Leelabati is an entrepreneur who lives in a rural part of India, near Bhubaneshwar. She is a group loan customer of the microfinance institution Annapurna Finance Pvt. Ltd. (AFPL), a long-time partner of Accion. Despite having a disability, Leelabati has pursued her aspirations of financial independence by running a tailoring business from her home and working at a rural childcare center in her village. She is very tenacious and has taught herself the use of SMS, IVR, and even digital payments for her business. She finds phone calls and SMS easier to use for communication than apps.

When the COVID-19 pandemic caused her tailoring business to slow down, Leelabati applied for a digital emergency loan from Annapurna through SMS and received it quickly. With the loan, she purchased additional stock to expand her product lines and cater to more households and businesses.

As a result, Leelabati was able to provide her services to more households and businesses in her community, demonstrating her resilience and commitment to her entrepreneurial vision. Leelabati’s story serves as a powerful reminder of the vital role that microfinance institutions like Annapurna play in supporting individuals and communities during challenging times.

As Leelabati’s business grew, she found herself receiving an increasing number of requests from her various business customers to accept digital payments. This prompted her to explore the world of digital payment platforms, and before long, she found herself seamlessly navigating the intricacies of electronic transactions with ease. Using her smartphone, Leelabati quickly installed a digital payment platform and began accepting payments through the touch of a button. Leelabati has now embraced the power of modern technology, preferring to stay in touch with Annapurna through the convenience of voice calls and SMS.

Rajesh is a proud owner of a grocery shop nestled in the heart of Khurda, near Bhubaneshwar. To ensure his business runs smoothly, Rajesh works tirelessly with the occasional assistance of his wife and trusted employee.

As someone who keeps up with the latest technology, Rajesh is no stranger to relying on digital tools for communication. Armed with his smartphone, he confidently uses WhatsApp and various payment apps to make his business operations a seamless experience for both himself and his loyal customers. Amid the challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, Rajesh adapted with ease, taking delivery orders through the convenient and efficient medium of WhatsApp. His commitment to providing exceptional service, even in the face of adversity, is a testament to his unwavering dedication to his business and his customers.

During the COVID-19 lockdowns, Annapurna faced the challenge of temporarily shutting down its branches, resulting in a halt to in-person interactions and meetings with customers. This created communication issues between the staff and customers, with information being inconsistent, inaccurate, and often delayed. Recognizing the importance of restoring effective and efficient two-way communication between staff and customers, Annapurna understood that a digital platform capable of engaging with customers in a timely, accurate, and consistent manner was essential. This realization was driven by the need to overcome the communication barriers that were created due to the pandemic and ensure that customers could receive reliable and relevant information without having to visit physical branches.

Annapurna partnered with Accion’s Global Advisory Solutions team to develop and deploy a Customer Engagement Platform to engage with customers digitally via a direct channel. To cater to Annapurna’s diverse customer base with varying digital proficiency, the team designed multiple direct communication mechanisms using existing channels like WhatsApp, SMS, and IVR.

Annapurna continues to improve and nurture these communication channels to interact directly with customers. Rajesh and Leelabati are two customers who engage actively with Annapurna through the Customer Engagement Platform. Rajesh can conveniently access his loan account details on WhatsApp, while Leelabati received multiple instant digital emergency loans via SMS to resolve short-term credit gaps. They find this approach highly convenient as they receive information directly on their mobile devices, bypassing the need to contact a loan officer for every query.

With Accion’s strategic guidance and a program supported by the Swiss Capacity Building Facility and launched in July 2022, Annapurna is ramping up the capabilities of its Customer Engagement Platform to enhance its use cases, streamline data flows and reporting, and customize customer messaging. The roadmap also includes the implementation of natural language processing chatbots and the introduction of novel functionalities catering to diverse customer needs. The endgame is to fully integrate the Customer Engagement Platform with Annapurna’s extensive customer database to optimize interactions and provide customers with an exceptional experience. By leveraging digital channels, Annapurna can improve customer retention rates while reducing costs associated with customer servicing.

As of December 2022, Annapurna has witnessed an overwhelming response from its microbusiness customers like Rajesh, who have engaged with the organization through WhatsApp to avail of new products, make digital repayments, and receive real-time updates on their account status. Meanwhile, Annapurna’s microfinance customers like Leelabati, have received more than 280,000 SMS and over three million interactive voice response messages, providing them with valuable information on a range of topics, from fraud prevention to monthly installment notifications and one-time settlements.

As Annapurna continues to scale up its Customer Engagement Platform, the organization recognizes the importance of creating simple and relevant channels and user journeys to cater to customers with varying levels of digital maturity. This approach has been pivotal in ensuring the success of Annapurna’s digital transformation initiatives across the globe, and will continue to be a key focus moving forward.

Learn more about Accion’s digital transformation work around the world.

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