The importance of empathy for vulnerable customers


Authored by Vicki Heslop, Head of Customer Experience, Covéa Insurance

It’s been a year like no other. We’ve ridden the rollercoaster, not knowing what’s round the next bend. Human empathy has helped us cling on throughout the bumpy ride, boosting our resilience through the power of human connection. In the face of a global health crisis, empathy has never been in greater demand.

Empathy has a profound strength. Barack Obama once said, “empathy is a quality of character that can change the world”. Although I’m not claiming to be able to change the world, we can make the world of difference by showing empathy to our customers, often facing distressing life events like a burglary, car accident, or losing their job.

The humbling force of a global pandemic has taught us is that we are all more vulnerable than perhaps we used to think. By understanding our own vulnerability, we can see the world through a different lens, gaining deeper knowledge and understanding that can help us better understand our vulnerable customers.

I’m not talking about the unlucky few here. Statistically speaking, 1 in 4 of us will have a mental health condition, over half of us will be diagnosed with cancer in our lifetime, the number of people with dementia will double in the next forty years, and the number of those aged over 85 will double in the next twenty years. That means we can be reasonably confident we will all experience vulnerability at some stage in our lives.

In the UK insurance sector, vulnerability affects a sizeable proportion of our market. Over 53% of adults are classified as vulnerable. According to the FCA’s October 2020 Financial Lives Survey, there are now 27.7 million adults in the UK with characteristics of vulnerability such as poor health, low financial resilience or recent negative life events, and this has gone up 15% since the start of the pandemic.

There’s no definitive list of conditions that make someone vulnerable, which makes identifying vulnerable customers a human skill that needs to be learned.  The FCA vulnerability definition describes vulnerability as anyone ‘who is temporarily or permanently at greater risk of harm due to their personal circumstances’ which could cover a vast array of personal situations. 

Businesses then need to think radically and creatively about the way we meet wide-ranging needs of customers with different personal circumstances so that they feel understood, supported and most importantly are not disadvantaged or penalised by our processes.

One of the ways we’ve sought to achieve this is by running ‘know your customer’ workshops, looking at different customer vulnerability traits to better understand and improve how we meet their needs and expectations.   This includes vulnerable customer training for our customer ambassadors and we’re currently working on a new Vulnerable Customer Learning module that will be rolled out across the company.

If companies really want to deliver the best customer experience (and we do), we need to build our products and processes on the assumption that every customer is potentially vulnerable.  If we do this, our people, systems and processes will have the inherent empathy and flexibility to support all kinds of customers in all kinds of situations, whatever they are. 

Feel free to share your thoughts on this with me – Vicki Heslop, Covéa Insurance.


About Covea

Covéa Insurance is the UK underwriting business of the leading French mutual insurance Group Covéa and offers competitively-priced household and motor insurance, along with a range of commercial insurance products designed to meet the needs of most businesses, through a nationwide network of intermediaries.  

Regional distribution teams based in 9 regional offices offer brokers and insurance intermediaries direct access to senior underwriters.  Covéa Insurance handles the insurance needs of over 1 million policyholders.

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