Giving customers a reason to trust digital finance in China

With a customer-centric approach that balances technology and human interaction, microcredit company Grassland Finance empowers entrepreneurs

Grassland client Liang Zhanli sells local items like mushrooms at her shop.

In the last decade, China has emerged as a leading market for digital financial services. The government has encouraged this growth by limiting regulation, and while innovation has flourished in this environment — so has malpractice. Millions of people have lost their life savings in the severely unregulated person-to-person (P2P) lending and digital lending industries. Now people find it hard to trust the digital financial tools that were supposed to improve their lives.

Liang Zhanli runs a small business in Inner Mongolia, selling local specialties like mushrooms and beef jerky. She knows first-hand the harm caused by irresponsible digital financial services. Several years ago, when she decided to try her hand at investing, Ms. Liang used her savings and even borrowed money from friends and family to make investments. She used a P2P platform, which takes capital from individual investors and lends it to another party. But when the P2P platform she used shut down, her investment failed. She had to sell her apartment to repay her friends and relatives.

This experience could have soured Ms. Liang on all financial service providers — leaving her without funds or the tools she needed to rebuild. Fortunately, even in her moment of hardship, Ms. Liang knew she could still trust Accion partner Grassland Finance Limited (GFL). She had been working with the microcredit company for three years to support her business. Now, she plans to leverage capital from Grassland to invest in and grow her business to generate savings and buy a new apartment. From now on, she says she’ll only trust financial service providers that have a physical presence and staff she can meet in person.

Grassland Finance Limited is celebrating its 10th anniversary this month — a decade of supporting entrepreneurs like Ms. Liang with credit for advancing their lives and businesses. Unlike digital financial companies, microcredit companies are closely regulated – from interest rates to capital requirements to geographic expansion, but Grassland has managed to grow, even as competition increased. One key to Grassland’s success is the institution’s ability to balance human interaction and technology.

Earlier this year, Accion worked with Grassland staff to interview customers to understand the needs, aspirations, and emotions of Grassland’s client base. Several customers told us that they didn’t want to rely on only digital finance products because they found them difficult and uncomfortable to use. However, once they understand how to use digital products, customers also told us that they like the convenience and ease these products offer with the onboarding and ongoing support from loan officers Grassland is moving towards digitization but will continue to offer a human touch to customers through loan officers and branches.

Grassland’s digitization efforts include designing and piloting a mobile app that allows clients to submit loan applications and sign contracts digitally and securely. Grassland is also working with Accion to build a credit model and automate the underwriting process. Throughout the credit process, loan officers serve as financial advisers to clients. They provide hands-on support, including teaching clients how to use digital channels for loan repayment and how to distinguish between reliable and dubious providers. One of the primary reasons that clients like Liang remain loyal to Grassland is out of trust for the institution’s loan officers, who are often seen as “old friends” they can turn to when they have finance-related questions or challenges.

Many clients are excited for the Grassland mobile application since they trust the institution and its staff. Take, for instance, Qin Xiaobo, who told us he is always cautious with digital finance. Nevertheless, he’s eager for Grassland to become more digitized because he feels it will continue to improve his experience.

Grassland is also moving towards digitizing customer education and support processes. For example, the organization has set up a corporate account with WeChat (similar to a corporate blog) and leverages the platform to publish financial education content regularly. Through insights collected from client interviews, Grassland recognizes that its clients lead busy and stressful lives, so it’s hard to make time to learn about financial management. To make learning more accessible, the institution is planning to leverage a WeChat mini program to design interactive financial education activities, embedded in the WeChat corporate account. The game would encourage clients to learn and practice financial concepts in an engaging way and share their newfound expertise with their social networks. Grassland is also planning to partner with colleges to develop games and activities for clients’ kids so they can build financial literacy early. The institution intends to prototype these ideas soon.

It is increasingly evident that outside of major cities, digitization is unlikely to drive sustainable impact for low-income clients in China — unless it incorporates strategic human interactions. For a decade, Grassland has enabled people like Ms. Liang and Mr. Qin to seize business opportunities, increase income, endure economic shocks, and manage their households. While China’s digital financial services and microfinance industries remain fraught with challenges, Grassland has proven that balancing tech with a human touch is good for business and good for customers.

Arisha Salman and Yiran Lu also contributed to this article.

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