That Covid-19 has caused more economic havoc than health havoc in the country is not an unfounded assertion. A recent paper by the Institute of Economic Affairs Kenya indicates that: “The Covid-19 shocks have affected Kenya’s economy in several ways. They include contraction of the economy, productivity losses and social welfare losses. The preliminary data so far indicates that Kenya’s economy will contract in 2020 by -0.3%. However, the contraction could be as high as five per cent.”
This is a doomsday report, and indeed from an economic view point, small and medium enterprises (SMEs) have been significantly hard hit by the unprecedented pandemic. Businesses have had to cope with the burden of drying and dried up incomes, whilst still trying to figure out how to catapult or pivot, or whichever other catch phrase for bouncing back now doting business advisory pieces. The effects of this downturn on the microfinance sector has been quite damning. The disruption has been at unprecedented levels. Between battling how to keep afloat, how to keep staff and customers safe, how to maintain normal operations in a rather abnormal environment, and how to balance all the operations, it has been a season of fire and ice. Right at the centre of this turbulence and this upheaval, lies the customer. The very customers who are the drivers of business and without whom, businesses have had to acknowledge that nothing really matters have been extremely hard hit. The microfinance sector has especially experienced a different customer environment.
Disregarding the usual fraudulent customer types that microfinanciers experience – who have every reason to borrow but no indication to pay – the otherwise normal customers who seek financing solutions have had business distress situations like none ever experienced before.
Entrepreneurs and business owners are the mainstay of the microfinance sector, given the stringent measures required for mainstream banks funding that they are often unable to meet. This category of customers have felt the sharp bite of the local Covid -19 prevention measures that have seen decreased customer movement vide recurring nationwide curfews, cessation of inter county movements, border closures, limited movement of product and goods, closure of education facilities, strict regulations in the entertainment industry and the increase in uptake of the work-from-home policy to flatten the curve.
With customers in tribulation, experiencing high anxiety worry and stress, what should micro financiers do to keep the balance in the high wire tight rope that has the need to hold the business together on one side, and the need to push for customer repayments and collections on the other? The answer to business success even in troubled times still remains maintenance of as best as possible customer experience excellence at both internal and external customer levels and empathy is the most crucial currency of the season.
The internal customer must have support right from board , the top leadership to management across the down line. They need to be present and to enable all those working for the institution feel their maximum support. Without the outpouring of care for the teams on the ground, there will be a reasonable level of peace of mind needed to make crucial decisions and for the internal teams to withstand the onslaught of customer stress experienced in these challenging times. An empathetic board and leadership will make time to review current status and take stock of what has changed over the Covid -19 season, taking into account both the expected and the unpredicted changes. Leadership will need to shift from the regular scheduled meetings to more ad hoc ones as and when necessary, to tackle any matters arising. If team members feel supported, then the quality of decision making will be reflective of the same.
Businesses need wisdom in these challenging times. Customers require sober institutional leadership to respond as necessary in a way that does not disenfranchise them. Providing both functional and emotional support for staff, being deliberate about encouraging the teams to weather the storm and to continue focusing on what can be salvaged and not on what is already lost and the continuous reassurance that the company cares, is the glue needed to hold things together and to have sufficient arsenal to handle any external customer matters. As is the mantra with customer experience excellence, there cannot be external service excellence unless the internal customer is sufficiently motivated. Internally as well, team members must embrace team work and provide both emotional, psychological and even physical support for each other in order to keep going through the dips and strive to adapt to change. In addition to providing a listening ear and checking up on each other, it is imperative that teams that are working in person – and most micro financiers in the country are back to in person operations – take care of each other in regards to health and safety.
Every single person in the organization is responsible for maintaining the Ministry of Health guidelines and protocols so that the teams are safe and well enough to attend to customers. If any single team member is exposed, then the entire work force would be exposed, and likewise the customers would be exposed. Customers therefore need to feel confident that the microfinance player has done its best within the safety parameters. Financial services sector and especially the microfinance sector that is often plagued with doubtful inclinations from various quarters needs to present an atmosphere that elicits high trust all round.