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Phoenix & Samaritans: An active approach to supporting vulnerable customers

In today's society, vulnerable customers often find themselves at a higher risk of mistreatment. A vulnerable customer is anyone who, due to their personal circumstances, is especially susceptible to harm, particularly when a business is not acting with appropriate levels of care. There is a moral obligation to protect and support these customers, ensuring they receive fair treatment and have access to the products and services they need.

Imagine being overwhelmed when struggling to understand complex banking procedures, or having a disability and facing indifference from staff when trying to communicate their needs. These scenarios highlight the challenges faced by vulnerable customers across various industries. They often lack support networks and resources to advocate for themselves effectively, making it essential for businesses to step up and protect these customers’ interests.

Phoenix Group emphasises the implementation of inclusive practices and tailored solutions to meet the unique needs of vulnerable customers. Achieving this commitment started with their own business culture, enabling every colleague with the skills to provide tailored support. Recognising and addressing the vulnerabilities of these customers allows us to foster supportive, inclusive, and respectful environments particularly within customer care.

Behavioural challenge



New Product Innovation

Phoenix have been proactive in supporting vulnerable customers, and wanted to push this even further. They wanted to upskill their employees in order for their customer service teams to recognise when customers are in need of that extra support. To achieve this, they joined forces with Samaritans, the suicide prevention charity, that provide 24/7 emotional support to anyone struggling to cope.

Samaritans have their own Listening Wheel, a tool which saves lives on a daily basis by understanding the core principles of Active Listening. These core tenets could be applied to both external customer communications and internal conversations between colleagues. This partnership has produced unique resources that upskill employees in having empathetic and supportive conversations at work, not only with colleagues and customers, but also beyond that as individuals.

Working with different partners such as Cowry and Samaritans led to one clear question: How can colleagues actively listen to customers and each other to deliver better outcomes for everyone?

Behavioural solution

We answered this challenge with an interactive, immersive and innovative e-learning by collaborating with specialists in empathetic conversations, e-learning development and Behavioural Science.

The course was developed collaboratively with:

  • Samaritans, based on Samaritans' Listening Wheel principles, aiming to equip colleagues with effective listening skills to support customers and colleagues in financial and broader contexts;
  • CanStudios, a learning development company, who were involved in creating this engaging e-learning experience;
  • And Cowry, who provided their expertise in delivering exceptional employee and customer experiences.

Cowry utilises Behavioural Science to unlock creativity and develop exceptional experiences. An understanding of how our brains make decisions allows us to create innovative ideas, playing on different psychological biases in business contexts.

For this project, we wanted to break down the barriers of what someone says versus what someone is thinking. We took inspiration from the Disney film Inside Out, where we see the emotions of the main character and her family on a sub-conscious and conscious level being perceived in opposing ways. Taking this insight, we created two different scenarios, one with a colleague and a customer, the other with a colleague and their manager, showing how poor active listening can lead to poor
outcomes for those involved and 'not feeling heard'. Breaking down these walls allowed us to close the empathy gap between what people think is helping someone, but in reality, can have the opposite effect.

Cowry helped to create an interactive, immersive, and innovative e-learning for colleagues at Phoenix to understand what it’s like to be vulnerable and have a vulnerable mindset.

The aim of this e-learning was to drive more empathetic and understanding conversations with vulnerable customers.

Through collaboration and leveraging each other's expertise, an engaging 30-minute e-learning experience was created. The project was completed within a span of just over three months, from ideation to creation.

Here are three behavioural science techniques we used:

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Narrative Transportation Theory
Humans are hardwired to emotionally connect with stories. By converting scenarios relating to specific vulnerabilities into workplace stories, this transports the listener and brings to life how vulnerabilities can manifest in everyday life.

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Embodied Cognition
Our understanding of a concept can be significantly influenced by our bodies’ sensory experience. Colleagues were asked to complete tasks whilst experiencing a vulnerability such as Macular Degeneration to experience first-hand how it impacts people’s lives.

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Loss Aversion
People experience the impacts of losses twice as intensely as equivalent gains. To recreate the heightened loss aversion felt by those experiencing financial hardship, colleagues were asked to make decisions in a game context following significant financial shocks to demonstrate how loss can impact decision-making.

The behavioural outcomes

96% felt more comfortable understanding the types & impact of vulnerability
Over 90% felt better equipped for difficult conversations
Over 90% agreed that their listening skills had improved



Informative, engaging and I felt I had a better understanding of Vulnerabilities at the end.

Colleagues completing the Vulnerable Customer E-learning

I think it is hugely valuable, good communication is so important, and it helps us to take a step back and listen with intention and communicate effectively off the back of listening effectively.

Colleagues completing the Vulnerable Customer E-learning

This course was the next level. I thought the message between manager and colleague was really powerful as it showed what you believe is good for someone might not necessarily be the case. Listen and find out!

Colleagues completing the Vulnerable Customer E-learning

Winner of the Financial Services Forum Awards for Innovation & Transformation 2023

Want to find out more?

We’d love to chat to you about how to start applying behavioural science - book a slot below to catch up with Jez and find out more.