliked being viewed as vulnerable. As the pandemic and its impact continued, more of us faced financial, health and wellbeing challenges. Job losses, furlough, social isolation, home working, care responsibilities and cancelled medical appointments have taken their toll. The past year has made most of us vulnerable at some point.

The Actions of Others Impact our Ability to Cope

During this time, we have seen that the actions of another do impact our ability to cope. When businesses were led by customer needs and altered their services accordingly, it was a lifeline. When individuals took a little more time to talk, it lifted spirits. When employers understood the need for flexibility as staff juggled home schooling, it lowered the stress.

The pandemic has highlighted how unexpected events can make us susceptible to vulnerability. It also helped us to show more empathy; to focus on meeting individuals’ needs. Having said this, being labelled as vulnerable is not something that most people associate with. Should it still be used?

Do Customers Identify as Vulnerable?

This was a point of discussion in my recent Podcast with David Murphy. He suggested that vulnerability is a useful word to use within regulation, policies, and internal communication. It is an umbrella term that covers a broad spectrum of situations and conditions. It saves listing all possible causes of vulnerability.

Having said this, David believes this is not a word that should be used in communication with customers. In customer engagement, the focus should be on customer needs. What can the organisation do to help the customer access the most appropriate services? It is not necessarily important to know the cause of the challenges being faced, but it is vital to understand the additional support that they will benefit from.

A Culture of Inclusivity

I agree with David. I also think an alternative for organisations is to develop a culture of inclusivity. As consumers, we all want to be treated fairly. We want our custom to be valued and it is helpful to have a range of options for engaging with organisations. If your business wants to avoid using vulnerability, you might replace it with inclusivity.

In an inclusive company culture, employees are supported and rewarded for going over and above. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case for a former Lloyds Bank employee, who was criticised and fired for assisting a customer. This action made life more difficult for the customer and employee, as well as damaging the bank’s reputation.

Don’t be the Cause of Vulnerability

This leads to another point that I raised in the podcast; some customers only become vulnerable because of the rigid processes. The customer’s biggest challenge might be that they can only engage with your company via an automated phone line or an App. Not getting a quick response can be frustrating. It can also escalate minor difficulties that become harder to resolve further down the line.

I am not against automated services and digital technology. They are beneficial to both customers and organisations. However, the aim should be to streamline services for some, therefore freeing up time to offer greater support and resources for others.

Adopt a Solutions-focused Approach to Customer Service

In summary, a solution-focused approach emphasises what an organisation can do to deliver customer service excellence to all. There is no need to use the word vulnerable in communication with customers, simply ask ‘How can we help you to access our services?’

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