First Impressions: Reframing Vulnerability to Acknowledge Assumptions and Inferences

(text of a talk given at Personal Investment Management and Financial Advice Association’s 2022 Virtual Fest)

Photo by Evie S. on Unsplash

Let me ask you something. Why do you think so many talks start with a question that seems incredibly simple? A question that when you unpack it keeps opening and unfolding to reveal more and more layers?

People are complex. We all acknowledge that. Businesses pay billions of dollars for crucial insights based on thousands of data points because they recognise that. Your customer experience teams, your equality and diversity teams, and your vulnerability teams — as well as your marketing teams will all agree wholeheartedly with that simple statement. People are complex.

They will also agree that this means it takes time to build relationships, to understand the complex needs and aspirations of these complex individuals. But when we look at how much time it takes for human beings to form a first impression of each other the data tell another story altogether. Researchers disagree quite a lot on the actual length of time. But while your strategists and your trainers and your awareness coaches will give you timelines for understanding your customers’ hopes, aspirations, wants, fears, and vulnerabilities that range from days to weeks to a lifetime (certainly a lifetime’s worth of prior data, though they may talk more palatably of a future lifelong partnership), psychologists place the absolute upper band on that time limit at around 30 seconds. Most would say that’s at least one order of magnitude too long, if not more.

And for me, as someone who is, and always will be, what any of your naming conventions would call a vulnerable customer, that mismatch — between how you think you think about me, and how you actually do think about me — has a profound impact. What it means is that any personal element in the relationship we are going to have — and by that I mean what choices you are going to offer me, which products you think I’m not really suited to, which direction you think our conversations are going to go in, right down to what you think my prospects in life are and what the best way to slightly improve them is — all of those trajectories are pretty much set in stone from the moment you take in the first piece of information about me.

It’s a large part of what I do as an activist in the area of neurodivergence (as well as creative thinking) to try to encourage people to believe that a really fundamental part of the way they think about the world creates a serious barrier to what you might call optimal life outcomes for people like me, and to help them find creative ways of removing that barrier, most of which will require them to acknowledge problems with their thinking and then commit to trying to wrestle with something fundamental to who they are. And as I have just explained, any hope I have of success will be largely determined within seconds of our meeting.

So let me ask you again. Why do you think so many talks begin with an invitation that offers connection, collaboration, even intimacy, but in an unthreatening way; and follow straightaway with words that raise your interest and excitement level — not so much that it’s alarming, but enough that it makes you sit up and see what follows?

So now I’ve set that scene I want to explain how these instant impressions and the assumptions and inferences they lead to are particularly damaging for many “vulnerable” customers.

And while acknowledging that there is a problem is a large part of the battle, I do want to offer a couple of insights into how we might move to a solution.

Let me take you back to the late Summer of 2017. That August I won the second of 3 Creative Thinking World Championships.

Just two days later, our washing machine broke. For most people, ordering a new washing machine (we knew exactly which one we wanted) would take about 5 minutes, and an hour of someone’s time when it was delivered.

But my spouse and I are both bipolar. They are autistic; I have ADHD and dyspraxia. As a result of the impact of these conditions on our ability to plan and communicate, it took me 10 hours just to place the order. And I had to recount intimate medical details to more than 10 different individuals before I found a company that would allow me to have the delivery arranged in an accessible manner. It was distressing, humiliating, and left me wrung out, and temporarily broken to the extent I was able to do nothing but sit at my desk and stare at a blank screen for days after.

Whichever of those two things you hear first, you will draw the wrong conclusion about the other.

People who hear that I am neurodivergent and as a result struggle with the simplest of day to day tasks assume that I cannot handle complex intellectual tasks, or communicate strategy, or deliver a keynote presentation . And so I fail to get offered access to life-enriching outcomes.

On the other hand, when people hear about my world titles, or see me giving a keynote, they assume I can’t possibly need help — and so I also don’t have access to life-enriching outcomes.

So although I may benefit just as much as anyone else from an investment product or a portfolio strategy, I am unable to be able to access information about or a conversation-as-equals regarding those things in the same way that others who have not been flagged as “vulnerable” can — not necessarily because an algorithm tells you it would be a risky decision to steer me that way, but because the person advising me assumes my primary need will be to avoid problem debt rather than an optimal returns strategy, infers that I may be prone to poor handling of certain types of risk. Rather than realising that yes, I need to communicate by webchat, yes, I need to be sent a clear agenda of any discussions we have in advance, and yes, I might require exemption from or a different way of handling two factor authentication — but I am as likely to need these in order to have a grown up discussion about the blend of stocks and bonds in my pension as I am because I have an underlying condition that means I need my activity specially monitored for signs I might default on a debt.

The point is not that we don’t get into problems. We do. And these ARE often connected to our condition, though frequently as a result of direct or structural discrimination. The point is rather that you don’t know. Not yet. And here is the one big takeaway: my disclosing to you that I have a support need doesn’t give you any more information about what we might discuss together than you had before — it just tells you the best way for us to have that discussion.

It is correct to say that because I am neurodivergent I am a vulnerable customer. But one of the things I am vulnerable to is oversimplified views — and assumptions made about one area of my life from another; vulnerable to inferences — about my ability to make choices and manage money.

And if you only think of vulnerability in terms of those who are in trouble, and consider your responsibility as helping us avoid that trouble, then the irony is we’re more likely to get into that trouble when it could have been avoided altogether, and we’re less likely to approach for help when we do because we’ve already internalised the message that you don’t see us as humans worth the effort of helping to flourish.

And that brings me to a roadmap towards removing this barrier. Awareness plays a part. But without people acting on that awareness to attempt to keep their biases in check that part is very small. But even with all that, it’s hard. And you are, after all, only human.

And yes, when I say that I am hinting that the answer lies at least in part in automation. It’s no surprise that many mentally ill and neurodivergent people feel happier disclosing things to a bot than a human.

So at the more radical end of potential contributions to a solution is the use of technology. It might seem strange to think of “eliminating the human element” as an important way of providing a better customer service, but when the human element is the problem, automation can be a crucial part of the solution.

Of course, that is not enough to remove the human tendency to assumption and inference. An algorithm is only as bias free as the parameters a human being has given it. Though a machine may be capable of what a human is not: forgetting.

But here’s a suggestion for firms that do want to adopt some degree of machine learning in their dealings with customers — or perhaps those who really want to regulate them in the interests of vulnerable consumers. How about as well as using machine learning to predict the behaviours of customers & pre-emptively avoiding trouble you also use machine learning to predict the biases of advisors/salespeople to pre-emptively avoid them narrowing choice & opportunity?

I’ll end on what feels like an anticlimax because it is so obvious. But it is so uncommon in practice that it needs repeating. If you really want to avoid the damaging assumptions and inferences that create barriers to your vulnerable customers, involve us in everything you do. Listen to what we say, and believe us when we say it.

And to get into the mindset of not making assumptions, give us the support we need to say it. Don’t be like the lecture theatre that has step free access for the audience but not the Professors who give the lectures. I’ve been speaking about disability for almost two decades now. I’ve had the privilege to speak in some incredible venues to some wonderful audiences and for some of the highest profile organisations. All of them have, on the surface, invited me to speak both because they consider me an expert in disability in some context, and because they at least purport to aspire to better or best practice in relation to disability.

And yet I can count on one hand the number of times I have been asked what my own support needs are before I speak. So I end, where I started. With first impressions. Because we as disabled people are as susceptible to them as you are. And just as your first impressions are formed long before the meat of the content of someone’s speech, so our first impressions of an organisation are formed long before we get to the small print of the accessibility statement on your website.

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Dan Holloway

Dan Holloway

CEO & founder of Rogue Interrobang, University of Oxford spinout using creativity to solve wicked problems. 2016, 17 & 19 Creative Thinking World Champion.