Providing Last Mile Customer Service for Solar Home Systems
Last-mile distribution is frequently touted as the biggest challenge of reaching underserved populations with life-changing products, but distribution is only the beginning. Few of humanity’s complex needs and desires are met via a one-time transaction. Products break or require maintenance; households’ needs change as income or families grow; and the technologies available to meet those needs is constantly evolving. Therefore, last-mile service – the ability to continually monitor and meet the needs of underserved customers – is an even more transformative (and more difficult) code to crack.
Off Grid Electric (OGE) is a solar company in Tanzania that provides low-cost energy services to households without energy access. We are breaking new ground in last-mile service and learning many important lessons along the way. Take one recent field visit, for example. Our call center received a request to remove its M-POWER solar home systems from a group of households in a remote village. After a two-hour truck ride, a rowboat river crossing, and a motorcycle taxi, an OGE field officer named Tumaini found the customers, a group of Maasai livestock herders who were migrating in search of better grazing for their cattle during the dry season. The customers were very happy with their M-POWER systems, but their future dwellings were too temporary to be wired, so they could not bring the systems with them. The women were particularly sad to say goodbye to the radios to which they had become accustomed and requested to have their service re-instated immediately when they returned.
While collecting these systems, Tumaini was approached by another community member who complained his M-POWER system was not performing well. Tumaini followed the customer to his house, and after inspection, he noticed that the solar panel was wrapped in a large, black plastic bag. The customer explained that his sales agent had instructed him to keep the panel free from dust. He had no concept that the system drew its energy from the sun and that wrapping the panel in a bag would interfere, just like dust. This story, just one of thousands accumulated in the company’s quest to build a scalable service model for its 25,000 customers across Tanzania, illustrates four key challenges of last-mile service:
- Customer selection: For a company that relies on regular payments from its customers to cover the cost of its solar equipment, migrating herders are going to pose challenges. However, setting and enforcing the right customer selection criteria for local sales agents is a highly nuanced exercise that requires calibration for a host of local circumstances.
- Customer education: Teaching a customer who has never had electricity how to maintain and get the most out of a solar home system requires a very simple message. However, shortcuts (such as “keep the panel free from dust”) can lead to all sorts of creative, but misguided behavior. Like customer selection, good customer education must find the appropriate balance between simplicity and comprehensiveness.
- Prompt, effective response: To deliver on its promise to provide free and prompt service to all customers, OGE has a national call center and a dedicated team of service agents. These agents have a hard job. They must be able to locate customers in remote areas with no address and come prepared with the tools, equipment, and knowledge to solve the customer’s problem. A company providing a service as critical as basic electricity must have the internal processes and capacity to deploy these agents quickly and efficiently to avoid leaving customers in the dark.
- Proactive outreach: Many of OGE’s customers will not tell the company when they have a problem. Either they forget how to contact us, don’t have airtime, or simply find it easier to go back to kerosene. But as a service company, our success relies on customers using our solar systems regularly. We must be able to identify unsatisfied customers quickly and proactively reach out. This requires tracking the right metrics and using a set of well-calibrated triggers to alert its service team when and how to intervene.
These are difficult challenges, but the prize for solving them is huge. As a recent CGAP publication highlighted, over 1.3 billion people lack access to electricity, and another billion have extremely unreliable grid connections. OGE’s thesis is that these customers ultimately want a service — reliable electricity — rather than ownership of any particular product. Companies who figure out how to provide this service affordably and reliably in remote and challenging environments will capture an enormous customer base and unlock vast social, environmental, and economic impact.