Addressing Customer Needs



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Addressing Customer Needs: What Does It Take to Close the Access/Usage Gap?

All providers believe they’re customer-oriented—but do they really understand their customers and design services to meet their needs? The access/usage gap suggests not. If investments in access are to yield positive returns, improved value to consumers will be a business imperative.

Our Assessment

Why It Matters

A mismatch is arising between the demand and supply for financial services for base of the pyramid (BoP) consumers. Physical access points and account sign-ups have expanded rapidly, but the number of active and engaged users has not followed the same trajectory. This access-usage gap suggests in part that services do not adequately address consumer needs. Understanding this gap involves investigating potential consumers – how they meet their day-to day financial needs, cope with risks and shocks, and manage their changing life-cycle stages – and designing financial products in response.

The BoP market is not a monolithic block. There are many segments within it, and we know that consumers lead complex financial lives, use diverse informal tools, and often distrust formal financial institutions. We know that they value flexibility, convenience, security, and customer service, and are willing to pay for these attributes.

Doing business successfully with the BoP requires approaches that build and deepen customer relationships, using insights about the varied needs of market segments to provide differentiated financial solutions. This will require stronger value propositions and offerings that deliver customer engagement. Fortunately, new delivery technologies and data analytics make tailored offerings feasible, often for the first time. Reaching the BoP no longer has to be synonymous with a low-quality, one-size-fits-all product.

As the knowledge about BoP consumers and their context and use of financial services changes, and as competition heats up to include new entrants, the need to provide value to consumers becomes a business imperative for financial providers in emerging markets. As C.K. Prahalad first noted, there’s a fortune to be made at the BoP, and businesses that learn how to satisfy those customers will capture one of the best opportunities available in the coming years.

The BoP market is not a monolithic block. There are many segments within it, and we know that consumers lead complex financial lives, use diverse informal tools, and often distrust formal financial institutions.

Progress to Date: The Growing Access-Usage Gap
Progress Index Score: 3

The test for financial inclusion should be whether the lives of the newly included are improved. However, access to an account does not improve lives if the account sits idle. Accounts are only a first step. The large and, we believe, growing access-usage gap, coupled with a lack of attention to services beyond payment accounts prompts us to give this area a relatively pessimistic score of 3.

In reviewing recent progress, we found good news on access but a bleak picture of usage. Despite mobile money’s glowing headlines, 68 percent of registered mobile wallets had not been used during the last 90 days, according to GSMA. Similarly, the Findex revealed that while saving and borrowing trends indicate increased financial activity, this is not reflected in the uptake of formal products. And while data on microinsurance uptake is sparse, it’s still a hard sell for much of the world’s underserved. The barriers often cited to explain low usage include poor product design; lack of consumer knowledge about how to use products; frustration with operational failures; and inept customer care, among others.

Account Access Has Grown, But Usage Lags. What Are People Are Doing With Their Accounts?
After a big effort to bring about universal access to bank accounts, will we be left with millions and millions of accounts that people rarely or never use? As compared to 2011, many more people in 2014 said that they have an account but use it less often than once a month for deposits or for withdrawals (the top segment of each bar) while the percentage of people making three or more deposits or withdrawals per month has hardly changed (the bottom segment), and in some cases has fallen.

Financial service providers would do well to recognize these signs as a call to action.

An approach that puts customers at the heart of all activities is not a revolutionary idea. It has set great companies apart from good companies throughout history, and, with the support of donors, the microfinance sector has long featured players that have sought to understand and respond to customers – organizations such as Microsave, BRAC, Equity Bank, and many others. These organizations provided a knowledge foundation on which today’s financial inclusion sector can build. In fact, ample research has gone into understanding the financial lives of the poor. Yet, customer-centricity also involves a supply-side response. Energetic supply response requires strong leadership, buy-in, and operational reorientation within institutions.

Although the financial service providers that we recognize as customer-centric on a scalable level are still in the minority, we have found a host of good examples, and we review and celebrate some of the more recent examples in this report. Many financial service providers are tackling the various tasks needed to fully address customer needs. They are traveling the road to customer centricity and in the process creating a roadmap for the rest of us to follow. The examples cited here offer the prospect that in a few years’ time the financial inclusion sector will score significantly higher in meeting customer needs.

Understanding BoP Consumers in Their Own Way

If the objective of financial inclusion is to enable people to derive value from a range of financial services in managing their economic lives, then we must understand the underlying drivers of customer behavior. There is no better place to start than the informal context in which prospective BoP customers operate.

Informal financial arrangements are a fixture in the lives of the poor. Providers will need to recognize that the transition from informal to formal services will be incremental, with consumers using both types of services. Informal arrangements set a performance bar for formal services, which must serve consumers at least as well as the informal services they already use. Formal providers can choose a variety of responses to informal services: outperform them, build on them, or copy relevant attributes. We see all approaches in action.

To outperform informal services, providers can recognize that, although convenient, informal services can sometimes be unreliable, unsafe, and not private. All of these are attributes that formal services can provide to attract customers.

As an example of building on informal mechanisms, M-Pesa facilitated the informal urban-rural money transfers on which the Kenyan economy long depended, transfers often carried out by handing cash to truck drivers. M-Pesa overlaid technology on existing informal behaviors to make the transfer of money faster, safer, and more convenient. As Susan Johnson observed, M-Pesa mimics the “give and take nature of interpersonal transfers within social networks and relationships." And as Ignacio Mas points out, it may be easier to focus on a habit and improve the experience of comparable alternatives, rather than trying to create demand for a new habit or need. When a financial product can improve upon an existing process, additional benefits are possible: a recent study revealed how mobile money transfers in Kenya have helped millions of households survive agricultural and health crises by enabling friends and family to get money where and when it was most needed.

In their varied forms, informal savings groups offer members the structure, convenience, and flexibility to save and borrow small sums of money, and it’s no surprise that formal providers seek to connect to or emulate them. In Kenya, Bank of Africa and Safaricom have launched M-Chama, a mobile platform through M-Pesa for savings loan group management. Airtel Uganda partnered with Grameen Foundation to launch Airtel Weza, a mobile wallet solution for savings groups to allow members to store funds virtually. However, while interviews with clients indicated that they recognized the potential benefits of mobile money, operational issues have limited uptake. More broadly, the Indian Self-Help Group Bank Linkage program has enabled millions of women to gain access to loans and bank accounts, and similar linkage programs exist throughout Africa offered through CARE.

Emoneypool and Yattos in the United States have actually recreated savings circles online. They leverage online social networks to provide a platform for savings circles, building on trust between peers or members of a community. Online models are not without limitations; it is unclear whether the social pressure that keeps default rates low in traditional money pools will be as effective online, particularly if groups are composed of strangers. However, formal products can overcome group limitations of location, privacy, and security, as well as constraints on savings and loan limits.

Providers will need to recognize that the transition from informal to formal services will be incremental, with consumers using both types of services. Watch the video

Creating Customer-Friendly Products and Delivery Systems

Full financial inclusion requires that a person be an active user of a suite of products for both short- and long-term financial needs. We look here at two strategies for moving beyond simple accounts to a broader product suite: products that serve as on-ramps to usage and a broader suite of products, and products that accommodate the irregular cashflows of many BoP customers.

On-Ramps to the Financial Mainstream

A number of products have been heralded as on-ramps to inclusion (entry products that connect users with a broader range of financial services). Assumptions abound about which products are most effective.

Digitizing G2P payments is often cited as a prospective on-ramp, because they can connect millions of people at once. However, the question is still outstanding as to how and whether connecting benefit recipients to transaction accounts can lead to deeper inclusion, through either through active account use or access to additional products.

Likewise, remittances are claimed as a potential on-ramp, since sending or receiving remittances is often the first and only point of contact with formal financial services for many poor consumers. With support from the Inter-American Development Bank’s Multilateral Investment Fund (IDB/MIF), Fonkoze, Haiti’s largest microfinance institution, offered clients money transfer services, along with a suite of other financial services and education at a “teachable moment.” Recipients of remittances would be informed about the loan or savings program while transacting or waiting in line and offered a chance to take up additional services. Many women who received this information subsequently used money received from relatives to launch and expand their businesses, while saving part of the money transfer in Fonkoze savings accounts.

A much-cited example is Commercial Bank of Africa/Safaricom’s M-Shwari account, which makes M-Pesa mobile money transfers an on-ramp to savings and loans. M-Shwari (and now M-Pawa in Tanzania) has become quite popular: M-Shwari had 9.2 million users at the end of 2014. Financial Diaries and Intermedia reveal that customers use the product for short-term money management, and in particular for very small short-term loans. There is no denying that M-Shwari addresses the short-term liquidity issues faced by many low-income households. And it is provoking competition, including Kenya Commercial Bank’s M-PESA account, which also offers one to six month loans that are more competitively priced and with lower interest rates than M-Shwari, and Equitel, Equity Bank’s mobile money product, which also offers savings and loans.

We would like to see the evolution of digital financial services continue to even more comprehensive offerings, such as extending greater amounts of credit on better terms to borrowers who demonstrate reliability over time, and designing mobile savings solutions that assist consumers to meet their own goals. Equitel’s savings products are designed with subaccounts, based on the idea of “pockets,” which allows consumers to designate money for goals.

These examples suggest that if properly managed, getting on the “grid” can result in active account usage or access to additional products. Further investigation is required to understand the product design elements, delivery channels, consumer behaviors, and market contexts that can consistently turn an entry product into an effective on-ramp.

Goin’ With the Cash-Flow

Low-income and poor consumers value services adapted to their cash-flow needs, given their low, irregular, and unpredictable incomes. A number of recent examples show financial institutions that are experimenting with flexible terms, less frequent repayments, or grace periods. AMK, a large microfinance institution in Cambodia, launched a popular credit line that allows clients to draw down credit as needed, rather than pay interest on unused capital. AMK found that customer draw-downs and payment patterns allowed it to offer the service sustainably and without incurring liquidity issues. One Acre Fund offers smallholder farmers in East Africa loan products with flexible repayment schedules. This type of flexible repayment has been shown to meet the needs of smallholder farmers and increase the amount invested in farm inputs.

Flexible payment models have also been successfully employed for livestock insurance in China. Credit vouchers allowed farmers to take up insurance while delaying the premium payment until the end of the insured period (when pigs were sold). This was seen to increase the uptake of insurance by 11 percent. Old Mutual South Africa developed a “pay when you can” microinsurance funeral product to address income irregularity. It provided a top-up option rather than requiring monthly premium payments. Initially customers found it difficult to understand how the product worked. Consequently, Old Mutual worked on increasing knowledge among its front line staff to educate consumers about the product. This product illustrates the challenge of balancing between features that are simple to understand and operationalize, and those that are responsive and flexible.

Lastly, financial services that directly address basic human needs should be central to the financial inclusion story. This includes not only the agricultural finance and funeral insurance examples just mentioned, but also health insurance and finance for education, housing, and water and sanitation. These kinds of products can be transformative for clients. We see some exciting examples, such as M-Kopa and Angaza Design, which use technology and mobile money to allow off-grid consumers to pay for solar energy in small increments.

In Financial Services We Will Eventually Trust

Adopting new products can take a leap of faith for anyone, and even more so for people who have low literacy, little confidence, or limited exposure to new technologies. One negative experience can erode an individual’s trust for years (not to mention the damage an unhappy customer can do through word of mouth). Indeed, lack of trust in financial institutions is a major reason people cite during Findex interviews for avoiding formal finance. Earning trust requires providers to invest in the entire customer experience, going beyond product offerings to developing appropriate engagement, delivery channels, and recourse mechanisms. For instance, there is strong evidence that poor customer service, such as system downtime or agents lacking liquidity, dampens usage of digital financial services.

One way to develop trust is to invest in the capacity of front-line staff and banking agents and provide them with the tools and skills to engage effectively with customers. Front-line performance quality can be assured by developing and incentivizing agents to be effective facilitators for this purpose, as indicated in a review of five microfinance institutions by Freedom from Hunger.

Building on its already strong and trusted brand as a mobile operator (telcos generally score higher than financial service providers in terms of trust in Africa), Tigo, a mobile operator, partnered with Bima, a mobile insurance service provider, to build a cadre of agents responsible for educating and registering subscribers into Tigo Kiiray insurance products in Senegal. However, tactics requiring extensive training can be costly, and incentives have to be carefully designed to engage staff, while minimizing potential conflicts of interest around sales.

The financial inclusion community is also seeking ways to harness technology to build trusting relationships with customers in affordable and scalable ways. Tanzania’s Tigo Pesa recently partnered with Juntos to use its two-way SMS engagement platform to build relationships, troubleshoot technology problems, and address customer service questions. It remains to be seen how effective technology-based approaches are in deepening engagement, but we are excited by the promise they bring of reducing cost and increasing the richness of client interactions.

Accessible and timely complaint and dispute resolution mechanisms can also support customer trust. Since its launch, M-Pesa has prioritized customer service, which has helped it develop into a trusted brand. FSD Kenya and CGAP in Kenya found that nearly all users of M-Pesa were aware of whom to contact when they had a problem with the service. MDO Arvand, a microfinance institution in Tajikistan, broadcasts a radio program called “Arvand is Online.” While promoting the microfinance institution, the show operates as an “on air” call center. When participants call with questions on their financial services, loan officers, managers or attorneys for the organization are in the studio to respond. (For more on building trust, see the financial capability and client protection progress reports.)

G2P payments are often cited as a prospective on-ramp. But will transaction accounts lead to deeper inclusion for BoP consumers?

Financial institutions are experimenting with flexible terms, less frequent repayments, or grace periods to adapt to customer cash-flows

Reaching Invisible Market Segments

Much of the conversation in the financial inclusion community has centered on reaching the most readily accessible new market segments.  FI2023 has maintained that in the drive towards full financial inclusion, understanding consumers means understanding all consumers—even the most “invisible,” such as people with disabilities, older people, women, migrants, ethnic minorities, and rural dwellers. By taking a closer look, providers can find ways to serve even challenging market segments.

Source: Global Findex (2015)

Source: Global Findex (2015)

Smallholder farmers are one group receiving greater attention. CGAP, through its Smallholder Diaries project and through national surveys and segmentation, is working to shed light on the financial lives of smallholder households and identify opportunities to improve their suite of financial solutions. GSMA and frog design have partnered to bring human-centered design to mobile agricultural finance products. Women’s World Banking partnered with Interfisa Banco (Paraguay), Fundación de la Mujer (Colombia), and Caja Arequipa (Peru), to revise existing urban microenterprise credit methods to make rural loans more relevant for rural women in Latin America, based on customer research. The loans featured the right amounts, with repayment dates that matched income and without onerous requirements.

CFI’s work on financial services for persons with disabilities is slowly gaining traction. Accion’s three microfinance partners in India have, for example, served over 13,000 persons with disabilities with mainstream financial services, many of whom were first-time borrowers. CFI is also working with the governments of Ecuador and Nigeria to influence financial inclusion policy for persons with disabilities.

BRAC’s work with the ultra-poor has demonstrated that even segments traditionally considered un-credit-worthy can join the financial mainstream as viable consumers once they are provided a “ladder” to climb. BRAC’s Targeting Ultra-Poor (TUP) program, targeted to those making less than US $0.80 per day, uses subsidies to offer a sequenced and tailored series of interventions, including asset transfers, stipends, healthcare, social integration, livelihood training, and hands-on coaching to enable program participants to graduate out of extreme poverty. Since 2002, 95 percent of the 1.4 million clients who participated in the program have moved up from extreme poverty. While the TUP program is subsidized, many of the successful participants become mainstream – unsubsidized – clients of BRAC Microfinance. A Randomized Control Trial (RCT) study of the BRAC in six countries found sustained improvements in livelihoods. Most clients had continued to experience growth in income and improved well-being, even after graduation.

Nonetheless, the lack of data on a number of consumer segments persists. Little is known about the financial services needs of harder-to-reach populations, such as persons with disabilities, migrants, and refugees. To effectively track progress on financial inclusion, institutions, national governments, and researchers will need to collect demand side data to help measure excluded populations. This is essential to highlight market opportunities for these consumer segments. There is also little knowledge about existing services for underserved consumers, the financial institutions that provide these products, and why some promising product ideas for some of these segments never went to market. Donors, investors, and the private sector will need to redouble efforts to extract lessons from experiences with these population segments.

What’s the Life-Cycle Got to Do With It?

From childbirth expenses, to school fees, livelihood investments, marriage, family responsibilities, and older age, financial service needs change as people move through the life-cycle. To be relevant to consumers, financial service providers will need to develop or partner with others to offer products and delivery channels that accommodate differences throughout one’s life. Other clients use the product to save up to buy small parcels of land or to add to/renovate housing. Financial service providers will need to create pathways for clients to progress and respond to differing needs with age-specific products, such as youth savings accounts or pension funds. Most financial institutions do not yet tailor their offerings to stages in the life course, or do so only partially. But the opportunities to do so are enormous, and the means are at hand.  For instance, most financial institutions collect data on the age of clients, to meet “know your customer” requirements. CFI’s online survey of providers found that the vast majority keep track of customer ages, and most of them store this information within their IT system. Yet, few institutions use age as a factor in creating products.

In the last few years, we have seen an increase in financial services targeted to youth. Institutions such as HFC Bank Ghana, ProCredit Ghana, and BRAC in Bangladesh have made efforts to direct younger clients to products with age-appropriate features. Kenya Post Office Savings Bank targets children at birth through its Bidii Junior account and then automatically transitions them through accounts for school-aged children and working youth. YouthStart, a UNCDF and Mastercard Foundation initiative that seeks to increase access to financial services for low-income youth in sub-Saharan Africa, has trained 30 financial service providers in the region.

There are also efforts to address the life-stages of women. BHD León in the Dominican Republic launched the Mujer Mujer program, which offers product bundles of credit, savings, and insurance to help women plan for education, health, or business needs. For education, for example, the bank offers zero percent financing for school fees, savings accounts that include the option to borrow from savings at the end of a 6-month or 12-month time period, life insurance for the account holder, and discounts on school supplies. This product serves the needs of mothers and also targets grown women who did not have the opportunity to attend university through a partnership with a local university.

Invest India Micro Pension Services (IIMPS) enables low income informal sector workers who typically lack access to formal finance to build savings for old age. IIMPS delivers micropension products in collaboration with all types of financial institutions, as well as employers and workers’ unions. Customers can periodically contribute small amounts of savings to IIMPS product partners using cashless payments instruments including bank accounts, prepaid cards or mobile wallets.

In the drive towards full financial inclusion, understanding consumers means understanding all consumers-even the most “invisible,” such as persons with disabilities, older people, youth, women, refugees, migrants, ethnic minorities, and rural residents.


Addressing the specific needs of aging persons is an area that is often overlooked and somewhat taboo in financial services and wider discussions about development. Aging and Financial Inclusion: An Opportunity, a report released by the Center for Financial Inclusion in February 2015, includes key findings and new data from a year of research—both primary and secondary source—on this important topic. The research has a focus on Latin America, but draws on and offers lessons for middle income countries around the world. You can find key messages from the report here.

Off to the Data Mines

Market research is at the core of a customer-centered approach, and the increasing availability of data on client behavior provides a rich lode to mine for insights relevant to market segmentation, product design, and delivery improvements. Using data points drawn from everything from mobile records, public data, online behaviors, and transaction data, providers can arrive at predictive value about a consumer’s cash flows and financial habits, among other behaviors. Going further, the most sophisticated data analytics allow individualized responses to a given customer’s situation, whether for credit approval or for product offerings. One example is Tiaxa, which analyzes prepaid mobile airtime usage to offer short-term airtime credits. Cignifi (in Brazil, Ghana, Mexico, and Chile) and First Access (in Tanzania) offer customer targeting and credit scoring services to financial service providers. Many institutions are already sitting on a goldmine of data; the challenge is to create (or outsource) the capability to analyze that data and to bring the insights back into operations.

Organizations can use a multitude of methods to assemble insights. Some players, such as Equity Bank in Kenya and Tigo in multiple countries have built up their in-house research capabilities. FINCA Pakistan created a research unit that works very closely with its product development unit. Banco Azteca in Mexico has a sophisticated market research system in place to amass and analyze large amounts of information on customers. In addition, the bank continuously organizes focus groups and events, using each opportunity to deploy its staff to collect information on clients and potential customers. ASKI (Alalay sa Kaunlaran, Inc.) a microfinance NGO in the Philippines deploys a client satisfaction survey to gather feedback on loan features, non-financial services, and customer service. Janalakshmi, an Indian microfinance institution, with the support of CGAP, has developed a tool, Kaleido, which utilizes its front-line staff to get a “360 degree” view of a household, providing a rich source of data for developing new products as well as assessing the financial progress of a household. (See “360 degree Approach to Understanding Customers: Kaleido” to learn more.)

An increasing number of mobile money operators are using transaction data to identify patterns of customer adoption and mobile money usage, allowing for better segmentation and tweaks in product delivery and marketing to reduce churn, according to GSMA’s State of the Industry Report on Mobile Financial Services. For instance, Beam Money in India analyzed its user data to detect different mobile money use patterns between men and women and between rural and urban women. Using this data, Beam crafted distinct distribution and marketing strategies that ultimately allowed it to draw more women to the service, especially in rural areas.

Yet even with the explosion of data and innovative mining techniques, we have seen too few instances of its successful application. This is a huge missed opportunity. Constrained by lack of resources, inflexible legacy systems, organizational silos, or lack of knowledge to manage and analyze data, many financial institutions have been slow to take the leap. The proliferation of data will ultimately require providers to invest in data platforms and hire experts equipped with the right tools and training to extract clear insights from the data. A step forward is Bankable Frontier Associates’ partnership with MetLife Foundation for a project titled “Optimizing Performance Through Improved Cross(X)-Sell (OPTIX).” The project will work with six microfinance institutions and cooperatives in Asia and Latin America to employ data analysis to identify cross-selling opportunities.

The Road to Customer Centricity is Paved with More than Just Good Product Tweaks

Deep insights will be of little consequence unless knowledge is translated into implementation. While there is excitement about new customer-centered product design techniques, we have not yet seen these techniques lead to major new product offerings, generally because of internal institutional barriers.

For example, Green Bank in the Philippines used behavioral insights to design SEED (Save, Earn, Enjoy, Deposit), a savings product that enables clients to withdraw from their account only after a designated goal is reached. However, Green Bank ultimately discontinued the product, which was seen as a research initiative and not fully embedded in the operations of the institution.

Similar efforts with large mainstream banks have also faced tough implementation challenges. Design firms such as IDEO, Continuum, frog, and others brought human-centered design (HCD) into play in a recent CGAP effort in seven projects. An example includes the second-largest commercial bank in Brazil, Banco Bradesco, using HCD to launch a mobile wallet (Meu Dinheiro Claro) for BoP consumers. These were pioneering and creative projects—but only in one case did HCD lead to an actual project implementation on the ground. Bankable Frontier Associates’ GAFIS project worked with five leading financial institutions to develop viable savings products for underserved market segments. An expert who worked on the project remarked that “internal battles sometimes have to be waged in organizations that do not already maintain an emphasis on the base of the pyramid.”

Similarly, the project of CGAP and with Bancomer in Mexico to design a savings product for low-income segments ran into problems because the marketing team, which had not been part of the design process, developed marketing collateral that was out of step with the customer insights sourced during the project. The product was ultimately shelved. Thus, orienting the entire organization and operating model to be centered on customers goes well beyond product development. Departments such as marketing, information technology, finance, and operations need to be brought into the process early on to create a stronger business model.

Don’t Shoot the Messenger, but…Customer Centricity IS a Supply Side Strategy

Of course, this kind of institutional effort requires strong leadership to bring about a cultural shift and staff buy-in. We have heard loud and clear that this fundamental change to business and operating structure has to be driven from the top. Equity Bank is a classic example of an organization that has successfully embarked on the path to customer-centricity. Leadership and strong governance at the board level played a critical role in the organization’s transformation and commitment to serving their customers. Senior managers need to hear success stories about leaders that have built the necessary systems and culture. CGAP’s Leadership Series on Customer Centricity is a notable effort that is bringing leaders from reputable companies to speak about strategies and tactics they have used to drive customer focused orientation within their organizations.

Show Me the Money: What’s the Business Case?

Customer-centric approaches can produce positive returns over time, by building relationships that garner customer loyalty. However, it is not clear that this holds for BoP consumers, where profit margins are thin. Indeed, for providers that are focused on this segment, customer-centricity may require choices that don’t show up in short-term profitability, and it often requires a switch in thinking from per-product or per-transaction profitability to total customer profitability over a longer term. For financial service providers who are not thinking about the long game, that’s a hard pill to swallow.

Fortunately, a number of players are chipping away at the issue. Equity Bank in Kenya, Bancolombia in Colombia, Bansefi in Mexico, ICICI Bank in India, and Standard Bank in South Africa worked with Bankable Frontiers Associates on the GAFIS project (see “GAFIS Project on Savings Innovations for the BoP”) to examine the business case for savings. Microinsurance providers in the Philippines, including CARD, TSPI, Prudential, CLIMBS, and MicroEnsure are working with the Microinsurance Centre’s MILK Project. The project found positive outcomes for all parties along the value chain: insurers and distributors are (or could be) profitable, and products are valuable to the clients who make claims. Other organizations, such as MicroSave, CGAP, and Microfinance Opportunities are also partnering with financial service providers around the world to examine the business case for products for poor and low-income consumers.

Tomorrow’s winners will be the financial sector’s most customer-centric players. They will have developed a deep understanding of their customers, identified new market segments, and found ways to satisfy their needs. They will be competent in product development, service quality, channel accessibility, and communication. As we look to 2020, it is clear that the financial services community will have to surmount a number of hurdles to ensure that access to accounts is coupled with an emphasis on the quality and range of services to bring value to consumers of all types.

A Call to Action

The access-usage gap that was revealed in the Findex and other data suggests in part that many new financial services do not adequately address consumer needs. The gap is in fact a call to action aimed at financial service providers.

But a call to what? It is easy to advocate publicly for customer centricity, but difficult to retool a financial service provider’s operations around customer needs. The steps toward customer centricity are straightforward, but they require sustained intent:

  • Take advantage of the deep knowledge that already exists about the financial lives of low income consumers: how they meet their day-to day financial needs, cope with shocks and manage through their life-cycles.
  • Mine operational consumer data and conduct market research to gather more specific knowledge.
  • Understand the segments within the BoP population, for example, with respect to gender, source of livelihood and life stage, and design offerings that take differing needs and capabilities into account.
  • Use iterative design techniques that adjust offerings based on customer responses.
  • Engage all areas of the service provider’s operation to ensure that one department’s quest to reach customers is supported by other departments.
  • Continually receive and use customer feedback.

Supporting all these steps are new information technologies that make customer data increasingly available and reduce the cost of differentiated, even personalized, offerings, so that it now becomes possible to look beyond the mono-product approach that has long characterized finance at the base of the pyramid.

At the end of the day, customer centricity is about the identity of a financial institution and its leadership. In the coming years we expect more and more leaders to emerge who are both determined and equipped to put customers first.

At the end of the day, customer centricity is about the identity of a financial institution and its leadership. In the coming years we expect more and more leaders to emerge who are both determined and equipped to put customers first.

Video: Six Common Financial Decision-Making Practices


The first step in the path to greater use of financial services is to understand how people make decisions on their money matters. This video developed by Ignacio Mas for CGAP, examines six common financial decision-making practices that poor people often employ to navigate precarious, unpredictable incomes.

Microfinance Networks Lead the Way in Addressing Customer Needs


    The microfinance industry earned its reputation by paying attention to customer needs. In traditional microfinance, loan officers and staff have frequent contact with customers, sometimes even weekly. While the industry has evolved, this core value of addressing the needs of customers at the base of the pyramid remains central to these five microfinance networks. Click through the slideshow to see the innovative and diverse ways the industry is meeting client needs.

  • FINCA, Zambia

    In Zambia, FINCA offers biometrically linked accounts. Clients are registered at a FINCA branch by providing a digital scan of their fingerprint. Then, when they make transactions at a branch or an agent outlet, they sign into their accounts by scanning their fingerprint. This simple, technology-enabled solution makes financial services easily accessible to everyone—even those without formal identification.


    In Bolivia, Pro Mujer added bright and colorful spaces specifically for the children of its clients. These “Children’s Corners” are stocked with posters, puzzles, tablets with educational videos and games. Branch staff members report that clients appreciate the change and are more relaxed when their children are close by and occupied.


    In India, the Center for Financial Inclusion at Accion has helped sensitize three microfinance partners (Equitas, ESAF, and Annapurna Microfinance) to the needs of persons with disabilities. These institutions have proceeded to financially include over 30,000 low-income disabled persons (including over 2,000 visually impaired, a severely excluded disability segment).


    In Bangladesh, BRAC designed the Targeting the Ultra Poor program as a way to reach people who live far below the poverty line (US$0.70 per day). The program pairs loans with grants, training, hands - on coaching, savings, health support, and social integration. After the two-year intervention period, BRAC found that 95% of participants “graduated” from extreme poverty and remained out of poverty.


    In Nigeria, Women’s World Banking institution Diamond Bank introduced a new product: BETA (meaning “good” in pidgin English). The savings account can be opened in less than five minutes and has no minimum balance or fees. Agents, known as BETA Friends, visit a customer’s business to open accounts and handle transactions, including deposit and withdrawal, using a mobile phone application.



Listen here for a discussion with Anne Hastings, Manager of the Microfinance CEO Working Group and former founder and director of Fonkoze Financial Services, and Shameran Abed, Director of the BRAC microfinance program, on addressing the financial needs of the ultra-poor.

Exploring The Business of Doing Good

Why is it that so many organizations seeking to do good in the world, miss opportunities to do so – and indeed sometimes exacerbate the very problem they seek to address? Anton Simanowitz and Katherine Knotts focus on answering this question in their book, The Business of Doing Good. Through a close study of AMK, a Cambodian microfinance institution, Simanowitz and Knotts explore the importance of addressing customer needs in financial services as well as the importance of organizational culture within provider organizations.



Lead Author

shaheen hasan

Center for Financial Inclusion at Accion

This report draws on insights gained through interviews with industry experts and comments by reviewers. These contributors are gratefully acknowledged below, but we want to make clear that the positions expressed are our own. The opinions in this report do not necessarily reflect the views of the contributors nor do we intend to imply any endorsement by the institutions they represent.

We express our thanks to:
Elisabeth Rhyne, lead contributor and editor, Center for Financial Inclusion at Accion

Click here for the complete list of contributors to the FI2023 Progress Report.

For a curated list of resources on Addressing Customer Needs, check out the FI2023 Resource Library.

For an up-to-date collection of blogs on Addressing Customer Needs, check out the CFI blog.