This is the second in a series of blog posts exploring the impact of Smart Certification on the financial inclusion industry.
Smart Certification recently reached the milestone of 100 certified financial institutions, which collectively serve 42 million clients around the world. Among our lessons learned along the way: consumer protection starts with listening.
When the demonetization crisis struck India in 2016, many clients were left with currency that was no longer valid and had no means to repay their loans. They worried that their financial institutions would treat them harshly. Sulthana, who owns a small shop in India, had a different experience with Ujjivan, a Smart-Certified small finance bank: “When demonetization happened…we told Ujjivan that we needed a few more days to repay it. They were very considerate and understanding, spoke politely and gave us a few more days [to repay the loan].”
While demonetization was a unique shock for clients and lenders in India, the empathy described by Sulthana reflects the importance that Ujjivan places on respectful communication and customer service. As it has done for many of the certified providers, the certification process helped Ujjivan formalize its client-centric approach. Ujjivan has established a separate service quality department with dedicated customer care representatives at all branches, with the responsibility of proactively seeking customer feedback and resolving complaints.
By promoting principles such as fair and respectful treatment of clients, transparency, and mechanisms for complaint resolution at financial institutions around the world, the Smart Certification program works to ensure that clients are heard and kept at the center of the financial inclusion industry. The Smart Campaign conducts research to determine what people really care about and identify risks that disproportionately affect low-income clients. Through projects like the Client Voice and What Happens to Clients Who Default, the Campaign studies what risks and challenges clients face as they gain access to fast-changing financial services. This knowledge informs the design of the Smart Certification standards and industry best practices for responsible financial inclusion.
In its Client Voice research to-date, the Smart Campaign asked clients in four countries (Peru, Benin, Georgia and Pakistan) to describe their experiences with financial providers. The results showed that clients shared similar complaints across geographies:
- Clients had an inadequate understanding of the basic attributes of their products, such as loan terms and conditions.
- Clients said they had unpleasant experiences with financial institution staff members, who often treated them poorly and with disrespect. One client from Pakistan said, “They don’t think that we can genuinely have problems… They don’t try to understand.”
- Mechanisms for filing a complaint at the studied institutions were lacking.
- Clients were making unreasonably large sacrifices to repay their loans. For instance, borrowers in Ghana reportedly skipped meals, sold their possessions, or took their children out of school when they were about to default. Clients who actually default are often pushed into taking more desperate measures, like some in Uganda who fled town or changed their names.
These findings demonstrate that when financial service providers do not prioritize client protection their customers can suffer, which jeopardizes the sustainability of their business. Smart Certification aims to mitigate client harms by listening to clients and supporting institutions to create good communication channels with their clients.
Hearing directly from clients provides information that enables policy makers and product designers to improve their offerings. The findings of the Client Voice research in Peru had a major impact on the Superintendency of Banking, Insurance and Private Pension Funds of Peru (SBS), the country’s primary financial regulator SBS, leading them to adapt the market’s regulatory framework to better meet the needs of clients:
- Clients told us that they didn’t understand how credit bureaus or credit reporting worked; SBS worked with the credit bureau system to develop a simplified credit report that motivated users to look up their credit information.
- We found that 40 percent of respondents in Peru didn’t understand their loan terms; SBS started testing ways to clarify the information on loan terms and conditions, and required insurance companies to explain the scope and characteristics of product coverage to potential clients.
- A quarter of clients in Peru reported that microfinance providers discriminated against those of lower socioeconomic status. SBS implemented new regulations on market conduct, incorporating detailed responsibilities and obligations for financial institutions to improve their business practices and advance equal treatment of clients.
Smart Certification raises the client voice within financial institutions by promoting timely and responsive mechanisms for client complaints and problem resolution. In this way, clients’ concerns are better heard and institutions get the feedback they need to improve their products and services. Smart Certified institutions affirmed the benefits of this feedback loop in a recent survey with 86 percent attesting that achieving certification helped them better understand client risks and allowed them to better serve their clients. This is sorely needed when access to financial services worldwide is growing, but usage is stagnant.
Empathy matters. In the Smart Campaign’s direct conversations with clients, they tell us that they value transparent and respectful service above all else. Empathy and compassion for a borrower who is struggling to make a payment, like Ujjivan client Sulthana, go a long way in increasing client retention and loyalty. So as we celebrate what 100 Smart Certifications means for the industry, let’s not forget what it means to the clients the industry serves.
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