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> Posted by Kathleen Yaworsky, Lead Specialist, Channels & Technology, Accion, and Alexandra Rizzi, Deputy Director, the Smart Campaign
Sure, I’ll help you do that here. Here’s what you’ll need…
A similar scene unfolded across 80 small merchant agent locations (business correspondents or customer service points, as they’re called in India) as the Smart Campaign conducted mystery shopping research to uncover and understand the client protection risks in the provision of financial services at agent network outlets.
Agent networks play a critical role in increasing financial access by helping financial service providers broaden their reach beyond branches, but in order for an agent network to succeed, the client must trust the agent and be able to perform transactions with confidence. The current rapid growth in agent networks is driven by a push to build out the infrastructure and increase access points. Future growth will require quality from the services delivered through that infrastructure. That’s why it is critical to identify and address potential risks early on.
Complicating the identification and mitigation of client protection risks are several common characteristics of agent banking, including limited agent control over product design and pricing, and the part-time nature and lack of employee status of agents.
> Posted by the Smart Campaign
When most microfinance clients start out they’re first-timers at a formal financial institution. Like anything unfamiliar, a first foray with banks can be intimidating. You don’t want to be duped or make a mistake and lose precious savings. Peace of mind was granted to clients of two microfinance institutions, one in Paraguay and the other in the Dominican Republic recently as the first Smart Certifications in those countries were awarded. Fundacion Paraguaya and Banco ADOPEM were certified as meeting all the standards needed to treat their clients with adequate care. This certification demonstrates to prospective clients as well as investors and other industry stakeholders that their institutions are operating responsibly.
Fundacion Paraguaya and Banco ADOPEM are both market leaders in their own right. Banco ADOPEM is one of the largest microfinance institutions in the Dominican Republic. According to the MIX, 351,000 depositors in the Dominican Republic bank with Banco ADOPEM. When Banco ADOPEM pursues and achieves Smart Certification, that sends a message to MFIs and other stakeholders in the country that client protection is a key priority. In 2014 ADOPEM was named “Most Innovative Microfinance Institution of the Year” by Citi, in part because of ATA-Movil, a portable electronic application that allows credit advisers to assess customers in their businesses or in their homes. The mobile information system also allows for convenient and direct communication with clients.
> Posted by Nadia van de Walle, Lead, Africa Partnerships and Programs, the Smart Campaign
Organizational change doesn’t always start from the top, but if it originates elsewhere, and the change is to last, it’s essential that leadership and management eventually get on board. For years, most of us in financial inclusion have advocated client centricity. If previously unserved client segments are to take up and use products and services for the first time, it’s essential that these products and services meet their needs. But how do institution leaders look at client centricity? I attended the recent Africa Board Fellowship (ABF) seminars in Cape Town, South Africa and joined discussions among financial inclusion CEOs and board members on this topic.
The CEOs and board members participating in the ABF program are from financial service providers offering a range of products and services in countries ranging from Kenya to Burundi to Tunisia and Uganda. On our first day, we discussed client centricity, a trending topic and one of interest to me as a manager of the Smart Campaign. The fellows’ varied experiences and ideas led us to some takeaways:
- Board members and CEOs see a clear business case for client centricity. Participating leaders viewed actively listening to their clients and mapping customer preferences and journeys as imperative for designing better products, building customer loyalty, fostering referrals, and developing competitive advantages.
> Posted by Danielle Piskadlo, Manager, Investing in Inclusive Finance, CFI
“Would you like to save $10 today?” In the United States, it seems you can’t shop anywhere these days without hearing this question at the checkout counter. According to Card Hub, there are at least 134 large retailers in the U.S. offering credit cards. And of course, these offers usually sound great. Who wouldn’t want to save money on purchases? All you have to do is fill out a short form on the spot… It’s easy.
These savings can come at a price. Here are a few of my concerns about credit cards offered by the likes of Target, Macys, Sears, TJ Maxx, and others.
- Confusion between Rewards and Credit Cards – Many retailers provide rewards or loyalty card programs. For instance, you can earn points at CVS with a card or get gas reward points at Stop and Shop. These rewards and loyalty cards are often similar to retail credit cards in that they are offered at the register, you fill out a short form to join, and you present the cards when checking out. For customers with limited financial literacy or limited English language skills, the difference between reward/loyalty cards and retail credit cards can be very confusing. It’s blurred even more by the fact that most credit cards also offer rewards – like cash back or bonus air miles. Of course, there are big differences between a card that one swipes to simply “earn points” and a card that allows one to make purchases on credit.
The Smart Campaign is thrilled to announce that a new milestone for client protection in microfinance has been reached: there are now 50 financial institutions that have been awarded Smart Certification, recognizing their commitment to fair client treatment and responsible practices. In total, these institutions serve roughly 25 million clients.
The threshold was crossed with a handful of recent certifications – Fortis Microfinance Bank and Grooming Centre in Nigeria; Banco ADOPEM in the Dominican Republic; Fundacion Paraguaya in Paraguay; Pro Mujer in Nicaragua; and AgroInvest in Serbia. Each of these institutions worked over a several month process to assess and upgrade their operations to meet every one of the indicators signifying strong consumer protection practices.
Grooming Centre and Fortis Microfinance Bank collectively reach over a half million clients. Founded in 2006, Grooming Centre operates in 22 states in Nigeria with a network of 376 branches. Grooming Centre offers a range of financial services, including savings and credit, small business loans, agricultural loans, and clean energy financing. Fortis Microfinance Bank, along with offering financial services, provides clients with business support in areas including management, marketing, and administration.
> Posted by Ben Lebeaux and Jessica L. Cassel, Senior Communications Specialist and Staff Attorney, Accion
One of the fastest, most efficient ways to promote financial inclusion is to make sure that regulators create policy that encourages innovation and collaboration. Because regulators can singlehandedly affect everything from microfinance institutions to financial technology startups to credit bureaus, helping them make the best possible decisions is one of the best ways to help the two billion financially excluded people access savings accounts, credit, checking, insurance, and more.
That’s why the Microfinance CEO Working Group’s Model Legal Framework and Commentary for Financial Consumer Protection (MLF), published in the spring of 2015, is such a valuable tool. Regulators can use the MLF as a framework to either evaluate existing regulation or to adopt new best practices. Rather than reinventing the wheel, it allows policymakers to quickly find, adapt, and use the best available legislation.
Global law firm DLA Piper and its nonprofit affiliate, New Perimeter, were instrumental in creating the MLF. The firm’s dedicated team of roughly 20 lawyers has worked with the Working Group for the last two years, contributing nearly 3,000 hours of pro bono time to draft and refine the MLF. New Perimeter continues to support the project, traveling with Accion’s lawyers and financial inclusion experts to train Latin American regulators on the MLF, and plans to update it periodically.
We spoke with Sara K. Andrews, the Assistant Director of New Perimeter, and DLA Piper Associate Erik Choisy about how they got involved with the MLF, the work they did to support it, and why they dedicated such significant time and energy to support financial inclusion.
Accion: Tell us more about New Perimeter. Why did DLA Piper commit to providing international pro bono legal assistance?
Sara K. Andrews (SA): DLA Piper created New Perimeter in 2005 to expand the firm’s extensive pro bono programs beyond the United States, and to give our lawyers opportunities to address some of the critical issues confronting underserved regions of the world. One of our first projects was in Kosovo, helping to restore the country’s judicial and prosecutorial systems. Since then we have worked on over 100 multi-year pro bono projects involving more than 800 DLA Piper lawyers from across the firm.
> Posted by the Smart Campaign
What are microfinance clients’ thoughts on fair treatment from financial services providers?
Today the Smart Campaign is proud to present the results from the Client Voices project, a four-country research investigation that directly asked clients about their experiences with financial providers and their thoughts on what constitutes good and bad treatment.
Today’s release includes the main synthesis report as well as country reports from Georgia and Peru. The Campaign has already released comprehensive country reports for the other two countries in which research took place, Benin and Pakistan.
The Campaign commissioned Bankable Frontier Associates (BFA), as research partner on the project, to talk with thousands of lower-income microfinance clients face-to-face in the four diverse country markets. The intent was to hear from clients in an open-ended way, without pre-judging their concerns, and then to follow-up this qualitative work with quantitative surveys to determine how representative the concerns expressed were. The intensive research captures, first-hand, clients’ interactions with the institutions that lend them money and keep their savings, and are therefore instrumental in their lives.
Through the project, the Campaign sought to learn whether assumptions made about what constitutes problematic treatment of poor clients (such as those embodied in the Client Protection Principles) rightly reflected what clients themselves worry about. The research was conducted so that it might serve as a catalyst for improvement in client protection by financial service providers, regulators, industry associations, consumer advocacy groups, and others – not only in these four countries, but as guidelines for the protection of lower-income clients around the world.
Here is some of what we found.
> Posted by the Smart Campaign
Transparency sounds simple – in business, government, relationships, and most areas of life. Take the business of offering financial products and services. As a provider, you inform prospective and current clients of everything they need to know about your product. As a client, you use this information to make sound decisions about buying and using said product. Consequently, providers can claim full disclosure and hope to benefit from increased loyalty of clients. Clients have the information to make educated decisions and rest easy knowing exactly where that provider stands.
Similarly, in relationships, transparency (read: honesty) is always the best policy. The best practice is always to say everything that’s on your mind. After all, the truth will set you free… Except for maybe when your partner is already overwhelmed with information. Or when what you’re trying to share is incomprehensible. Or when your partner is trying to concentrate on something else. What I’m trying to get at is this: transparency may seem simple, but it’s not. Effective transparency provides information in a way that enables the person receiving the information to understand it and use it.
Inclusive finance providers need to hit the sweet spot – sharing the optimal amount of the most critical information with clients, in an understandable format, at appropriate times. To make matters more challenging, inclusive finance clients are often illiterate, poorly educated, or new to formal institutions.
The good news is that around the world, including in Mexico, the inclusive finance industry is hard at work to embed transparency effectively. In 2014, the Mexican government passed widespread financial reform that emboldened the role of the consumer protection agency, CONDUSEF, and made its rules mandatory for all credit institutions. CONDUSEF was enabled to issue and publicly publish recommendations to financial institutions. In the last year, CONDUSEF imposed important new regulations in areas of transparency and money laundering, and ended up revoking the operating permits of 1,449 non-regulated (SOFOM) institutions that did not meet the standards.
> 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.