CTSI publishes guide on vulnerable consumers

Published on 25 November 2021

The question

Will the UK Government bring in more robust legislation to protect vulnerable consumers?

The key takeaway

Businesses should constantly assess how well they are dealing with vulnerable consumers and consider whether they have sufficient protection measures in place. The new guidance seeks to help with identifying, and meeting the needs of, these vulnerable consumers in a fair way.

The background

The Chartered Trading Standards Institute (CTSI), in conjunction with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), has produced new guidance - framed as a consultation paper - on how businesses should identify and deal with vulnerable consumers, to ensure that they are treated fairly. The CTSI represents trading standards professionals and seeks to influence Government policy on trading standards. The protection of vulnerable consumers was previously identified in 2018 by the Department for BEIS as an area where the law needed to improve and, in its July 2021 consultation on reforming consumer law, the Government cited improved protection of vulnerable consumers as one of its aims. It appears that this area of law is likely to face change soon.

The development

The guidance adopts a broad definition of vulnerability, describing it in the consultation as depending on the consumer’s situation (eg if they are in financial difficulty, suffering a bereavement, or in ill health), or in the market context (eg if they are making a decision based on incomplete information, or they are unfamiliar with the market). 

This definition of vulnerability encompasses a lot of people; for example, one-in-six adults in the UK is estimated to have a mental health condition. Furthermore, the impact of the pandemic is likely to mean that the numbers of those in financial difficulty or suffering from a mental health problem (and who therefore may be vulnerable) will have increased, meaning that businesses may have to deal with many more vulnerable consumers. 

The guidance proposes methods by which businesses can identify vulnerable consumers and adapt in order to properly support them. The guidance proposes a variety of steps that can be taken in order to deal with vulnerable consumers, including the following: 

  • considering communication preferences
  • not making assumptions about the consumer
  • asking how they can better assist the consumer, and
  • ensuring that any agreement or decisions are explained in plain English.

Why is this important?

The guidance is in the form of a consultation paper, produced by an organisation that is seeking to influence Government policy. Accordingly, businesses should ensure they have their say on what should be included within the guidance for dealing with vulnerable consumers. 

Any practical tips?

The CTSI advises businesses to consider “REAL”, namely:

  • retain – can the consumer retain what they are being told?
  • explain – can the consumer explain what they’ve been told?
  • able – are they able to understand what they’re being told? and
  • listen – have they listened properly, or are they just repeating what you’ve told them?

Companies should consider adapting their customer service model to ensure that staff are able to identify and properly assist vulnerable consumers. 

The CTSI also recommends that vulnerable consumers’ needs are considered at every stage of the development of products and services, and that consumers’ different needs regarding communication should be considered (eg someone with anxiety is likely to prefer electronic communication, whereas an older person might prefer a phone call or face-to-face meeting). They also recommend that staff should be trained on the extent to which vulnerability exists in the business’ target market. Furthermore, they recommend that businesses have a vulnerable consumers policy which sets out how staff are expected to deal with vulnerable consumers.

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