How to help when your customers struggle to pay their bills
This is the second of two blogs focused on the challenges people face when experiencing debt. The first focused on the steps organisations should avoid when working with people struggling to pay their bills. Now we consider the strategies that will work
In our previous article, we outlined the scale of the pressure and impact that can be caused by debt – and noted that the ongoing cost of living crisis means this has the potential to get worse before it gets better.
We explored the impact on people struggling to cope with spiralling bills, and the ways that organisations, often inadvertently, can sometimes make things worse.
Now we want to look at strategies that will make a positive difference. From our years of in-depth research across an array of sectors, including water, energy, transport and the NHS, we know there are ways to engage with and support people in financial straits which work – both for the individual and the organisation.
And it begins with compassion.
Empathy is key
An understanding, compassionate approach is the bedrock of positive engagement. And positive engagement leads to positive outcomes.
Financial hardship is hugely stressful. The cost of living crisis means many previously ‘comfortable’ households now have to choose between heating and eating.
When our researchers talk to people who have been in this debilitating situation, they tell us: ‘We just want them to listen and understand’.
Organisations that do both, do better.
Give customers back control
People who see their debts mount suffer acute stress – caused largely by a sense of losing control. Fear, guilt, panic and anxiety can quickly follow. People often feel a sense of shame too. There’s a stigma associated with money troubles.
One interviewee told us: ‘Debt – it kills your spirit.’
If you can help them regain that sense of control, you will change your customers’ perspective, minimise any feelings of shame and improve their mental wellbeing.
The first step is to allay their fears. Assure them that no negative consequences are imminent, such as cutting off supplies, sending in bailiffs or taking legal action.
Once they are reassured on that point, you can begin to work with them on a plan to resolve the crisis.
This could be a debt holiday, a discounted bill, a payment plan or similar. Something that will simultaneously relieve the pressure and give them back some sense of control.
In an instant, what seemed to be a financial dead end can be opened up. The customer can look to the future with confidence rather than dread.
Keep in touch – the right way
Keeping in contact is critical, of course – but the style of communication is equally important. All communications with the customer should be support-based and non-threatening.
Always keep in mind that this is not a one-size-fits-all situation. Every customer is different and dealing with unique circumstances, so communications should be personal to them. Agree a communications plan that they are happy with – including the type of communication and how often the contact should be made – and stick to it.
And after the initial way forward has been agreed, don’t disappear into radio silence. Check in on them. Is everything OK? How can we help?
Don’t always depend on digital
The move towards digital communications was accelerated by the Covid pandemic. Increasingly, organisations rely on emails, messages, websites and apps to keep in touch.
But not everyone is comfortable in the digital world.
For those who aren’t, ensure there are other channels available. Make it easy to find your phone number and postal address, as there are still plenty of people who prefer printed letters.
By making communications as comfortable and convenient as possible for each individual customer, you are much more likely to keep them engaged.
And go the extra mile. Many people struggle with form filling, particularly when it comes to financial affairs. Offer to talk them through it, or put them in touch with support agencies such as Citizens Advice who provide a range of services for free.
Keep expectations real
People get used to discounted bills or payment holidays, and can sometimes react badly when they end. So always be clear about the timetable being set up, and be open about when payments are set to increase again. Check in along the way to ensure they are still happy with the plan and the timetable.
Our research shows that most people react negatively to short-term ‘sticking plaster’ solutions. Work with them on a longer-term plan.
And remember their circumstances can change for the better or worse, so be ready to be flexible.
The successful strategy to help people struggling to pay their bills should…
- Involve listening at all times
- Show appreciation that everyone’s circumstances are different
- Develop communications and payment plans tailored to each customer
- Take a medium to long-term approach
- Be understanding, realistic and flexible.
Our research shows organisations that adopt this style of open, compassionate approach are seen as the most helpful and supportive, develop stronger customer relations and garner the most positive feedback. And that ultimately results in successful plans to pay down debts and prevent future debt.
To put it in a nutshell, your ultimate aim – as one Qa interviewee told us – is to give customers ‘one less thing to worry about’.
See also our first blog on steps to avoid when your customers struggle to pay their bills
If you would like to know more our research with those experiencing debt and financial difficulty, contact email@example.com