Customer Engagement During COVID-19
The COVID-19 pandemic has reinforced a fundamental truth: microfinance customers need timely communications that are focused on their needs and delivered on channels that are easily accessible for them. While this has always been the case, the current crisis is highlighting the imperative for communications to innovate and adapt.
FINCA Impact Finance (FIF) is a network of microfinance institutions and banks that reaches across 20 countries and serves more than 2.6 million customers with credit, savings, remittances, payments and other financial services. All of our markets—across Africa, Latin America, Eurasia and the Middle East—are challenged with poor connectivity and infrastructure. But against conventional wisdom, beginning in 2017, we began investing heavily in branchless channels for both transactions and communications—like digital and social media—to reach these low-income populations.
COVID-19 has accelerated deployment of our branchless strategy. As the virus began its deadly march across the world, we were able rapidly to develop and deploy a proactive, personalized and multi-channel communications strategy to reach our customers. The following three principals have guided our global communication response, which we hope can be illustrative and helpful for other financial service providers to strengthen customer relationships.
Principle 1: The urgency of now
In the earliest days of COVID-19, when it was still very uncertain how the pandemic would impact our operations, the first guiding principle we employed was to lean into communications and not go silent. Delivering proactive and real-time customer communications during a crisis is highly valued by customers. Communications should be empathetic, solutions-oriented and implemented as quickly as possible without being overly intrusive. We organized our messages into three themes.
The first is general communication on health, safety and education about the virus, a step this sector employed instinctively and nearly uniformly. As a trusted voice in the communities we serve, FIF felt the responsibility to provide reputable health information from experts (like the WHO) on how our clients can protect themselves and their families. Many of our subsidiaries created dedicated pages on their websites that offered COVID-19-specific health information.
The second measure is the cornerstone of our communications strategy: making sure we promote branchless transaction and communication channels. This includes online repayment options and the use of mobile apps and call centers to get information, ask questions and discuss individual circumstances. This is especially important for customer segments that have been disproportionally impacted by the pandemic. Promoting branchless channels in these communities helps mitigate unnecessary trips to the branch that could lead to infection or the further spread of COVID-19.
Lastly, avoiding branches (or our agent network) was impossible or impractical for some of our customers. To address this, we deployed detailed messages about safety measures at our branches, including notes on physical distancing, limiting the number of customers in the branch, and reducing hours in countries with curfews, among others.
Principle 2: One-to-one communication at scale: How segmentation can help
Customers in our markets do not all have the same question or needs and are not affected by COVID-19 in the same way. We must treat them as individuals, with individual needs, and we should be focused on addressing their immediate concerns. By leveraging segmentation -- we began delivering targeted communications to reach as many of our customers as possible with specific messages. Our ability to do this was somewhat constrained by our data and lack of fully capable CRM systems, but we were able to deploy some meaningful, personalized communications, nonetheless.
First, we segmented by geography, delivering different messages within different markets based on how affected they were by the virus, what transaction channels were available and whether branches in their area were open. For example, customers under government lockdown have vastly different needs than those who are not. For those under lockdown, we proactively informed them via SMS of the branchless payment channels available along with instructions on how to use them.
We also are deploying specific messages based on business sector segmentation data. Understanding that some sectors would be disproportionally affected by the virus (e.g. taxi drivers, tourism), we are sending customers in these sectors specific information about options available to them to help them navigate this crisis. In some of our markets, this includes proactive messaging on loan restructuring options. For business segments that we expect will be largely spared the initial impact from the virus, the messages are different.
The third area of segmentation is where our customers are in their journey (loan cycle) with us. For customers in good standing nearing the end of their cycle, their primary concern is the availability of future credit products, and thus receive messages with details on our lending stance. For customers that have missed a payment, we deliver communications to help them find what options are available to remain in good standing, and how to access them.
Principle 3: Change the channel to reach customers
Microfinance has traditionally relied upon in-person interactions for customer acquisition, transactions, and customer education. But over the past two years, we have invested heavily in digital and branchless channels, reducing our reliance on frontline staff for activities that can better be done centralized, and using them instead for customers needing more personalized engagement.
Although digital communication channels are the most efficient modes of communicating with customers, widespread use has been limited both by access to and the cost of data, as well as customer comfort with technology. Since March, digital communication channels, such as web chats, social media, SMS, WhatsApp and other regional platforms, are experiencing user spikes. For many, this is the first time they have connected with us remotely.
Our call centers also have experienced a similar spike in in-bound calls, and we have scaled them to accommodate. Most calls come from customers requesting information on payment locations or for loan restructuring options. In only the first two weeks of April, the call center in our subsidiary in Jordan received 4,600 calls—a 59 percent increase from the total number of calls received in March. FIF reinforced our call center teams by moving staff who previously worked in the branch or other office functions, to backfill.
“Spray and pray” marketing communications - where uniform messages are blasted out in the hopes of reaching the intended target - is both outdated, inefficient, and ill-suited to the challenges of COVID-19. A one-size-fits-all approach to customer engagement simply would not deliver the value or impact to our customers, especially under the present circumstances.
The future of communications in microfinance will always have an in-person element. But the effectiveness of a quick reaction to this global pandemic is showing us the power and promise of digital engagement to support customers in this time of extreme need, with lessons that will carry over when the current crisis has passed.