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It may feel like we have said this time and again over the past few years, but the UK (and, indeed, the world) is facing one of the most challenging periods in our history. The escalating cost of living crisis, not to mention the horrifying events unfolding in Ukraine, are affecting all aspects of our economy and our lives. This is a huge topic that impacts us all – and I know from discussions with many of our members that navigating the ever-increasing divergence and polarisation currently facing UK PLC is at the very top of their agenda.

There are big decisions to be made around how organisations best continue to serve their customer base – and the skillsets, training and development we need to provide employees to assist them in navigating such a volatile environment.

The sad reality is that the squeeze on consumers hasn’t been this harsh since the late 2000’s; causing a huge problem for businesses, customers and the government – and the way organisations respond really matters. Acknowledging that the volatile environment may heighten challenging customer behaviours which puts increasing pressures on staff is one thing, but there are also some other big questions senior business leaders are having to ask themselves.

Boardrooms across the nation will be establishing how they continue to serve a diverse customer base that is increasingly challenged and polarised in the most effective and sensitive way. How will, and should, this impact pricing strategies? What does it mean for enabling and using digital technology? And how are we going to serve vulnerable customers? These are complex and interconnected questions, with no quick fix or easy answers. But leaders must ensure they consider them in the round; taking an analytical approach to explore how best to continue to serve an increasingly fractious customer base.

Doing so is not only important for our society – but for business success and survival through economic turmoil. Now, more than ever, customer experience is a key differentiating factor when it comes to purchasing decisions. Tightening purse strings mean customers will be thinking hard about how and where they spend their hard-earned money – and investing in service should be front of mind as organisations plan for how to navigate the storm.

Sadly, those most likely to be impacted by issues of rising inflation and squeezed cost of living are the most vulnerable in our society. A strategic and purpose driven approach to interactions with vulnerable customers is paramount and deciphering the best point of support will be key. We know from our research that factors such as speed of response, human interaction and making it easy to access goods and services are vital when dealing with vulnerable customers.

Yet as concerns and anxieties rise, organisations should also place focus on providing clear lines of communication, signposting and reassurance. Customer service professionals must be regularly and adequately trained to deal with vulnerable customers and sensitive issues with both empathy and the necessary knowledge to provide practical advice and support.

There is no easy or definitive way to approach the coming months and years, and every experience will be unique. But as leaders, we cannot shy away from the challenges ahead. Now is the time to be asking ourselves the tough questions – and really thinking through how we serve our customers, employees and the nation in both the short and long term. The answers are not straightforward – but I urge leaders to reflect on their core proposition. In being true to our purpose, and understanding our customer base, we can help our customers and our people navigate challenging times.

Jo joined The Institute as its CEO in 2009. She has driven membership growth by 150 percent and established the UK Customer Satisfaction Index as the country’s premier indicator of consumer satisfaction, providing organisations with an indicator of the return on their service strategy investment.

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