The Trust’s Vulnerability Lead Chris Fitch, looks at the challenge of supporting customers with gambling, alcohol and substance addictions, and how the Trust’s new face-to-face training can help.
I have been talking to creditors about customers in vulnerable circumstances for the last 10 years – and the good news is that there has never been a greater focus on this agenda than there is now. The better news is that this focus is widening all the time.
As Joanna Elson argued on this blog in March, there was a time when vulnerability was synonymous with mental health, but there is ample evidence that this is changing, Creditors are increasingly looking at the full range other vulnerable circumstances – and gambling, alcohol and substance misuse is near the top of this list.
A quick dip into my latest research, co-authored with Colin Trend, shows why this is the case. More than one in four frontline creditor staff (27 percent) report they find it difficult to talk about addictions with customers – more than any other type of vulnerable situation. We found that staff are often confronted with little or no organisational policy to help them with this issue, and are particularly concerned over how customers will react.
That’s a problem – particularly when you consider that nearly one in ten frontline staff (8 percent) and more than one in four specialist staff (28 percent) encounter customers with an addiction ‘most days’ or ‘every day’.
So what exactly can creditors do?
At a high level, creditors across sectors should ensure that their vulnerability policies take addictions into account. At present, too many customers who should be being supported are falling through this strategic gap – and this can result in ‘later downstream’ financial difficulty.
More specifically, here are five practical steps creditors should consider.
- Consider how addiction is currently viewed internally
Staff often have direct sight of the financial harms that addiction can cause, and are well placed to link customers to external helping services. This is key as addiction is treatable and manageable. To support and refer such customers, organisations need to clearly signal to staff that an addiction is just like any other vulnerable situation.
- Know the ‘signs’ of addiction
There are specific cues that might indicate an underlying addiction when staff are discussing or reviewing a customer’s financial situation. These can include repeated expenditure on known gambling sites, ‘black holes’ in a budget which the customers cannot explain, and sudden bursts of spending which could indicate trying to recoup a loss.
- Raise the issue with customers
Once these cues are recognised the issue can be raised with customers. It is key to note that staff should never assume a potential addiction is a phase that a customer will just pass through. It has to be acted upon. Staff need to start a conversation with careful judgement and tact.
- Understand the situation
When talking about addictions, customers will all respond in different ways, including relief, embarrassment, openness, anger and silence. Staff will need to be able to manage these emotional reactions with a non-judgemental attitude – and reassure the customer about the confidentiality of any information shared.
- Support customers
Just like any other type of customer in vulnerable circumstances, staff should always signpost customers to helplines and other support organisations.
Our 21-steps research (see chapter 16) is clear that staff need more support to have these difficult conversations.
To this end, the Money Advice Trust has launched a new face-to-face training course, developed in partnership with the Royal Bank of Scotland and NatWest. The course, which is available to all creditors, helps staff to understand, identify and support customers with addictions, and can be tailored to different sectors.
Many creditors have told me they are looking again at addictions, since the launch of the research back in June. I hope that this course – which will be complemented by a new e-learning option later this year – will help.