‘I’m old, not an idiot’: the elderly are ill-served online

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Carlos San Juan, a 70-year-old Spaniard, has just landed an extraordinary coup. Two months ago him started a petition Encourage banks to stop locking out older customers by closing branches and pushing important transactions online.

the Change.org campaign almost 650,000 signatures with a catchy slogan: “Soy mayor, NO idiota” – I’m old, not an idiot.

Last week, the Spanish authorities and banking associations published a 10 point planbacked by legislation to ensure that older people receive “personal, humane and quality treatment”.

San Juan’s success is a shrill alarm bell for any major institution in finance or elsewhere that believes a cheap new app is a panacea for their customer service woes or pesky overheads.

Having spent part of the past few weeks wrestling with logins, downloads, online security, and various web services on behalf of elderly relatives, I share San Juan’s frustration. Older customers suffer from a lack of empathy, a lack of involvement and, most importantly, a lack of customer strategy.

When I vented on Twitter that an app wasn’t the easy fix companies believe my complaints resonated with hundreds of users. Several admitted they had to impersonate their parents to complete basic transactions online or fool unhelpful call centers. “I found lying flat on my back and tilting my head forward as much as possible was the best way to add 40 years to my voice,” confessed one.

It is clear that acting for people with dementia brings its own difficulties. But the overall problem is more like this “comorbidity” Challenge that makes geriatric medical care so tricky.

The seniors I’ve helped don’t all have cognitive disabilities. They are not digitally or financially illiterate and are often equipped with tablets and smartphones. However, they have an overarching combination of conditions that can turn what app designers and customer service departments think of as simple steps into useless mazes.

A tech-savvy 80-year-old relative with an iPad understands and uses apps and online banking. She prefers not to go on strenuous visits to the bank, like the last time she had to prove that she was unable to sign a document because of a progressive physical disability. But the same condition is also beginning to complicate online transactions, and she worries how to prove her identity without printed bank statements and utility bills.

Another relative, a tech-savvy 90-year-old, prefers to actively use landline phone and mail, and visits his local bank branch when needed, where a personable manager anticipates his needs. But what happens if she gets promoted somewhere else or the bank decides to close the branch? Regardless, to gain access to the online service offered by his health insurance, I had to scan a QR code, retrieve a cell phone backup code, and recover a password. Safe in theory, but in practice daunting and impassable without my help.

Helping older people “go digital” only solves part of the problem. As Joel Lewis, policy manager at charity Age UK points out, financial institutions tout that they will be part of our life journey and then move the goalposts with ‘upgrades’ to technologies that wrest control away from older users to achieve believed.

Sam Richardson, customer engagement consultant at Twilio, the cloud communications platform, says designers of new online services are focusing on mainstream users. She’s heard that some old people at other companies dismiss them as “runaways,” “latecomers,” or “fringe cases.”

Some fringes: the OECD forecasts that by 2028, the over-65s will, on average, make up more than a fifth of the citizens of their member countries, and the percentage will continue to rise. In many countries, the over-65s already make up well over 20 percent of the population. That is before counting other vulnerable users who might have similar issues with an all-digital interface, or poorer people who can’t even afford the necessary technology to participate.

The companies lack strategic foresight here. The plan that San Juan wrested hints from the Spanish banks on what to do. It includes a promise that branches will prioritize face-to-face care between certain hours for older users, provide dedicated phone lines for them, guarantee accessible digital tools, and improve staff training.

That’s a baseline. But smart companies will seize the opportunity to build on this and earn a reputation for offering the best choice, digital and analogue, for older customers. You should think of it as an investment in a growing market. After all, we will all be “idiots” one day.

andrew.hill@ft.com

Twitter: @andrewtghill

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