WHY SAVINGS AND CREDIT CO-OPERATIVE SOCIETIES MUST EMBRACE CUSTOMER SERVICE EXCELLENCE

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Savings and credit co-operative societies (Saccos) have over the years grown to be a force to contend with in the financial services sector. Recent reports indicate that the perception of Saccos has completely turned around from what was originally perceived to be a gathering of ‘farm folk’ to put their savings together for a common good, to societies that have a portfolio running into billions of shillings.   In the financial inclusion space, Saccos have by far and large spread the reach and amassed a wide customer database. The extent to which Saccos are a major player in the economic  field is such that, the Sacco Societies Regulatory Authority (SASRA)  not only exists by an  Act of parliament, but also has the express authority to de-regulate non-compliant Saccos. These institutions therefore need to understand the key role they play in shaping the achievement of national goals, and step up their commitment to customer experience excellence.

Tight bond
Although Saccos are very much akin to the banking business, and share quite a number of similar processes, procedures and working frameworks, they have the added advantage of being viewed as a friendly, non-constrictive option for the people. The emotional engagement with Saccos that have helped many citizens to achieve both their personal and professional dreams has much higher social capital than that of banks – both big and small. This calls for a much deeper level of engagement with customers given that Saccos thrive on the trust and confidence of their customers – the depositors and investors. When the Sacco is good to them, customers succeed and in the process, they bring on board more friends and colleagues.
By their very definition, Saccos are built around people as opposed to an institution. A Sacco is known as a gathering of people. In this country, they are defined as an association of like-minded individuals, registered formally with the general objective to promote the economic interests and general welfare of its members. With this being the governing blueprint under which Saccos are created and run, then there really should not be any excuse for not delivering service that warms the hearts of their members. Membership is voluntary and as with all ‘volunteer’ organizations, more stringent standards of service are required to maintain membership and sustain growth.

Non-negotiable
With the centre stage that the Sacco movement is currently occupying, and the placement of entrepreneurship at the cusp of the next economic revolution in the country, customer service excellence is a non-negotiable. The bane of every entrepreneur’s existence has always been resources, and Saccos have filled this gap by provision of accessible credit for innovation and business drive. Saccos thus need to fully understand their role not only just within the precincts of being deposit, withdrawal and investment facilitators, but the central responsibility they bear towards supporting creativity and innovation in the nation, to catapult the current entrepreneurial drift into a fully-fledged driver of the desired increase in the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).The country has already started to recognize this central placement of Saccos. To that end, the country’s economic blueprint (Vision 2030) recognizes Saccos as important players in deepening financial access to mobilize savings for investments in enterprises and personal development.
With the professionalization of Saccos and the engagement of increasingly empowered talent in their running and management, the organizations can no longer be excused for dispensing mediocre service. A Sacco like any other financial institution – despite being  managed by a team, which reports to a committee elected by members –  must run like a fully-fledged corporate, and as is becoming increasingly clear day by day, corporates must embrace customer centricity not only to thrive, but to ensure sustainability. The customer must be at the centre of focus and the reason around which decision making is made. And just like massive strides have been made right from 1908 when Cooperatives in Kenya were started and membership was limited to white colonial settlers, further strides must be made that pit Saccos against any other financial institution in terms of operational efficiency, dynamic leadership and client engagement. Saccos must then focus on the two big ticket areas that will ensure they fulfil on their mandate and provide a robust platform for socio economic growth.

Responsiveness and trust
Responsiveness is built around listening to the voice of the customer. An institution can only be deemed as responsive to customer needs when it knows and understands what those needs are in the first place. Responding to customers needs to be driven from their agenda as opposed to the corporate objectives that the Sacco wants to achieve from a financial growth perspective.Specific strategies need to be instituted to seek out customer feedback.  The feedback gathering process needs to be proactively driven with different strategies employed based on what works for the specific demographic. This feedback solicitation could take the shape of surveys put out on a regular basis to source for customer views on a particular issue or performance in general. It can also entail solicitation of feedback from focus group discussions with customers to get insights into various areas of operation, conversations on the different social media platforms to get inputs from the customer for the more digitally oriented customer or internally driven customer feedback gathering, vide the use of mystery shopping initiatives to gather real time customer experiences from the customer angle. Reactive customer feedback attention is equally  important, with a deliberate focus placed on responding with interest to any ideas, suggestions, proposals, inputs, thoughts, comments or observations made by customers either spontaneously, or through an existing feedback platform. Customers need to know that feedback is highly encouraged and well received by the Sacco. No feedback should go unacknowledged or un-responded to. Customers love to be listened to. They love to know that their voice is being heard and that the organization values their input. It serves to have customers feel very important and valued. The emotional engagement with brands that listen to their customers and actively communicate not only their intention to listen, but also their response to what is coming through, is much higher than those that do not make the effort. This responsiveness does not only end at the listening bit, but must go further to collate and analyze all the outputs from the listening exercises to plot emerging trends, view common threads, and provide useful information to inform corporate decision making for the Sacco. Customer feedback is the fuel required to drive Sacco development and sustainability.

Loyal customers
For Saccos to maintain a loyal customer base and recruit and sustain new members, trust is a central governing factor. Even though trust is a brand builder irrespective of the economic sector, players handling ‘money’ are called upon to be much more sensitive and attuned to the need of their customers to create unshakable trust. The promises that Saccos make to their customers must be fulfilled. No promise is too small to create a wedge between customers and the institution. The entire workforce within a Sacco must be clear that the Sacco’s brand is built on customer trust and that conversations they have with customers must come to fruition. Customer experiences that leave them feeling that they are in a safe place with a trusted partner need to be deliberately created. Trust is manifested through trustworthy customer communication. Saccos must build communication frameworks that are policy driven and standardized across the institution. Both internal and external communication must inspire trust and continuous audits must be put in place to ensure the laid down communication blue print is not only working, but also upgraded as required, based on emerging needs and customer feedback. Customer communication must be a key pillar in the Sacco’s corporate strategy to the extent where the risk of over communication should take precedence over the risk of creating customer conflict from erroneous or withheld communication. This should especially be activated in instances where service failure may have occurred. The Sacco will need to be in over drive to communicate with the affected customer to indicate how seriously the matter is being taken, the activities in place to correct the situation, the preventive action instituted to ensure that the failure does not recur and where applicable, communication on what is being done to make good on the situation. Customer communication during conflict and service failure situations is a trust builder.  This confirms to customers that they are important and deserve redress.  Authentic communication restores customer confidence and strengthens trust.
Citizens from all walks of life are Sacco members, and word of mouth marketing serves to rope in far more members than any above or below the line marketing strategies ever will. Bringing in members is one thing and ensuring retention is another. Customer service excellence is the mainstay of customer loyalty and every Sacco desirous of achieving its vision needs to recognize this. It is every Sacco’s responsibility therefore, to do its  part in building the nation by creating delightful customer experiences hinged on responsiveness and trust that will contribute to driving the country’s economy.

Carolyne Gathuru is the founder and director of strategy at Lifeskills Consulting. She has over 17 years experience in customer service strategy development and training. Email: cgathuru@life-skills.co.ke

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