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How can digital help companies to better serve customers through the impending recession, debt and mental health crisis

In the third episode of our #WhatIf webinar series, we had a fascinating discussion with two world-leading guests: mental health campaigner Jake Mills, founder and CEO of charity “Chasing the Stigma” and Dr. Elizabeth Blakelock, Principal Policy Manager from "Citizens Advice".

We easily filled the 30-minute webinar and could have discussed the issues and challenges for several hours! We’ll be inviting both Jake and Elizabeth back for future episodes to continue the conversations and re-contextualise as we continue the post-lockdown recession and recovery.

During the interview, there were a couple of aspects which particularly stood out for me, regarding the use of digital to help communicate with vulnerable customers, particularly those facing mental health challenges, which I wanted to explore further in this post.

First, I wanted to summarise the landscape that we find ourselves in and some of the key issues…

We know that debt in itself was already a big trigger for mental health issues, with 46% of people in problem debt also having a mental health problem - and vice versa - mental health issues have affected the way customers access and manage services, especially services that are seen as essential, like water, energy, financial services and telecoms. Those customers facing personal challenges like anxiety, lack of motivation and communication phobias like social anxiety need more care and support to ensure they receive a service akin to non-vulnerable customers.

The potential effects of the resulting recession
The COVID-19 lockdown has resulted in increasing numbers of mental health issues, whether that’s exacerbated existing conditions like anxiety and depression, or isolation and fear being a trigger for new mental health issues. This has further been compounded by the economic standstill and a looming recession. Just in the last week - and even more acutely, the last 24 hours - the UK economy is starting to show the pressure:

  • 9.3m jobs are currently on furlough… but what happens when this scheme ends? The furlough scheme has sometimes been called “a waiting room for redundancy”.
  • We know the UK’s GDP fell by 20% in April, the largest monthly drop on record.
  • In the last 24 hours, over 9,000 redundancies have been announced, including:
    • Retail giant Arcadia: cutting 500 jobs
    • Airbus: cutting 1,700 UK jobs
    • Royal Mail: cutting 2,000 staff
    • Easyjet is planning to close bases at Stansted and Newcastle airports

The role of multiple communications channels
Something which came through strongly from both guests was the ability for companies to offer a choice of communications channels, in order to serve those vulnerable customers. Different customers will find different things challenging when experiencing a mental health problem. Some will feel comfortable and more supported being able to speak to someone on the ‘phone. For others, the thought of having to talk openly about a debt problem and mental health challenge to another human could be practically impossible. This is where digital channels really come into their own, giving people an option to type something which might be too difficult to verbalise. Especially when it comes to having their query dealt with very quickly, and not playing on anxieties of a resolution happening or not, and the feeling of failure when needing help from another person.

At Mando, we firmly believe in this multi-channel approach to customer communications and have many solutions which can help businesses to achieve this.

“We helped water provider United Utilities to move almost a million customers online over a ten-year partnership, outstripping most other water providers by 24%.”

From building integrated “my account” portals for numerous utilities companies as part of a digital platform implementation, to developing AI and chatbot solutions, surfaced across channels like Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and voice assistants like Alexa and Google Home. These enable customers to self-serve, getting answers to standard questions quickly and hassle-free, with appropriate ‘hand-offs’ to live agents as and when needed to resolve more complex queries.

The AA is a great example of this, where we implemented a website chatbot which answers a number of FAQs, like updating the car on a breakdown policy, or amending an address.


“We helped The AA to facilitate more than half a million conversations with customers on their website in six months, using an AI-powered virtual assistant.”


Whilst these might not all be vulnerable customers, having the option and choice of channels through which your customers can communicate with you really resonates, and also frees up vital call centre agents to be available to better serve and support those customers with more complex needs.

The seamless journeys between channels
As well as offering multiple communications channels, an equally important aspect is ensuring that the customer can seamlessly move between communications channels. This is something that both Elizabeth and Jake highlighted as being important, and something we touched on during a previous episode of #WhatIf, with Chris Knapp from Microsoft.

If a customer has disclosed over the phone that they are having trouble paying their bill, through financial difficulties, or due to other sensitive factors, they don’t then want to have to reiterate this when they make contact again, or via a different channel, like a chatbot or website contact form.

This is where Digital Experience Platforms like Sitecore and Episerver provide real benefits. The ability to capture and manage all customer interactions across multiple channels, to give a single view of the customer, is a huge advantage. This essential context enables a customer to switch seamlessly between journeys, all managed by the central digital experience platform and can guide your support strategies.

Identifying vulnerable customers
The identification of customers who may need extra support has always been a challenging area. Historically, the main way has been to rely on customers to self-disclose their status. This can be incredibly difficult for some, particularly when it comes to issues that can still be stigmatised in society, like mental health and debt. The utilities sector’s solution via a Priority Services register is a mechanism which can help a great deal, particularly when it comes to coupling this with personalisation features within digital experience platforms like Episerver and Sitecore, providing personalised calls to action and signposting. We discussed this in much more detail in our recent whitepaper.

It is also possible to identify vulnerable customer via your digital channels. We recently launched a Digital Vulnerability Model – a new product which allows you to pull together data from Google Analytics or your Digital Experience Platform (DXP) analytics, including aspects like pages visited, dwell time, session length etc. These factors are combined into a dashboard and a roadmap compiled of ongoing actionable insights to improve the online experience for these customer groups.


The video from this webinar will be released shortly to watch on demand. Hear more of the fascinating discussion from both Jake and Elizabeth, how they see the above issues evolving over the next few years, and the possible solutions to better serve your customers. 

If you want to talk to us further about anything mentioned here, then get in touch via email marketing@mando.agency.