How better customer service can help the world’s poor out of energy poverty

There are more than 3 billion people around the world who lack access to affordable and reliable modern fuel, like electricity and natural gas. They are living in energy poverty and have been under-served by simple yet technologically-advanced products that could benefit them.

Thankfully, this population’s access to these technologies is increasing as more companies see the potential of serving them. However, before people emerge from energy poverty, they must first make an important choice: to leave behind something familiar and replace it with something unknown from a company they don’t trust.

A useful product can get someone’s attention, but customer service is the cornerstone of establishing trust. A lot of companies that serve customers in poor countries have innovative, affordable products that never make it off the shelf. If the need is there, and the market exists why are sales lacking? Too often it’s because these companies don’t treat their customers as they would want to be treated, which is with a level of service we have learned to take for granted in developed nations. In fact, in many countries in the developing world, customer service simply doesn’t exist.

A Rwandan man on his way to market, carries a load of stoves on top ofhis head for sale in Rwanda's capital Kigali September 18, 2002. Some500 Rwandan troops were flown home on Tuesday, marking the firstwithdrawals by the country's army under the terms of a peace dealsigned with Congo in July. The deal aims to end four years of civil warin the Congo that have killed an estimated two million people. REUTERS/Antony NjugunaAN/AA - RTRANWN

A Rwandan man on his way to market carries stoves for sale in Rwanda’s capital Kigali

Image: REUTERS/Antony Njuguna

At Envirofit, we work in parts of the world where the concept of customer service is an innovation in and of itself. In a peri-urban town like Nakuru, Kenya, if the traditional charcoal stove you cook on every single day has broken down for the fourth time this year, you’ll do what you’ve always done. When you go into town to buy vegetables, you’ll also stop by the market, where everything is unlabelled and made from unknown materials. There you’ll find another poor quality stove for $4 with the expectation that it too will break in a few months. There is no number to call if there’s a problem or website to write a review on.

When buying cheap household goods this way might work well enough to get through the week or month, but it creates a culture of distrust for the people selling them and a belief that these products are disposable. Because of this, local and international social enterprises with innovative new technologies for water, energy and healthcare have struggled to reach people who have become inured to the status quo. However, if customers see a genuine value in your products – and trust that you’ll be there to support them after the sale – they are more likely to take the first steps towards emerging from energy poverty.

Customer service is something we have come to expect in wealthy countries. For some companies it is more important than the product that is sold. At Starbucks you’re not paying $5 for a coffee, you are paying for familiarity, kind staff and their commitment to getting your order right. Amazon delivers more than products, it guarantees your satisfaction by making returns easy and giving customers a place to express their opinions.

As mobile banking brings new economic opportunities, such as financial services, to billions of people for the first time, the companies that wish to serve them need to realize that low income doesn’t mean undiscerning. Just because people in poor countries haven’t received a high level of customer service in the past doesn’t mean that companies can expect to succeed without providing it. When social enterprises can offer the same level of customer service that Starbucks or Amazon do, they will find more customers in more markets across the world.

As a company that designs and delivers innovative products, we’ve also worked to create a culture of customer service to ensure they achieve their full impact. For our staff in the SMAAART 360 Customer Care Team the three As stand for adoption, affordability and access to clean energy technology. To deliver on these ideals we took a proactive, rather than reactive, approach to customer satisfaction: instead of waiting for the phone to ring, we called every single customer who purchased a stove from us to ask them how they were using it and how they liked it. We actively responded to customers who needed help figuring out the new product, but didn’t think that calling the supplier could be an option.

The customer response to this approach has been inspiring. In Latin America, where we launched the programme, we’ve contacted more than 84,000 users and have verified that 97% of them are using their stoves consistently, that their stoves are working correctly, and that they are satisfied with them. We are expanding the programme in East Africa, and have seen an increase in word-of-mouth customer referrals.

Building trust is the single most important aspect when fostering a market for a new technology or product. In markets that lack a culture of trust and customer service, companies have to go above and beyond to create that relationship. Though this trust takes time to develop, it delivers long-lasting results.

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