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The key role of agents in upholding consumer protection standards

@Oolu Solar

This article is part of a series by GOGLA and Sun-Connect News about the importance and impact of consumer protection from different perspectives. This series of articles highlights the importance of the Consumer Protection Code initiated by GOGLA for the off-grid market. More information about the Consumer Protection Code here.

Many off-grid solar companies have built their consumer-facing operations around a large network of agents. These networks are a critical part of serving hard-to-reach communities and scaling businesses. Agents are the industry’s front-line in ensuring high standards of service and consumer protection, so it’s essential that they are well trained, effectively incentivised and feel valued.

For many off-grid companies, building the right agent model and implementing effective management of a remote workforce has been challenging. Last year, GOGLA commissioned a study of agents in East and West Africa to understand what’s working well and what isn’t.

The agent role and consumer protection

Agents are the in-person link between a company and its customers, so their importance in good consumer protection cannot be overstated. They are often tasked with a combination of sales, aftersales, collections and – more broadly – consumer-relations activities. While they are often called upon to support employed staff undertaking installations, technical servicing and repossessions – these ‘extra’ duties may not be compensated and take time away from making sales and collections.

Agent morale and the extent to which they feel a valued part of the company was identified as an important factor affecting job satisfaction, and ultimately, retention. When an agent leaves, consumers may lose their familiar point-of-contact mid-way through their PAYGo repayment term. Efforts to provide long-term rewards tied to ensuring a customer’s ability to pay are less effective if the job is viewed as a short-term endeavour. Companies demonstrating good practice have recognised this and are taking concrete steps to show they value their agents and their role: “The agent has to like you. Good agent experience is the first step towards good consumer protection and strong credit risk management.” (OGS company, West Africa.)

Challenges and new ways forward for agent management

Off-grid solar agent networks bring jobs and skills to rural areas, but to fully realise the opportunity, alignment is needed between the agent career path, their aspirations and compensation structure.

Some companies have moved the responsibility for agent management from being largely a sales function to an embedded part of human resource management – and are seeing the benefits of a better trained, incentivised and motivated agent workforce. Others are experimenting with elements of fixed or retainer-based compensation models which brings security not just to the agent but also to the customer, as they can build a long-term relationship with a local, familiar company representative. While the company’s initial outlay may be higher, it is offset by increased returns through better repayment rates.

The study identified five overarching principles for good practice in agent management that can underpin standards of consumer protection:

  1. The role and expectations of an agent should be clearly defined, contracted and all activities that are a reasonable part of the job should be adequately compensated.
  2. Regular and targeted agent training is an investment not just in the agent, but the company as a whole. Mixed modes of virtual and in-person training work best – especially as the agent’s job can be a lonely one, in-person events with team members can help boost morale.
  3. Compensation and other incentives should balance the promotion of good quality sales (ensuring that customers have the right product, and the means to pay for it) while providing an opportunity to earn a stable income.
  4. Embracing data and KPIs helps supervisors manage agents, and builds transparency for agents around how they are incentivised. Gamification based on KPIs such as collection rate per agent/region can boost morale, team spirit and improve performance.
  5. Agents are an integral part of an off-grid solar business, and should have a meaningful stake in the success and ethos of the company. The Consumer Protection Code has been developed with the consumer in mind, but the Principle for ‘fair and respectful treatment’ applies equally to agents.

 

GOGLA invites all consumer-facing organisations within the off-grid solar sector to make a commitment to the Consumer Protection Code so that together, we can create a sustainable, consumer-centric industry. Making a commitment is only the first step in a company’s consumer protection journey, and we are building a toolbox to help the implementation of continuous operational improvements, including in agent management. Where agent models are concerned, making changes and investing in new training and incentivisation methods is complex and highly variable from one region to the next – companies doing so can benefit from evidence of what’s been tried and tested before them, and deserve support from the full ecosystem of stakeholders.

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