Small Business Ethics: Helping Vulnerable Customers

Orange hand holding a turquoise hand on a grey backgroundAs a small business, you’re in an odd position where you’re both more able to help vulnerable customers than a big corporate – and less.

While you don’t have a corporate responsibility budget, you have more sight of who your individual customers are and more control over how you treat them.

Without shareholders, you can more easily make responsible, ethical decisions alongside profit.

But the two aren’t mutually exclusive.

What a small business can do to help vulnerable customers

1. Make your website accessible

W3C is a central set of web standards that is available for anyone to use. If you make sure you’re ticking their boxes for accessibility, you’re in a good place.

If you want to go further than the minimum, organisations like the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) offer website and app reviews to help you get accessible. It requires an investment of both time and money but right now, most of us are missing out on revenue (and good karma) because we’re not helping people with disabilities use our websites.

The advances in technology to improve the lives of visually impaired people just keep getting better. From these new [tactile product use-by date] labels to the software allowing me to use my computer or phone to write documents, emails and even being able to access Twitter, what’s next. #RNIB

— Billy.B (@Mizaru33)
November 14, 2018

So here’s an example for you. I work in car insurance. Surely I don’t need to make my car insurance website accessible for blind people – who probably don’t drive? Wrong-o.

1. Not every policy is bought by the person who will drive the car.

2. You bet your a$$ that search engines rank for accessibility. I’m future-proofing my business by insisting on building with that view.

Yes, maybe it’s a very small percentage of people with sight problems who are buying car insurance policies. But that number would be WAY HIGHER if we made it easy!

I recently wrote a whole post dedicated to website accessibility. It’s all small business stuff (i.e. not expensive!) but the least we can all do help.

2. Recognise vulnerable customers

Embarrassingly, PayPal has put a block on my account because of my purchase frequency. And they’re right too – buying vintage clothes on eBay is what I do when I’m stressed. There have been months that I’m SHOCKED by what I’ve managed to rack up over many, many small transactions.

Monzo and Starling both have gambling website blocks that you can set up to help with your recovery. You can also add someone to your account to approve payments, which can help vulnerable people have financial freedom with a safety net.

Think about an elderly person who’s not getting enough support with their bills. They could have stopped using your service YEARS ago but the money’s kept coming out of their account, month after month. If you offer a subscription or rolling service, make a rule about the number of auto-renews you’ll happily accept.

One quick phone call could help that person – they’re either happy with your service or in real need of someone to step in and do the right thing. Washing your hands of the problem and just taking the money is the kind of attitude that lands you in the Daily Mail.

3. Provide choice for customers

Not everyone has the same needs. The 86-year-old would like to give you a ring so she can pay a human because she’s had her card details stolen before. The 17-year-old with an anxiety disorder can’t pick up the phone to get help with their missed payments – so they’re going into debt.

Having a one-size-fits-all approach means you’re excluding every single person outside that ‘perfect’ customer journey. The number one thing you can do as a small business is to offer as many ways to contact you as possible.

But every contact method you offer has to be as good as the other. Don’t offer web chat if you can’t man it – stick to email. Don’t invite contact through social media if you check it once a week. Having one digital contact method and one phone option is enough to start with.

4. Make your terms and conditions clear as day

Tempting isn’t it – to hide away the bits of your service that might put someone off? The average reading age in this country is between nine and 11 and yet contracts for any service always seem to be interminable. It’s my opinion that most businesses do this on purpose, to make sure no one reads them.

We have an ethical responsibility to help people understand what they’re doing with their money and the potential consequences!

Aside from that moral choice, there’s the fact that many of our industries are regulated.

And aside from THAT, there’s always the risk of being Found Out. Going viral on social media for exploiting a vulnerable customer. Making that Daily Mail headline.

Three things you can do to make your terms clearer:

  1. Run the copy through a reading age tool like hemingwayapp.com – you should be aiming for between a Grade 5 and 6 (this post is a Grade 6).
  2. Cut the nonsense and jargon with a decent copywriter. The shorter and clearer the better.
  3. Don’t hide them away. If they’re important, they should be easily found on your website but also supplied to the customer at the point of purchase.

If we make responsible choices for our customers, we safeguard them, our businesses and our peaceful sleep.