Digital Divide: Are marketers doing enough?

Digital Divide

The spread of COVID-19 around the world in the last 16 months has stopped us all in our tracks and made us re-evaluate what is really important in our lives. The global pandemic has forced us to change our behaviours in a short space of time and at a speed that we could not have previously imagined. 

This change has brought challenges and opportunities for organisations, who are trying to respond to the new behaviours of their customers as well as their staff. We have seen ecommerce sales grow by over 30% in 2020 and Euromonitor estimates that 17% of goods will be bought online in 2021, nearly doubling from 2016 (Source: Forbes, Jan21). Digital solutions to everyday problems are being developed at an unprecedented rate. We can virtually try on clothes with Kendra Scott and use augmented reality to check that the new kitchen table you are about to buy from IKEA looks good in your kitchen. We have become socially dependent with online communities and now meet colleagues, family, and friends with zoom of whatever platform we choose to use. Most of our shopping can be done online. Even products that previously we would have thought impossible to buy without seeing them are now bought through that channel. Estate agents are reporting that people are buying flats and houses with virtual tours and high involvement products like fridge-freezers and sofas are also purchased sight unseen through online platforms.

So, you say, well isn’t this great! Organisations are finally waking up to a brave new world. Well, it is great as long as you have internet access and the skills so you can work from home and socialise and do video calls with your friends. But what about vulnerable people who do not have a smart phone or who have no idea how to use the internet. People who can’t use the internet to readily access health advice or medical appointments or social care. People who can’t use zoom to catch up with their families and friends and have no idea how to do their weekly shopping online. They are being increasingly excluded from society. The pandemic is causing a widening rift in society between those who can embrace these new ways of living and those who are being left behind (6.3% of adults in the UK have never used the internet in 2020 (ONS 2020) and 2 million households don’t have access to the internet). COVID-19 has certainly pushed these issues to the fore.

According to the FCA

“A vulnerable consumer is someone who, due to their personal circumstances, is especially susceptible to detriment, particularly when a firm is not acting with appropriate levels of care.” 

They have identified four key factors that can lead to customers becoming vulnerable: poor health, low resilience (financial and emotional), recent negative life events and poor capability. The group I am concerned about here is the group who have poor capability.

So, what can we as marketers do about this? We are so focused on pushing everything online and making everything self-service we are in danger of ignoring this vulnerable group in society. How can we help bridge the gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’? 

I am in the middle of writing a longer paper about this, but I think it is important for us to reflect on what we might do to address this serious issue in our society. I have 4 main suggestions: 

1. Organisations need to really understand their vulnerable customers and their needs.

They need to know how many vulnerable customers they have and why they are vulnerable. Understanding vulnerable customers’ needs is vital, although customers may have the same vulnerability their needs may be very different. There are many ways of doing this, for example: simply asking them; using information from trade bodies or the FCA; analysing internal data that you already have that may give you some clues; asking front line staff as they are often a great source of insight that is often overlooked. 

Correct understanding of a problem is halfway to resolving it! Once organisations have this information, they are better able to design the product/service and customer experience in ways that can alleviate problems for customers. For example, having dedicated phone numbers for customers who struggle using technology, or testing the impact of changes on vulnerable customers before making changes to services and using this information to improve the services for this group.

2. Use technology to help vulnerable customers

Technology can not only help to identify vulnerable customers, but it can also automate tasks that can improve the customer experience. Basically, technology should be able to free up staff time so that they can spend more time helping vulnerable customers and meeting their needs.

Some areas where we have seen technology making a significant impact are: 

  • Using software for voice analytics to help identify vulnerable customers over the phone or through text and then providing help to staff about how to deal with these situations.
  • Using technology to make it ‘easy’ to be a customer to ensure smooth, seamless customers journeys which reduce the ‘pain’ points for vulnerable customers. This can include flagging ‘human advisers’ which can be available for customers when there are parts of the journey that are ‘sticky’ or confusing.

3. Empower and upskill staff to deal with vulnerable customers.

Vulnerable customers often need personalised service and staff need to have the skills, capabilities, and competences to be able to recognise and appropriately respond to their needs. Staff also need to be sufficiently empowered to be able make the right decisions for each customer. 

4. Develop an organisational climate that treats vulnerable customers fairly

Many firms talk about creating the right culture for the fair treatment of vulnerable customers. But culture is very difficult to change, and it can take a long time. What we really need is the right organisational climate. That is, the right policies, practices, procedures, and rewards that focus on fair treatment of vulnerable customers throughout the whole of the customer journey. This commitment needs to come from the top of the organisation and permeate all the way down to the bottom. Senior managers behaviours are critical here. This is not about paying lip service but being seen to do the right thing themselves. The old saying “actions speak louder than words” really comes to life here. 

Addressing these four key areas will undoubtedly provide organisations with some guidance on what they can do to support vulnerable people, particularly in these challenging times. Considering customers’ needs is not only good for business in terms of improvements in corporate reputation and customer retention but ultimately it also provides customers with a better customer experience and improves their quality of life, especially for vulnerable customers. Post-pandemic is the time to make sure that the right building blocks are in place to support those who are the most vulnerable in our society.

It is said that societies are judged on how well they look after their weaker members. I worry that in the quest for ever improving and seamless digital solutions to deliver fantastic customer journeys, we marketors are in danger of forgetting the most vulnerable in our society. Yes, there are various government initiatives covering inclusivity and alternative services for some disadvantaged groups but the question you should ask in your organisation is “what more can WE, as marketers do to help the vulnerable?”.

This Thought Leadership blog is one of a series written by Marketors to provoke debate and help make marketing more relevant to businesses and society.