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> Posted by Daniel Balson, Lead Specialist for Eurasia and MENA, The Smart Campaign

The following is the second post in a four-part blog series on the financial inclusion of refugees and the internally displaced. The first post can be found here.

In 1992, sporadic clashes between ethnic Armenians and Azerbaijanis in the mountainous region of Nagorno Karabakh erupted into full scale war. By the time a ceasefire was reached two years later, the territory lay under Armenian control, and between 800,000 and 1 million Azerbaijanis were displaced from their homes. Since the end of hostilities, ethnic Azerbaijani internally displaced persons (IDPs) who fled from Armenian-controlled to Azerbaijani-controlled territory have continued to face difficulties accessing economic opportunity. However, a financial sector inclusive to IDPs is emerging, lessening these difficulties and demonstrating that IDPs can be a bankable client segment.  Read the rest of this entry »

> Posted by MFIN

In 2013, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) announced a significant policy move in the form of Self Regulatory Organization (SRO) guidelines for the microfinance industry. An SRO is an organization that has been authorized by a regulator to exercise control and regulation on its behalf over certain aspects of an industry. In the case of Indian microfinance, an SRO supports the RBI in ensuring compliance with statutory regulations and the Industry Code of Conduct, while also taking up research, training, data analytics, and capacity building of the sector. The SRO architecture has dramatically altered the landscape of the Indian industry, providing stability to the industry, with more robust market discipline and customer protection.

MFIN, whose membership consists of 52 NBFC-MFIs which account for over 90 percent of India’s microfinance business, was recognized as an SRO by the RBI in June, 2014. Since then, MFIN has worked towards putting in place an effective SRO framework, with borrower protection as the focal point. One of the important obligations of the SRO in line with the RBI guidelines is to have an independent redressal mechanism for addressing the grievances of microfinance clients. In order to standardize the grievance redressal mechanism and to ensure a common minimum benchmark, MFIN drew on the existing grievance redressal mechanisms (GRMs) of 45 MFIs and worked in partnership with the Smart Campaign to cull out the good practice from these models. The idea was to put in place a three tier mechanism based on the capacity of the MFI concerned, and the Smart Campaign was asked to work on such a model whose aim was to standardize and ultimately strengthen the practices of the member institutions.

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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 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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> Posted by Susy Cheston, Senior Advisor, CFI

What financial inclusion stakeholders believe is most important in advancing client protection

Regulators take the lead in advancing client protection in financial services, we’ve heard.  Providers “merely comply.”

If you are of the view that providers can, and should, take a leading role in client protection, then the results of a recent survey conducted by the Aspen Institute are discouraging.  The survey, carried out on behalf of the Smart Campaign as part of its strategic planning, took a look at the three-legged stool of client protection—providers, regulators, and consumers—and asked which element was the most important.  Of the financial inclusion stakeholders who were interviewed, only 24 percent said that provider-led initiatives were the most important element in client protection.  By comparison, 39 percent thought regulation and governance were the most important, and 37 percent put their faith in consumer awareness and activism.

I disagree!  We believe action from the financial services providers themselves is a vital missing link.  But what is holding them back?  In a consultative process carried out by the Financial Inclusion 2020 project over the past year, here are the top six reasons we heard for providers not taking the lead in consumer protection. Read the rest of this entry »

Gail Buyske, Advisory Committee, Microfinance Information Infrastructure Project

> Posted by Center Staff

Convening of Stakeholders

Several weeks ago we learned that MFT has suspended its operations. Moody’s has discontinued its Social Performance Assessment Program. The MIX is trying to increase revenue through its MixGold program. Should we care about these developments? What are they telling us about the state of microfinance’s information infrastructure?

The Center for Financial Inclusion undertook an analysis of these issues to follow up on Elisabeth Rhyne’s provocative blog of March 11, 2014, in which she argued that the microfinance industry needs an “infrastructure fix.” Today’s blog summaries the key issues, which will be discussed at a stakeholder discussion in DC on April 14, followed by one at a later date in Europe.

Let’s start by thinking about why we should care about microfinance’s information infrastructure. Information and its natural outcome, transparency, have been guiding principles of the microfinance industry practically since its inception. These are not just feel-good concepts: they played a fundamental role in the development of microfinance. Information and transparency were critical in microfinance’s early days in enabling donors and investors to identify promising MFIs that they could support. Readily available information enabled MFIs to benchmark their performance and set goals to improve their performance. And we can never forget that a commitment to transparency is a pact between MFIs and their clients.

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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.