> Posted by Alexis Beggs Olsen, CFI Fellow and Independent Consultant

Building the right channels to serve the financially excluded is one of the most important (and daunting) challenges facing senior executives, boards and investors in the financial inclusion space. They are not alone. As digital technology disrupts a wide swath of industries, leading global consulting firms have engaged in research to understand how best to help companies configure and prioritize digital and human-based customer engagement channels. While affirming the importance of digital innovations and ongoing investment therein, Accenture also sees a need for curbed enthusiasm. “Customers aren’t as predictable as we like to think,” cautions a recent Accenture Strategy paper. “Profitability resides in the digital / physical blur.” Verint also commissioned research in twelve countries that found customers want “a human element” to remain part of customer service and that “those who receive more ‘human’ or traditional customer service display more positive behaviors toward brands.”

But what about financial inclusion, where digital interfaces aren’t a luxury, but rather a model that drives financial inclusion, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa? As part of the CFI Fellows Program, I have been exploring the role of effective human touch in Kenya’s digital age. Ten years after the advent of M-Pesa, Kenya is arguably inclusive digital finance’s most mature market and one of its ongoing innovation epicenters. More than 20 providers offer digital loans, and the market has witnessed a number of advances in savings and insurance.

But even in Kenya, fintechs as well as traditional banks and microfinance institutions adopting digital technology strain to provide the right mix of speed, convenience, reliability, and price. And the most client-centric of these lenders are also thinking carefully about the role of effective human touch in developing strong relationships with customers based on mutual gain and trust.

As part of this research, my associate, Veronicah Viata, and I have spoken with eight service providers and about 100 customers to explore questions including:

  • How are financial services providers integrating human touch into digital products? Is it improving client outcomes?
  • Where is human touch critical throughout the customer journey?
  • Who within the target population will want and need that human touch more than others?
  • What are these customers trying to accomplish at moments when they desire human contact?
  • How should financial service providers build this human contact into their process?

We knocked on quite a few doors, and are excited about the insights and openness of our participating providers. They span the spectrum from low touch to high touch, and include Tala, MyBucks (Haraka), Jumo (Kopa Cash), 4G Capital, Musoni, Vision Fund, as well as insurers including ACRE Africa, Britam, and APA.

In working with each provider, we’ve spoken first with the front-line thinkers—senior leaders, operations and customer experience managers, and (if applicable) field staff— who live and breathe these questions every day. Then we’ve asked each provider to put us in contact with eight of their customers—four active customers and four former or inactive customers.

We’ve also conducted about 40 independent customer interviews to obtain perspectives on a wider range of products and experiences.

The customer conversations have been in-depth qualitative interviews that usually last about 90 minutes. During that time, we’ve scanned customers’ current and past use of loans, savings, and insurance products. We’ve asked what stands out about each provider, usually by asking which animal the product is most like. Customers’ answers have been illuminating, and have included, “a giraffe because he’s up high and he sees all your things there. He knows your business,” “a chameleon because they are always changing,” “an ostrich because they take you far,” and “a cow that doesn’t have milk because I took the loans but they didn’t help.” We’ve also asked when each product was most recently used and (for former or inactive products) the reason the respondent stopped using it.

We’ve then selected one product salient to the research focus and engaged in a customer journey mapping exercise. The concept of a “customer journey” as articulated by (then Frog Design Innovation Specialist) Adam Richardson in Harvard Business Review, has been a useful lens to examine motivations and barriers in digital financial inclusion.

The discussion has involved asking a series of questions for each stage of the customer journey which interviewers have then illustrated on a series of sticky notes. The drawings have allowed us to delve more deeply into “wow factors” and “pain points,” and the role of human touch in the experience.

We’ve also asked respondents whether they prefer to talk to a human being or to interact directly on their mobile phone for each stage of their customer journey.

The resulting customer journey maps from interviews facilitated by the financial service providers are proprietary to those organizations, and several providers have already begun to make changes based on the findings.

Collectively, the 90 maps and interview responses thus far have generated interesting and, in some cases, surprising insights, which we expect will be fully released in Fall 2017 after the data collection and analysis is complete.

In the meantime, what are some of the initial findings?

Predictably, customers have said they want to talk to a human being when they have a question or concern. However, we’ve been surprised by how many respondents have said that they feel they need to express a concern face-to-face in order for it to be taken seriously. We’ve also been surprised by how many people, at varying levels of education, have wanted to talk to a person face-to-face to “get the full picture” needed to comfortably adopt a product. Many respondents have repeatedly ignored texts or social media ads for products until they spoke to a friend who vouched for the product or explained how to use it.

We’ve been intrigued by the interplay between human touch and speed of service. For customers, speed is king and the provision of credit in mere minutes is clearly a “wow factor.” Traditionally high-touch providers are innovating with credit scoring and digital field applications to provide fast turn arounds—ranging from minutes to 24 hours.

At the same time, customers of digital providers describe cultivating “a relationship” with their lenders, often through continuous borrowing. Similarly, fintechs describe a desire to become “full financial partners” with their customers—and seek to build a relationship based on reliability as well as customer service that recognizes that human relationships can be formed digitally.

As we finalize our last rounds of interviews, we’re excited to delve deeper into these themes and to share our learning with the field. Because the Kenyan market is further down the road than many, it provides a unique view of innovations and pitfalls, as well as the opportunities afforded by a savvy combination of both technology and human touch.

Learn more about the CFI Fellows Program here.

Image credit: WorldRemit Comms via Flickr

Have you read?

Introducing Our 2017 CFI Fellows

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Kopo Kopo: Building on the Rails of Mobile Money in Kenya