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> Posted by Micol Pistelli, Social Performance Director, MIX

Customer retention is a key objective for any business, and microfinance institutions (MFIs) are no exception. Whether you are a shareholder, board member, CEO, or head of operations at a microfinance institution, your strategy must rely on retaining most of your clients that still need financial services. But what happens when many of your clients stop using your services? How do you determine whether they left because they no longer need financial services or because they prefer a competitor? How do you know whether they were dissatisfied with your customer service?

Answering these questions can be difficult. Some organizations conduct exit surveys over the phone or in-person through their customer service departments. However, due to the expense and time required to conduct such research, many MFIs are only able to reach a small number of clients, which may not be representative of the whole. Additionally, the quality of the data collected can be lacking due to inaccuracies because clients may not feel comfortable being candid with representatives of the MFI they are leaving.

Of the thousand-plus institutions reporting consumer protection data to MIX, 65 percent of them have set-up complaint mechanisms that offer some form of redress for clients, such as hotlines, call centers, or customer service representatives. However these feedback tools are functional only when clients proactively use them and when MFIs manage to gather data and solve issues in a timely fashion. What often happens is that MFIs are left with questions about their clients’ satisfaction and can only guess at the root causes for their drop-out.

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> Posted by the Smart Campaign

To date, 44 financial institutions around the world have been certified as meeting the Smart Campaign’s standards for consumer protection. Those institutions, which adhere to the Campaign’s Client Protection Principles including transparency, fair and respectful treatment, responsible pricing, and prevention of over-indebtedness, collectively serve more than 22 million low-income clients.

Recently, the Campaign invited the heads of certified institutions to share their experiences with certification. In a series of video interviews, the CEOs discussed why they elected to engage in the process, what they learned, how and why it improved their business, how investors have reacted, and what it has meant for their customers.

We invite you to take a look at the video, above or here, to learn first-hand about their rationale for undergoing certification and what it has meant to their operations. And of course feel free to share it with your network.

For more information about the Campaign, please visit the website.

> Posted by Joshua Goldstein aka Mr. Provocative

In the seventh Client Protection Principle, the Smart Campaign lays out the way that financial services providers should handle complaints: 1) Effective client feedback mechanisms are in place; 2) Clients are aware of how to submit complaints and do so as needed; and, 3) Complaints are handled promptly and adequately.

Seems easy and straightforward enough. But making this process truly client friendly is truly a daunting challenge. On the “demand side,” poor customers may feel ill-equipped to pose questions to company representatives who come from a different class, caste, or ethnicity. The Smart Campaign’s Client Voice research found as much in both Asian and African markets. It may be psychologically next to impossible—even in the most client friendly institution.

And if the psychological issue is not an obstacle, the technical and procedural challenges may be opaque enough to lead to failure anyway.

Even educated and savvy consumers can get lost in the complex maze of call center options delivered by that hideously cheerful computer voice – you know the one. “Lower touch” often means “no touch.” And even if a well-meaning customer service representative finally answers the phone and tries to help, he or she may be just a cog in a far flung system – unable to get the needed answers.

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> Posted by Rafe Mazer, Financial Sector Specialist, CGAP

CGAP recently launched a Mystery Shopping Technical Guide, based on our experiences sending lower-income consumers to seek financial products in markets as diverse as Ghana, Kenya, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, and the Philippines.

The method of training actual consumers to conduct mystery shopping has proven helpful to understand the challenges they face in achieving financial access and receiving quality product advice. In several markets we found that sales staff often restrict information on fees and charges and do not provide consumers with the lowest cost product option that matches their needs. For example, in Mexico and Peru we saw sales staff who neglected to offer low-fee savings products available at their institution, while in Ghana sales staff never mentioned the APR of a loan, as they are required by law to do. In Malaysia, insurance sales staff did not use the mandatory Customer Fact Find Form which helps assess customers’ needs and product suitability.

These findings are not surprising to those who study client protection and financial advice, and studies in markets such as the U.S. and India have found similar issues with sales staff. All of this raises a fairly important question of “Can we fix financial advice from frontline bank staff?” Or is the incentive to mis-sell too great and monitoring a sufficient number of individual sales practices too burdensome? This is a discussion I have had with regulators. How do you use policy to drive behavior change in a market? The short answer is that it’s not easy; the long answer is that behaviorally-informed policies, product regulation, and market monitoring tools can help.

But what about the committed leadership of organizations that have signed on to the Smart Campaign (which include providers we have visited during these mystery shopping exercises)? If mystery shopping shows that sales staff do not always keep the customer’s best interests in mind, can we fix this with provider or industry-level changes in sales practices or perhaps through sales staff training? I would like to take advantage of this forum to hear from providers who have implemented policies to fix sales staff misconduct so we can start to document good practices for monitoring sales staff behavior. To help kick things off, here are a few ideas from my side, based on our mystery shopping work:

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> Posted by Elisabeth Rhyne, Managing Director, CFI

Sub-Saharan African countries may be leading the world in mobile money and growth in access to accounts, but the state of financial consumer protection in Africa is in urgent need of attention.

In the EIU Global Microscope’s 2014 overall rating of the policy environment for financial inclusion, African countries scored very close to the global average (44 SSA vs. 46 Global out of a possible 100). However, these countries were substantially below the average on consumer protection indicators – market conduct (27 SSA vs. 43 Global) and grievance redress (35 SSA vs. 45 Global).

These numbers have human consequences. The Smart Campaign commissioned research in two African countries – Benin and Uganda – which revealed the frequently harsh environment in which microfinance is conducted. In Uganda, research on what happens to clients who default showed that, lacking regulatory oversight and the calming influence of credit reference bureaus, lenders in Uganda feel compelled to resort to practices such as rapid confiscation of a borrower’s assets. They are afraid that if they do not act quickly, the borrower may flee. In the research on client experiences from Benin, clients reported major gaps in trust and transparency. For example, many reported being surprised by fees that were not explained or expected, having no place to turn when problems arose, or being publicly shamed for late payments.

The research pointed to very low trust on both sides between providers and customers. In fact, in Smart Campaign conversations with African microfinance institutions about consumer protection, one of the most frequently asked questions is, “Who will protect us (the lenders) from them (the borrowers)?”

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> Posted by the Smart Campaign

What are microfinance clients’ thoughts on fair treatment from financial services providers? We explored this question in the context of Benin in a previous post, spotlighting results from the Smart Campaign’s Client Voices project. Now, let’s turn to another country investigated in the project: Pakistan.

The Client Voices project went directly to current and former microfinance clients and asked them about their experiences with their financial providers as well as their thoughts on what constitutes good and bad treatment. The project included qualitative and quantitative research in four diverse markets: Benin, Pakistan, Georgia, and Peru. Research partner Bankable Frontier Associates (BFA) began its investigation in March 2014. It conducted surveys, focus groups, in-depth discussions, and photo association exercises.

So, what did we find in Pakistan?

Clients report satisfaction with financial providers, but do not have long-term relationships with them. In Pakistan, a country with a relatively advanced client protection environment, 85 percent of clients reported that they are either very or somewhat satisfied in their borrowing and savings experiences. In fact, only 5 percent of clients reported experiencing a consumer protection problem. (This compares to roughly 13 percent of clients in Benin.) However, clients in Pakistan usually only stay with their provider for a short period. On average, the studied clients had been borrowing with their current provider for just one year. Our research suggests that MFIs are weak at fostering long-term relationships with their clients compared to the other institutions, like savings groups, NGOs, and private schools. When asked about the future, clients indicated they’d rather start fresh with a new provider or discontinue borrowing altogether. Reasons cited included rigid repayment structures, lack of respect/empathy from loan officers, and being publicly disparaged in front of their neighbors.

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> Posted by the Smart Campaign

Today we’re excited to announce that Alalay Sa Kaunlaran (ASKI) is the first financial institution in the Philippines to be certified by the Smart Campaign. Clients of financial services can face risks. They can get into too much debt, be taken advantage of, or sold the wrong services. Financial institutions can minimize harm to clients by implementing the Client Protection Principles, a common, global framework for client protection. By becoming Smart Certified, an institution demonstrates that it puts the principles into practice.

The non-profit institution earned its Smart Certification in late July following a mission conducted by Microfinanza Rating, and is being publicly recognized today in conjunction with the Asia-Pacific Financial Inclusion Summit 2015, in Manila.

Established in 1987 in central Luzon to serve and empower the poor through microenterprise development, ASKI today serves more than 136,000 clients through 72 branches and 7,794 solidarity groups in 234 cities and towns.

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> Posted by the Smart Campaign

What are microfinance clients’ thoughts on fair treatment from financial services providers? The Smart Campaign’s Client Voices project went to the source and asked clients what they think. Clients were consulted on what they believe constitutes good and bad treatment and their experiences with microfinance providers.

The Client Voices project, a qualitative and quantitative investigation, covers four country markets: Benin, Pakistan, Georgia, and Peru. Today we are releasing the results from Benin and Pakistan, and this post focuses on the results from Benin. Stay tuned for another post on Pakistan soon.

Over the past six years, the Smart Campaign has worked extensively with financial institutions, regulators, networks, rating agencies, and other financial inclusion industry actors to strengthen client protection policies and practices. But until now, we had not heard directly from clients. To embed the process in the local scene and ensure it would be actionable, in each country, the Campaign convened a group of researchers and market leaders to provide local insight and guide the research. In March 2014, the Campaign and its research partner Bankable Frontier Associates (BFA) began investigative efforts, which included focus groups, in-depth interviews, photo association exercises, and surveys.

So, what did we find in Benin?

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> Posted by the Smart Campaign

Smart CampaignToday, the Smart Campaign released for public comment new draft Client Protection Standards – which will be the basis for what we term Certification 2.0. The new standards streamline the previous Client Protection Standards, and reflect the evolving financial inclusion industry. They incorporate client risks pertaining to insurance, savings, and digital financial services. The standards operationalize where the financial inclusion industry sets the bar in terms of the minimum behaviors clients should expect from their financial service providers. Now open, the public comment period extends through November 30, 2015.

We’d love your feedback!

The new standards build off of the first set of Client Protection Standards, released in January 2013, as the basis for the introduction of Smart Certification. The standards and their corresponding indicators, which put the Client Protection Principles into practice, are used to benchmark institutions seeking Smart Certification.

Like the first iteration, the development of Certification 2.0 standards has been a highly collaborative process. Over the past 18 months, the campaign consulted a wide array of stakeholders and up to 30 experts to strengthen and update the standards and indicators.

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> Posted by Susy Cheston, Senior Advisor, CFI

In three days the Center for Financial Inclusion will unveil the FI2020 Progress Report. In it, we define progress made toward financial inclusion and make predictions about the most critical issues facing the industry.

This web-based report has been a year in the making, the result of FI2020’s monitoring of industry trends, interviews with experts, and an analysis of financial inclusion data from both the supply and demand side. We organized the report around the five areas identified in the 2013 Roadmap to Financial Inclusion: Addressing Customer Needs, Client Protection, Credit Reporting & Data, Financial Capability, and Technology.

Perhaps the most fun—and most debatable—aspect of the report is the rating we will reveal for each area, marking where we are on the road to financial inclusion along these five dimensions. The financial inclusion community around the world will have the opportunity to weigh in with their vote – and we expect there will be some disagreement with our opinions. We hope you will not only mark your own rating, but also leave comments with your views. Most of all, we hope this thought exercise will help focus all of our attention on how to close the gaps to get to a 10 in each area.

To offer a sneak preview of the content, I thought I would reveal how we rated progress made on client protection:

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The views and opinions expressed on this blog, except where otherwise noted, are those of the authors and guest bloggers and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center for Financial Inclusion or its affiliates.

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