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supporting welfare to work providers

Engagement: meeting your 50+ customer

Section image for Customer journey - man and woman following footprints on a journey

Your first meeting with a potential customer is an important step on their journey back to work. Many want this meeting to provide a new source of hope and a real chance for “someone to sit and listen to them, to find out what they want and then help them achieve those goals”.

Here are some suggestions to help make the first meeting a positive experience.

Welcome
Some 50+ customers may feel nervous, shy and vulnerable on first meeting you. Others may feel combative, resentful or over confident. You can help put them at their ease by:

  • ensuring they are expected
  • offering a warm and friendly welcome
  • offering refreshments
  • being aware of any referral information.

Practical arrangements
You should have everything well organised to give your customer a good first impression. See this list for points to consider.

Practical arrangements

Time: How long will the session take? Advise your customer of any time limits so you don’t have to end the meeting abruptly.

Venue: Where you meet is important. Use a private interview room if possible, whether you are operating in your own offices or on an outreach basis. Avoid a ‘schoolroom’ type environment.

Privacy and Safety: Make sure you are not going to be interrupted but also consider your own safety. Think about where you position yourself and check if there is any available support in the case of aggressive behaviour.

Resources: Have copies of everything you need close to hand, such as interview documents and a range of up-to-date customer information materials (in different formats if possible). Remove any display material which may give confusing or wrong messages.

Customer-centred approach
It is important to show you understand your customer’s perspective. People aged 50+ may be reluctant to share their aspirations or discuss their fears at a first meeting, especially if they think you are young and inexperienced and will not understand their issues. (If you are young and they do voice this view, you could explain that while you cannot have the same life experiences, you do have expertise in job search and employment matters, which is why they have come.)

Their reluctance to discuss these openly may stem from:

  • expectations of stereotyping
  • a belief that their views are not valued
  • outdated or negative preconceived ideas
  • a difficulty in understanding some of the terminology used
  • previous negative experiences of public employment services
  • an assumption that the support you can offer will not be of any help
  • anxiety or depression, possibly brought on by their employment situation
  • a failure to recognise their transferable skills or experience
  • experience of, or fear of ageism.

Offer them reassurance. Tell them that where you don’t have the answers or where there are limitations to what you can offer they will be referred to other appropriate specialist services, but that you will make every effort to ensure they will not feel they are being passed from pillar to post.

Do remember to listen actively (this means showing interest in what they have to say and make them feel as if they are being heard) and tailor your response.

This will reassure them:

  • they do matter
  • they are being taken seriously
  • they will be treated as individuals.

This case study shows how one adviser dealt with an anxious and defensive customer at a first meeting.

Case study 1: meeting your 50+ customer - dealing with anxiety and hostility

Before being made redundant in May 2009 Alan (56) had been a skilled engineer and hydraulic pipe fitter in the car industry for most of his working life and had earned a good salary. He was referred to the service from both the local Jobcentre Plus and another provider. He had been with the provider for six months, compiled his CV but had not been able to secure work.

Alan was very anxious and defensive when he came for his first meeting, not sure why he had been referred again and expressed the view immediately that he wasn’t sure what I (an employability programme adviser) could do to help him. Alan couldn’t relax, wouldn’t take off his jacket and refused a drink. However, he did immediately open up with an outburst of information, stating that:

  • he felt very angry and rejected
  • he hated going to Jobcentre Plus: he felt ashamed that he had to walk through a crowd of young men and women congregating outside the building
  • he didn’t have a computer, didn’t trust the internet and had only input data onto a computer using a diagnostic programme at work
  • the previous organisation had sent out his CV to numerous companies and he hadn’t heard back
  • he didn’t particularly like his CV – didn’t feel he had had much input into it
  • he desperately needed to get back to work for financial and confidence reasons.

At this point all I had done was listen and give prompts so he knew I was listening to him. I knew it was important to allow his outpouring of pent-up feelings and concerns. It became clear that he had been holding himself together very tightly and had got a lot off his chest and exhausted himself.

I reassured him that while he was not under any pressure to come to use our service, it might help if he knew what we could do to help him and, more importantly, the approach we took and why he might have been referred. It was at this point Alan relaxed. On being casually asked if he felt he would like a drink, he accepted; he also asked where he could find the men’s. When he came back he took off his jacket; he said he felt much better.

I listened to and respected his view. He then took a very positive part in the rest of the meeting in which he:

  • was helped to identify some of his personal barriers
  • listened to an explanation of what we could do to help
  • was reassured that we could help him tackle the barriers he was experiencing.

He saw that he wasn’t alone or unique and that if he joined the provision and completed the initial stages he could benefit from one-to-one support and peer group support and activity.

Alan and I were able to fully complete his first meeting, agree to a subsequent meeting and start to look forward. Alan joined the provision and has become actively engaged in his own self-development. In particular, he has addressed a previously unrecognised and important need he had that related to enhancing his interpersonal skills and ability to join in with other people. Alan has also begun to address his second major barrier and with coaching is using a computer to job search and tackle the internet.

He is now more confident and is much more positive and realistic about securing employment. He has also acknowledged an identified need around IT skills and accepted a recommendation to undertake a computer course.

Selection criteria for joining your service
Set fair and clear conditions for customers who are choosing to join your service and make sure they understand them.

See this example of how one employability programme provider approaches meeting their 50+ customers.

Case study 2: a provider approach

This example of the approach they use has been provided by an employability programme provider, specialising in working with unemployed people aged 50 and over.

We know that to some degree all our customers are going to be nervous and unsure about what is going to happen and what the outcomes will be. So the first interaction and impression they gain is crucial to how the rest of their journey progresses.

Before meeting a customer for the first time we will have usually:

  • received a direct referral from the customer who is responding to our service promotion or word of mouth recommendation,
  • met them briefly at an outreach event
  • received a referral via another organisation.

In all cases we prefer to have direct contact with the customer to arrange an interview time. This also provides an opportunity to:

  • obtain the basic information we need on the customer
  • make sure they know who they are going to meet and where the meeting will be
  • have had the opportunity of putting them at their ease and starting to build a rapport
  • ensure that they know we are looking forward to meeting them and reassure them that we will do our best to help them.

Generally, as with those customers who have come through word of mouth, all customers referred to us already know something about us and have been reassured of our competence. This is because I spend a lot of my time building up good relationships with other providers.

First impressions
We are acutely aware of all the verbal and non-verbal signals a customer is projecting. We always try to use encouraging behaviour, mirroring theirs where appropriate, to start the process of putting them at ease. We introduce ourselves and make certain we use their correct name.

When we meet our potential customers we aim to establish an even playing field. We take our cues from the customer and show we respect their point of view. Before we start the meeting and discuss their needs or what we can do to help we try to make them comfortable by:

  • greeting them and shaking hands and introducing ourselves (very important to the 50+ age group)
  • offering refreshments
  • engaging in general conversation (i.e. the weather / how easy it was to find us).

For people who seem very fraught and worried we use a distraction tactic such as a tour of the premises to get them talking and starting to relax (our building has local historical value and many customers remember playing in the adjacent park or visiting it when it was the town museum).

Our welcome pack includes a questionnaire which asks the customer to give us feedback on how they felt they were treated. We use the feedback to improve our approach.

The people who come to our service do so on a voluntary basis so it is important that we ensure they understand that they have a choice about whether to use our service or not. The onus is on us to give them the information they need to make an informed decision.

Engagement meeting

The first meeting ideally lasts an hour. However, we have to be flexible as this meeting is designed to allow us to begin to get to know the customer and their story as well as provide information and answer questions. It sometimes extends beyond an hour if the customer starts to open up.

At the end of the hour we:

  • ensure that the customer understands what our service offers
  • check where they are on their journey back to work (or other, if work is not their primary goal) as this will be important in the next stages/choices of routes/signposting
  • ask the customer to fill out our engagement paperwork, explaining why we are asking for the information
  • make the next appointment or agree the next action with the customer, or our follow-up
  • seek permission to put the customer’s information on our database.

Disclaimer
This site is for help and information only. It is not meant as an authoritative guide. It is not meant as an authoritative statement of the law, and future changes in the law and other programmes and initiatives could make it less accurate at times. TAEN, the Department for Work and Pensions and the European Social Fund take no responsibility for your use of the information. You should always take professional advice on any specific legal or financial matter.