Cover photo: Silvia Montes Cupi learned metalworking from her father and decided to open her own shop. She grew her small business with support and capital from microfinance bank BancoSol.

This article was originally published on NextBillion.

Before COVID-19, small merchants globally were gradually beginning to see the power of digital financial services. Transitioning to digital services helps small businesses transact faster, smarter and safer, and opens up credit options and other benefits. It also increases their financial inclusion, which gives them the tools to achieve financial security and grow their businesses. Yet despite these benefits, many micro and small enterprises have been slow to move past their traditional, cash-based operations.

But then the pandemic struck, bringing a new awareness of the drawbacks and dangers of relying on cash. Suddenly, digital access to financial services was more than a “maybe someday” — it was an urgent priority.

In the early months of COVID-19 shutdowns, BancoSol in Bolivia — the first regulated commercial bank in the world dedicated to micro and small entrepreneurs — saw its digital transaction volumes rising. It soon realized that speeding up its digitization efforts would be key to a lasting recovery for Bolivia’s small merchants, by enabling BancoSol to stay in touch with its customers and continue to support them throughout the pandemic. BancoSol serves 1.5 million microentrepreneurs in Bolivia, where the informal small business sector employs more than half the country’s population, the majority of whom still operate in cash. By shifting its many microentrepreneur customers to digital services, the bank could help them weather the pandemic.

BancoSol also realized that these businesses’ long-term resilience would be enhanced if they maintained their usage of digital financial services even after the crisis, so it committed to making this new trend stick. The only question was: How?

An answer to that question came via a first-of-its-kind partnership between Accion and Mastercard, which aims to empower microbusinesses to join and benefit from the digital economy, while boosting their financial inclusion. Over the past year, the partners have been supporting BancoSol to integrate responsible data use by the organization in order to better serve their customer base of microentrepreneurs.

Like many microfinance organizations, BancoSol has years of customer data. But it often didn’t know what to do with all that information. To help the bank derive data-driven insights with the objective of expanding financial inclusion for microbusinesses in Bolivia, 40 Mastercard volunteers in Bogota, Colombia and Arlington, Virginia gathered virtually in a 36-hour “datathon.” The goals of the exercise were to understand how to enable digital adoption by more BancoSol customers, better serve them with more products and retain them over the long term. While planning for the datathon had begun prior to the pandemic, its findings proved to support BancoSol’s efforts to help its customers recover from the crisis and build financial resilience. The datathon developed the methodologies and a proof of concept for how BancoSol and other microfinance institutions can take a more data-driven, customer-centric approach. Below are the three steps it identified for tapping into customer insights to better serve the needs of micro and small business customers.

Using data to improve digital financial services for micro and small businesses

Start by understanding your typical digital customer: Analyzing customer banking patterns can help identify customer segments that are most likely to go digital. In BancoSol’s case, data-driven insights indicated that its typical digital app customer was more likely to be female, and more likely to be younger compared to the average BancoSol client. By better understanding the typical digital customer, BancoSol can prioritize the customer segment that may be most-inclined towards digital adoption.

Equip loan officers with insights to match customers with products that meet their needs: The datathon analysis indicated that app users made nearly twice as many deposits as other users — linking digital adoption with increased usage. As research has shown, greater use of financial products, whether that’s insurance, savings or credit, makes small businesses more resilient to shocks like COVID-19 and also ensures the bank’s own sustainability. Equipped with these kinds of insights, BancoSol was able to streamline the app experience to better match customer expectations and develop clear messaging for loan officers to better communicate key benefits of going digital.

Retain customers by being proactive, not reactive: The datathon also offered insights on customer retention enabling the bank to reduce attrition by proactively engaging customers before they begin to disengage. The data-driven insights also suggested that a digital connection can improve retention in the absence of an in-person connection — a critical benefit in this era of social distancing.

Helping more financial service providers reap the benefits of data

Insights like these can help more inclusive financial service providers use their data to become more customer-centric. “The data was always there,” said Carlos Otalora Martínez, national manager of information technology at BancoSol, referring to the bank’s customer data. “But now we see it in a different way, with more value. This fact led us to delve into organizational changes to better leverage the data, as well as ensure that the data is structured, clean and available for consumption — actions that we are already taking with the impetus provided by the datathon exercise.”

As a next step, Accion plans to develop a playbook outlining the processes and methodologies used during the datathon, so other inclusive financial service providers can use their own internal data to drive their digital transformation. The playbook will include customer segmentation concepts, as well as guidance on using statistical modeling to prioritize customers and personalize their experiences.

For BancoSol, the datathon revealed the potential of data to better support the millions of small merchants who are working hard to stay in business — and who power the Bolivian economy. If other financial inclusion-focused institutions in other markets leverage their data to similar effect, they can help to speed a digital transition that can help reduce the economic damage of the pandemic, and set micro and small enterprises on the path toward greater success after the crisis has ended.

Written in collaboration with Aaron Lewin, Associate Managing Consultant at Mastercard.

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