Advice firms should devote additional resources to identifying and addressing the needs of vulnerable customers during the pandemic, a leading charity for older Britons has said.

Age UK, which helps older people access financial and social support, spoke at Personal Investment Management and Financial Advice Association’s (PIMFA) virtual fest about the growing cohort of vulnerable customers during the current crisis.

Age UK consumer policy manager Joel Lewis said finding ways to identify vulnerable clients was key for advisers, and that process starts with trust.

“Financial advisers are often intermediaries, so getting trust right throughout a relationship is crucial,” he said.

“Firstly it’s about identification. People often don’t see themselves as vulnerable, which means firm support for vulnerable customers needs to be positioned as part of their standard offer. It needs to be regularly communicated, rather than being treated as only for those with special needs. Make sure processes for disclosing vulnerability are simple, clear and secure.”

Lewis suggested that firms implement tests to discover vulnerability, by thinking about the common drivers and harms for their clients and using customer data to flag these issues.

He said looking at how much clients accessed a firm’s support measures during this time could provide an insight into how vulnerable they were.

When it comes to client communication, Lewis warned against advisers just pointing clients to online tools and instead should consider tailoring their communication systems.

“We don’t want firms to just signpost online resources but think about what customers need to access a product as efficiently as possible. Many older people have said they struggle to get through to providers [when they’re] looking for payment holidays etc. Some are not having their needs met and this is exacerbating vulnerability,” he said.

“Design is really important, for example, design of phone systems. A lot of people struggle understanding or hearing phone calls and listening to automated systems.”

Lewis added firms should consider designing more flexible ways of confirming ID and passing security checks that don’t rely on passwords or complex authentication.

“At the moment is realistic to expect someone to scan an ID or certificate? We think firms should have the effective measures in place for customers accessing powers of attorney and responding to bereavement, including the ‘tell us once’ approach,” he added.

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