How to Transform Agent Banking with an Agent-Centric Approach

When AMK launched its agent network three years ago, the business potential for the Cambodian microfinance institution was clear. Agent banking allowed geographical expansion without the high-capital investment that branches required. It also translated into huge savings in cost and time for customers, who gained the ability to access services closer to their homes. Yet as its network grew to over 2,500 agents, AMK faced a challenge: Too many of its agents seemed dissatisfied and demotivated.

“I thought I would make extra money as an AMK agent since AMK is well-known…. I don’t get as many customers as I thought I would. Even when I get customers, it takes time because the phone application is slow and gives errors. It also takes time to fill out receipts manually and sometimes other customers walk away.” — AMK agent

AMK made an unusual decision. It began to think of and treat its agents as a specific customer segment. By addressing agent challenges through this lens and providing support, it believed agent business would improve. CGAP partnered with AMK to understand whether this “agent-centric” view would lead to happy customers and more business for AMK.

Along with 17 Triggers, a Phnom Penh-based behavior change lab, AMK and CGAP embarked on a process known as trigger mapping. A financial services provider uses trigger mapping to identify pain points or triggers that cause specific behaviors and levers for change along an agent’s journey with the organization. The three critical stages to any agent's journey, according to 17 Triggers, are "first impression," "courtship" and "marriage" (i.e., when the agent enters into a formal relationship with the financial services provider). Friction arises when there is a mismatch between an agent's expectations and experiences in these stages or between stages.

“Trigger mapping is far more than a focus group discussion or an interview,” said Pheakyny Vong, head of research at AMK. “It tells us what happened before the problem occurs and creates a timeline . . . .  It allows us to identify what worked and did not work.”

To map different agent journeys, 17 Triggers clustered agents by their performance levels (based on the number of money transfer transactions and services agents were offering). Classifying these clusters across rural and urban areas resulted in eight agent segments. Representatives of these eight segments and some AMK staff and customers were interviewed using a human-centered design approach.

The process highlighted the following challenges and potential solutions:

Lower-than-expected business transactions

AMK agents expected a steady revenue without actively soliciting AMK’s customers. Customers, on the other hand, were unaware they could access AMK’s services at agent locations. Besides agents’ unwillingness to pitch services, several agents lacked the sales skills and knowledge of services. At times, agent stores were managed by family members who were not trained by AMK, resulting in poor customer experience.

In response to these findings, AMK is redeveloping easy-to-understand training materials and conducting training sessions for agents and their families. Second, agents are encouraged to use WhatsApp to receive online, real-time support from mobile banking officers. Finally, a rating mechanism where customers rate agents’ services will help identify which agents require further support.

Lack of recognition

Several agents signed up with AMK because they wanted to be seen as helpful in their communities, which gives them a certain social standing. However, when compared to competitors, faded banners and poor branding at their stores erode this social standing. Manual processes give the feeling of being old-fashioned or slow, making AMK’s agents feel side-lined and excluded from AMK’s growth story.

AMK is prototyping a standalone “agent booth” in attractive colors, internally referred to as “agent in a box.” Manual receipts are being phased out and point-of-service devices introduced. This saves time, reduces errors and makes the agent look tech-savvy. Agent clubs are being tested, with contests to reward good performance and meetings with AMK senior management to make agents feel included.

Poor user experience

AMK’s agent application is text heavy. Messages are long and easy to misread, and the Khmer words for “send money” and “receive money” are similar, resulting in errors that must be corrected by contacting the call center. Agents also find transaction references hard to retrieve, and the application does not easily provide information on incentives earned on a per transaction basis.

AMK’s application is being redesigned to make it user friendly. The new application will have an internal chat window for real-time online support. An incentive calculator will be included to inform agents about the exact income they make on each transaction.  

While conducting trigger mapping research and designing and testing solutions, AMK and CGAP learned important lessons about how to improve the agent and customer experience:

Embed business teams in field research. Most business teams come with their own hypotheses about challenges. During field research, these are either confirmed or refuted. Either way, embedding your business team in the field will help to deepen your understanding of the problem and build capability within business teams so that business decisions are based on customer insights. It also aligns business and customer insights teams, which is often a challenge.

Separate symptoms from the problems to identify the root cause. For instance, long transaction times emerged as a pain point in the trigger mapping research. While the first instinct was to blame the mobile application, a closer look revealed that agents spent time filling out manual receipts, resulting in long waiting periods, higher errors and a perception of being unprofessional.

Prioritize quick wins. Problems often have complex solutions that must be tested over several months, while others are quick wins. Prioritizing quick wins with a more long-term plan to address complex issues can sustain enthusiasm for the longer, complex change process. For instance, a quick get-together of agents can motivate agents to feel they are part of AMK. Similarly, rapid prototype testing of a bright agent in a box model through standalone booths can excite employees, agents and customers.

Soon after AMK completed the journey mapping exercise and was preparing to roll out and test prototypes, the National Bank of Cambodia announced a new policy that has had major implications for microfinance institutions. Since April 1, 2017, all microfinance institutions have been required to lend at interest rates no higher than 18 percent per annum. This has forced microfinance institutions, including AMK, to look closely at operating costs and find way to manage within the new cap.

The move has only reinforced the importance of an agent model for AMK. The agent in a box model may be a solution for extending services in remote areas. AMK has also re-examined agent benefits and met agents extensively in person to both build agent awareness and conduct motivation workshops. While the long-term business results of AMK’s actions remain to be seen, these steps have already benefited agents and customers in the short run.

For more information on the trigger mapping process, listen to the audio case study below.


16 August 2017 Submitted by Shashi ranjan sinha (not verified)

Great to see this presentation Jayshree. MFIs globally need to find ways of reducing operating cost while improving client selection and service process .These is need for specialised service providers to emerge- like airports - that service all airlines- small or big - with uniform service standards. This includes selection and training of field staff - MFi or agent entity.Client verification is another specialised activity . All this shall help MFis focus on low cost fund raise ,product development and risk management .We have seen standard technology support entities being operating costs down - but other areas need immediate attention even in India .

18 August 2017 Submitted by Dr.V. Rengarajan (not verified)

Client centric approach may facilitate MFIs.What is the impact of poor client side given level of capability for adoption? It demands more of client centric approach from the perspective of sustainable financial inclusion


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