Chilean banks have made critical advances to drive greater financial inclusion in recent years. From agent networks to payment platforms to the CuentaRUT account — a simplified deposit account with a debit card that the state-owned Banco Estado made available to anyone in Chile with an identity card, Chile has nearly reached universal access to financial services.
However, despite these advances, many small merchants in Chile still aren’t finding financial tools that meet their needs. Micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSMEs) make up 98.5 percent of enterprises in the country and are a significant driver of economic growth; however, almost a quarter of these enterprises have faced difficulty in accessing financing in times of need. Compounding this problem are high levels of financial insecurity among Chileans. Nearly half of the population feels unsure about how they would cover their basic needs if they lost their income. For merchants whose personal and business lives are closely intertwined, this lack of financial security in their day-to-day lives translates to lack of security in their businesses as well.
Our Customer Strategy team traveled to Santiago to talk to micro-entrepreneurs so we could better understand how they are currently using their financial services. MetLife Foundation supported this research as part of our joint effort to boost the financial capability of customers. Just as we did in Mexico, we conducted interviews with a wide variety of small merchants to understand their motivations, goals, and feelings toward financial services, and to hear about the strategies they use to stay financially healthy.
Here’s what we learned:
1. Significant barriers block entrepreneurs from using business accounts.
Every microentrepreneur we spoke with had a CuentaRUT card, but for many, that was the extent of their relationship with formal financial services. All of them cited high fees, interest rates, and long application processes to access business accounts and credit as barriers to usage. Margarita, the owner of a travel agency and a small bookstore, told us that the most challenging part of starting her business was opening a business bank account, which required numerous documents and costly fees. Therefore, many use their CuentaRUT account for both personal and business purposes, making it difficult to manage their business and personal financial lives separately.
2. Chileans perceive taking credit from banks as risky.
Gianfranco, the owner of a small restaurant, wants to expand his business, but he has no interest in taking out a loan. He fears losing everything he has worked for by putting his business up as collateral. He told us, “I don’t like the idea of being indebted or dependent on anyone.” Maritza, the owner of a mini-market, shared a similar sentiment: “I don’t have confidence in financial institutions; they don’t worry or care about their smaller clients.” Many of the merchants we spoke to prefer to borrow from friends and family.
3. Blacklisting deters participation in the formal financial system.
Dicom, the national credit agency, records negative credit information such as payment delays and defaults. However, the agency does not offer a clear path to resolve negative reports and as a result, many small businesses avoid deepening their relationship with lenders. Many major retail stores offer consumer credit cards, and in the past, they did so without proper credit assessment and did not inform customers of the consequences of default. As a result, many people, unable to pay or unaware of the lasting nature of default, were reported to Dicom, and remain on that blacklist. Today, nearly 900,000 people are recorded as delinquent.
Jaime, a restaurant owner in Santiago, is 74 and has been an entrepreneur all his life. He was reported to Dicom over 30 years ago and has no way to resolve the black mark on his account. In fact, he doesn’t know what caused him to be listed in the first place, despite his efforts to find out. He has upgraded his business several times, but always with his savings, as he has no access to credit. Today, he hopes to buy a car so that he can purchase supplies directly for his restaurant, without paying for transport. However, he cannot make such a large purchase until he builds up enough savings. Jaime needs information to help him better understand why he was blacklisted and concrete steps to help him improve his credit score.
4. Informal savings remain more comfortable and familiar for people.
Findex data tells us that only 21 percent of the population in Chile saves money at formal financial institutions. Many interviewees told us that they have difficulty putting money away, often finding it overwhelming just to meet their fixed expenses. When they do set money aside, they prefer to save informally, either in inventory or through investment in assets that will produce income later. Many told us that opening a savings account seems difficult, but everyone wanted to increase their resources so that they could take more time off and work less.
5. Merchants prefer to learn about financial products from people, not websites.
Several merchants mentioned that they are hesitant to make financial decisions based on digital information. Lorena de Diaz, the owner of a house cleaning business, told us that she prefers to learn about new products in person, as she can’t verify the accuracy of information provided through a website or mobile application. She likes to be able to ask questions at the branch and feels that she better understands financial products when a person can explain it.
The microentrepreneurs we spoke to need tools tailored to their needs, from working capital to finance their inventory to inexpensive business saving and checking accounts, delivered with transparent and trustworthy communication from their providers. As we continue working with fintechs and financial service providers of all sizes, we hope that better understanding customers’ pain points, aspirations, and desires will lead to better communication on how to use financial products, or even entirely new products that truly improve people’s financial health. Over the next two years, Accion will be working with financial service providers in Mexico and Chile to use customer research to design, test, and implement product innovations that will drive usage and improve financial health.
This research was conducted by Accion as part of our part of our Building Financial Capabilities and Strengthening Institutions through Customer-Centered Innovations project, supported by MetLife Foundation.