Financial troubles have the capacity to unsettle and disturb regardless of our mental state. Our relationship with money says a lot about how we feel about ourselves – self-worth invested in our ability to manage our finances and, by extension, our lives. Sophie Fiveash is a financial support adviser at a short term loan company based in Bournemouth. Currently undertaking a diploma in therapeutic counselling, Sophie is discovering that her course and career choices are dovetailing in unexpected but beneficial ways...
Having never worked for a short term loan company before, I certainly had my doubts and judgments before starting employment with a business of this nature.
I wasn't sure what to expect, but I think everybody recognises the stereotype of the loan industry lending to people who cannot afford to pay back, interest added at extortionate rates and ruthless phone operators.
So why was I interested? I love customer service and was recommended by a friend, so I thought I may as well go for an interview and see for myself.
After passing my probation and with the knowledge I was training to become a counsellor, my manager asked me if I would be interested in using my skills to support vulnerable customers. It didn’t take me long to realise just how important this role would be.
From individuals suffering mental illness, to those living with gambling addictions or learning difficulties, there are many and varied reasons why customers find themselves unable to work and maintain debt repayments. These customers need more time and support to find a solution. Regardless of their situation, we seek to deal with them fairly and accept that personal circumstances can change unexpectedly.
Deciding whether a customer is vulnerable is not always an easy task, but we always strive to be empathic. Customer service agents are good at listening and assessing when someone might need more support. Quite often customers expressing financial difficulties are passed on to me; at this point I can explain the options open to them in more detail.
My aim is to give the customer confidence, reassurance and most importantly the resources to become debt free. Although I'm undertaking a counselling course, I am not counselling over the phone, instead I use my listening skills and my knowledge of mental health issues to find a way to resolve the customer’s financial worry.
As always, we can only share our knowledge, the customer must make their own decisions, but with help, I can point them in the right direction.
The biggest problem I encounter with vulnerable customers isn't getting to the bottom of a sensitive or traumatic experience, but making contact with them in the first place. The temptation to ‘bury heads in sand’ is a strong and relatable one.
Often, they are scared of the situation they find themselves in and fear we will pressurise them into payment. Customers are always surprised and grateful once I have explained how we can help and give them information relating to not-for-profit debt advice organisations like StepChange.
Although we can’t advise what customers should do, we endeavour to supply as much information as we can on the pros and cons of various options. This allows them to make an informed decision and understand the consequences of their action or non-action.
The vulnerable customer role is still new and the process subject to change, but the idea is to develop a relationship where customers speak with the same person each time thus avoiding having to re-explain their circumstances.
The company has a family feel about it, staff are not scripted and this allows the customer service agents to sound more ‘human’ and not so robotic on the phone. It gives customers greater confidence to discuss financial matters which are so often linked to their personal lives.
This creates a much friendlier dynamic and allows honest conversations to develop. Once trust has been gained we can work with customers on a personal level and arrive at solutions that work for them.
I have noticed how mental ill health has been publicised a lot more in the media recently and the stigma around it is slowly lifting, making it easier for people to open up, especially in the workplace. I feel very lucky to be a part of such a tightly knit team who value their customers and staff equally.
Sophie Fiveash is a financial support adviser at Piggy Bank, Bournemouth. She is currently undertaking a diploma in therapeutic counselling.