The pandemic has severely affected the world’s low-income populations. But by accelerating the pace of digitization, it has opened doors to financial services and the security and opportunities they provide. Digital financial services—and the tools needed to use them—are now vital for low-income families and small businesses to make it through this crisis and build resilience to future challenges.

Digitization is integrating financial services into nearly every aspect of life. Financial services can be embedded into anything from utility payments to crop fertilizer subscriptions, which can help more people access credit, save money, and build credit histories that are essential for growth.

But digitization also risks worsening inequality, invading clients’ privacy, and taking advantage of people with less digital experience or poor access to the right tools, like mobile phones. Underserved people need new skills and expertise to successfully navigate the digital economy, and they need products that protect their privacy and personal information.

Accion has been working to ensure that innovations driving digital transformation and migration are inclusive, safe, and effective. Based on our experiences, here are three ways to ensure customers aren’t left behind amid accelerating digitization.

1. Expand digital access, fluency, and trust

Building customers’ trust in digital financial services, as well as their digital fluency, will be foundational an effective customer experience. It matters less where clients live, while it’s more important that providers can reach and stay in contact with them. Financial services providers need to rethink the purposes of physical interactions versus digital interactions so that the former occur less often and the latter become more frequent and more personal.

EdTech (education technology) can help underserved clients gain digital familiarity and learn how to accomplish a range of tasks, like setting up an online wallet or listing a product for sale. Accion has developed and deployed an interactive EdTech platform called Ovante to help underserved entrepreneurs gain the management, financial, and digital expertise they need to succeed in our increasingly digital world. Ovante can help clients expand on their existing knowledge of social media to open new digital channels to selling their products and services.

Digital channels are a key conduit for financial service providers to improve their customer experience, and sometimes this means totally rethinking the customer experience. For example, many of Accion’s partners use group lending models to serve clients without any credit history by allowing people in the same communities to guarantee each other. Eighty percent of group lending participants are women, and 65 percent live in rural areas with few or no banks. Group lending has historically relied on frequent in-person interactions. But as social distancing became a necessity, our partners leveraged digital platforms to reimagine the group lending process for the digital age.

2. Answer clients’ needs

As lockdowns end, low-income families will find their savings exhausted, their businesses stalled or bankrupt, and their future incomes uncertain. People will need new income streams and financial services to build resilience, restart their businesses, and establish new ventures.

Digitization means that more clients will use digital tools to rebuild their livelihoods, but providers must answer their needs by crafting truly meaningful, customer-centric value propositions that help them build resilience today and for the future.

To do that successfully during the pandemic, Accion has helped providers conduct interviews and surveys remotely to ensure that they capture the insights they need. Using client insights, we help institutions develop products and services that are desirable to clients and solve their specific problems. These offerings must also be feasible for the institution, given their capacity and operating models, and viable for the long term. Here, digital channels and platforms make a huge difference, and adopting them has become an urgent priority.

It’s so important to help people build financial resilience, and the customer experience needs to reflect that. If vulnerable clients’ unique needs aren’t sought out, understood, and addressed, their entire livelihoods could collapse and the economic recovery will be more difficult. Financial service providers must grow along with their clients by understanding their needs, crafting products that meet those needs, and keeping them engaged throughout their journey as customers.

3. Ensure clients’ data and privacy stay protected

Digitized data can unlock more personalized and effective financial products that can help low-income people improve their lives and achieve their goals. Yet many emerging markets have weak effective consumer data protection regimes. When rules do exist, people with low levels of digital and financial sophistication may, in their eagerness to receive financial services, sign away their rights without even fully understanding them.

Protecting the privacy and security of customer data includes cultural and technical aspects, and vulnerabilities often lie at the intersection of the two. A provider can install best-in-class privacy and security software, but they must also build in privacy through a culture of protecting customer data. For example, providers can ‘right size’ their data collection methods to focus only on what is needed, implement strong and ethical data governance policies, and have dedicated staff responsible for their consistent application and use.

Accion is also focused on increasing transparency in providers’ data practices. We are analyzing how financial service providers use algorithms, which can be biased against underserved populations, in automated decision-making. We are monitoring emerging frameworks around the world to see what does and doesn’t work to advance financial inclusion while safeguarding data privacy, portability, and other consumer rights.

Cyber threats have also become a growing concern in emerging markets. Digital innovations, new products, and new processes are moving ahead at breakneck speed, but they’re leaving cyber security considerations in the dust, bringing new risks to financial inclusion-focused providers and to low-income and newly-banked customers. This makes it harder for people to trust digital financial services. We are working with our partners to put in place cyber risk mitigation strategies to ensure that the most underserved are protected.

Accion is engaging the industry to ensure that innovation doesn’t simply expand access to financial services—but also creates financial services that are safe, high quality, and designed to meet customers’ needs. These efforts are essential to ensure that the world’s three billion financially underserved people can build resilience to today’s challenges and threats arising in the future.

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