Avoid These Three Mistakes That Can Kill Your Agent Network

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When I started a mobile payments business in East Africa, I was surprised by how seemingly insignificant details could grow into project-killing mistakes, if no one was paying attention to the field agent network.
Even when you think you have accounted for everything in your go-to-market plan, as poet Robert Burns observed, the “best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men [often go wrong].”
Below are three mistakes I’ve seen organizations make when using agent networks in emerging markets and the lessons learned for avoiding them.
Overlooking Basic Customer Needs
In 2013, I started the Tanzania subsidiary of Kopo Kopo, a Kenyan mobile payments startup that enabled merchants to accept consumer-to-business payments using mobile money (M-PESA and Tigo Pesa).
We invested heavily to acquire merchants – restaurants, hotels, bars and similar business customers — and we watched their transactions closely. When our best merchant stopped transacting, our sales manager took a trip to find out why.

  • Were they dissatisfied with payment acceptance through our system? No, they loved it.
  • Did they have problems settling their bank account? No, that worked well too.
  • Had a competitor offered them better terms? No, they hadn’t talked to anyone else.

Then why had they stopped using it? “Well, the power cord for the mobile phone that received transaction confirmations broke and we don’t know where to buy a replacement.”
So our sales manager took a 5-minute boda boda ride to a nearby market and bought them a new one and they started transacting again that day.
The lesson we learned
Your field agents need to systematically identify and remove blockers that derail use of your product or service, even when that should be someone else’s job. 
Overlooking Basic Field Agent Needs
Many MFI organizations now understand the benefits of digitally collecting financial KYC documentation and “onboarding” customers using mobile tools rather than paper. Most of the core banking vendors and some clever startups are developing tools to create customer accounts using mobile phones.
But few MFIs I have spoken to give much thought to creating tools to help support field agent networks so they can manage their own business processes. An experienced, Ugandan-based financial inclusion consultant put it to me this way:
“The banks all have systems for setting up an account or starting a loan application at a correspondent banking agent. But none have built systems to help their managers help when an agent runs out of thermal printing paper for his receipt machine … So usually that agent won’t be able to print receipts for months because you’re counting on his account manager to remember that and bring receipt paper next time he visits.”
The lesson we learned
Create tools to help your field agents consistently remember and solve customer problems. Don’t rely on memory or easily lost paper notes to help them deliver your product or service correctly.

Overlooking Local Context
Peripheral Vision International (PVI) distributes free DVDs to Ugandan movie halls containing a mix of new music videos and advertising messages from health programs, government agencies and NGOs. To begin working with larger advertisers, they needed a better system to track the demographics of their viewership.
Since 2015, PVI field agents have used the barcode scanning capabilities of TaroWorks’ mobile data collection and analysis app to track the specific content they delivered to each movie hall. PVI did extensive planning and testing in the Kampala head office before posting unique QR code tracking stickers at hundreds of movie halls around Uganda and barcodes on the DVDs.
About a month after PVI put up the movie hall stickers, the field team reported about a third of the stickers were missing. They created a TaroWorks survey and collected data from movie hall staff to see what had happened.
They found that some stickers fell off from bad adhesive. In other cases, owners didn’t like the stickers and took them down. Many more were stolen and used to decorate motorcycle helmets.
But PVI also discovered they had triggered a totally unexpected Ugandan superstition: “Numbers Disease.” Some Ugandans believe that if you discover numbers written on your body or home, it foretells the amount of time you have left to live. Since the QR code stickers had numbers written on them, some people removed the stickers to protect themselves.
PVI learned from these problems and quickly rolled out new stickers that eliminated the problems.
Lesson Learned:
Your organizational flexibility and ability to identify and react to real world problems in real time can be just as important as your planning and design process.
Brent Chism is CEO of TaroWorks. A version of this post appeared originally on the TaroWorks blog.
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