11.5 million customers contacted – and counting
Kathryn Townsend, Barclays’ Head of Customer and Client Accessibility, tells us about the “flexible solutions” the bank has put in place to support vulnerable customers through COVID-19 and beyond – from guidance on safe and easy shopping, to reduced call wait times for those without access to digital services.
“We’ve all heard the word ‘vulnerable’ used so much in the media in the last year, but at Barclays we don’t believe that people are inherently ‘vulnerable’. Any one of us could go through a difficult time and need some additional support.”
Kathryn Townsend, Head of Customer and Client Accessibility at Barclays UK, says COVID-19 has been “an eye-opener” for people who didn’t always need to consider accessibility in banking. “The imposition of a national lockdown prompted many people to have a new awareness of barriers to banking – something that a lot of disabled customers who we’ve advocated for and worked hard to support are very familiar with,” she says. “It's reinforced to a wider audience the importance of inclusive and accessible practices.”
Townsend says Barclays’ “strong foundations in providing accessible and inclusive banking” helped the bank to “quickly pivot to support more people during the pandemic”. During the crisis, Barclays colleagues have proactively contacted over 11.5 million potentially vulnerable customers since March 2020. These include customers who may have been impacted by corporate collapses, experienced a bereavement or faced difficulty paying their mortgage.
At Barclays we don’t believe that people are inherently ‘vulnerable’. Any one of us could go through a difficult time and need some additional support.
Head of Customer and Client Accessibility at Barclays UK
Along with an online communications campaign to inform customers about managing their finances while self-isolating, Townsend and her team set up resources for branch users who don’t bank online to opt in to regular SMS balance updates.
“Accessibility in the real world”
For Townsend, who was recently shortlisted for the Which? Consumer Champion Award for the work she has led during the pandemic, inclusive banking has been a priority since she first began at Barclays just over a decade ago.
When she joined the bank as a Senior Design Manager in 2010, Townsend was helping to refurbish branches across the UK to ensure each was optimally designed to suit its customers and colleagues – with the guiding philosophy to leave each branch “more accessible than you found it”. Through the project, Townsend says, “I started to see the importance of accessibility in the real world”.
This inspired Townsend to focus on accessibility at Barclays full-time, and since 2013 she has been working to optimise ways of banking for people with different needs or in challenging circumstances. “A lot of people who think about a disabled person think of a wheelchair user – they think about ramps and lifts,” she says. “But it's also about the people who have impairments that aren’t visible – those with sensory differences, neurodiversity and mental health conditions.
“Most people will go through difficult circumstances or acquire an accessibility need during their life, and it’s crucial that the bank thinks about this. My team’s job is to help anticipate some of these things and help design our services to provide appropriate support or solutions where needed.”
Townsend continues: “We've had to think about a strategy that supports all of our customers, whether that's somebody who's been recently bereaved, somebody who's in hospital or a survivor of domestic abuse – to name just a few. That's not to say that there will always be a financial impact, but money touches almost every part of life – so what role does the bank have to play in making sure people’s financial needs are fully supported?”
Vulnerability in the face of COVID-19
The pandemic has led to an increase in the numbers of customers in need of extra support, says Townsend, including those people in lockdown or medically shielding. “Maybe they’ve never had their liberties or their movements restricted,” she says, “so for them their usual way of doing things has changed.”
Beyond that, the spike in unemployment caused by COVID-19 has created a new group of customers who are now facing financial insecurity.
Barclays has developed new initiatives to support those in need – though the pandemic has not made this easy. “Teams were set up to drive changes quickly, so forming a new group while working from home, was interesting – we did manage to bond and quickly figure out what to do. We needed to be really nimble to get things out the door.”
With offshore call centres in lockdown, increased demand at UK call centres and a reduced population to answer calls, she says the pandemic has created “a perfect storm” requiring quick solutions for those most heavily impacted.
“It was a real mix of challenges to tackle,” says Townsend, “whether that was migration to online banking or more practical things, like going shopping.”
To address the longer call centre wait times, she says, “we identified an older population without access to digital banking, and we gave them priority so their calls would be routed to the top of the queue”.
“We also ramped up comms to audiences who we knew were more likely to be struggling,” she says. “When we saw that access to food was often coming up as a customer pain point, for instance, we increased our communications about safe shopping.”
Noting the strong engagement and positive feedback that these initiatives have earned, Townsend says: “Flexible solutions like that shape what modern banking should be all about.”
It’s really important that we have a holistic approach to support customers during all life stages. So, whilst we focus some of our efforts on people who are currently isolated or facing financial vulnerability, we can’t stop everything else.
Head of Customer and Client Accessibility at Barclays UK
Ultimately, COVID-19 has emphasised the power and importance of continuing to work through extreme circumstances. “It has forced us to think in different ways about new challenges,” she says. “More broadly, it has shown that there's so much to build around supporting the demographics of people in difficult circumstances.”
A focus on inclusive banking post-pandemic
Despite the focus placed on COVID-19 during the past year, accessibility has been and will remain a priority for Townsend and her team when the pandemic has ended.
“It’s really important that we have a holistic approach to support customers during all life stages,” says Townsend. “So, whilst we focus some of our efforts on people who are currently isolated or facing financial vulnerability, we can’t stop everything else. That means continuing to drive support for disabled customers, those with different learning needs or people affected by poor mental health.”
Townsend’s nomination for the Which? Consumer Champion Award, which celebrates people who go above and beyond to help customers, reflects the impact of her efforts.
“I feel proud and honoured to have been recognised for my role in supporting customers during this time,” she says. “But it was a real group effort – I couldn’t have done it without my team.”