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Car retail must focus on social media as 'mouthpiece' for vulnerable customers

Social media has become a key mouthpiece for vulnerable customers and car retailers must be ready to identify their needs and respond with empathy, according to The Motor Ombudsman.

In the second of four thought leadership papers planned for 2021, The Motor Ombudsman gives insight into vulnerable consumers use of social media as a primary form of communication when looking to resolve a dispute, advising on how such issues may be identified and managed effectively.

And while the Ombudsman’s existing evaluation framework to ensure a consistent approach when determining possible customer vulnerability lies at the heart of its advice, the importance of safeguarding staff wellbeing is also highlighted.

Bill Fennell, chief ombudsman and managing director of the Motor Ombudsman, said: “Consumer vulnerability is a widely talked about subject, and it is important to recognise that there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach when it comes to managing and identifying vulnerable customers, even on social media. It’s therefore essential to tailor your approach according to an individual’s specific needs.

Bill Fennell, The Motor Ombudsman chief ombudsman“The emergence of Twitter and Facebook as a communications platform for when consumers are seeking help, has meant that we have had to adapt and change our own staff training programme and internal procedures.

“This is so to help ensure that how we identify and manage vulnerability as an organisation continues to move with the times, and ultimately evolves in a direction that accommodates the preferences of today’s customers.”

Many car retail businesses will be accustomed to the need to manage social media relationships to preserve reputation, but the leadership paper advises on the steps that should be taken when the needs of a customer extend beyond the norm.

It states: “Even if the cause of the dispute is ordinarily considered to be relatively minor in nature, it may be amplified or exacerbated by someone’s personal circumstances.

“For instance, a small mechanical problem with a car, which, in the eyes of a repairer, can easily be rectified, may be the cause of significant stress and worry for the individual if they are already suffering from financial hardship or are bearing the emotional toll of caring for a loved one.”

The paper sets out how vulnerability may be identified through the words, phrases and language that is used by a consumer on a social network, as well as the application of non-verbal expression, such as emojis, which may be employed to emphasise an individual’s current state of mind.

Whether a business manages to remedy a customer’s issue or not, there are circumstances where it may be suitable to signpost customers to additional sources of support, it said.

The wellbeing of frontline car retail staff who may encounter distressing or upsetting customer accounts must also be considered.

The paper said: “If staff, especially those who are customer-facing, feel the strain from handling consumers of this nature, it is important that they have the ability to talk to their line manager or others in their department, or an external organisation, to be able to offload their emotions from a wellbeing perspective.”

The impact of difficult customer issues on staff was discussed in an AM interview with Alphera Financial Services head Preston Rogers.

During COVID-19 lockdown Alphera moved 130 staff to customer-facing roles to help meet the growing demand from vulnerable customers.

While the move prevented many of the workforce being furloughed, and provided much -needed support for people suffering financial difficulties, Rogers said: ““The mental health impact on those staff was quite acute and we’ve had to support that as a business. Some of the conversations with customers were very difficult.”

The Motor Ombudsman’s thought leadership papers can be viewed and downloaded here.

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