The Green Stool Innovation

Customer really value privacy in the discussions with the wealth manager in the branch

Bindu Ananth
Published: 18, Oct 2013

One of my favourite movie scenes is from “It’s a wonderful life”. The hero, George Bailey, is a reluctant banker. On his wedding night he has to deal with a bank run. In trying to stop the bank run, he tries to explain the concept of illiquidity to his depositors. " "You're thinking of this place all wrong. As if I had the money back in a safe. The money's not here. Your money's in Joe's house...right next to yours. And in the Kennedy house, and Mrs. Macklin's house, and a hundred others. Why, you're lending them the money to build, and then, they're going to pay it back to you as best they can." George's vision of banking is infectious: it is not about pieces of paper or ledgers. It is about helping people build houses and dreams. This vision drives me. Along with my awesome team at IFMR Trust (where I am the president), am obsessed with seeing that all of India has access to high quality financial services; be it a daily wage labourer seeking to protect her Rs. 100 wage from inflation or a municipality issuing its bonds to build sanitation for its residents. I believe that finance, when done well, can be a tremendous force for good. I live and blog from Chennai (and planes) but most of my stories are from Thanjavur, Ganjam and Uttrakhand.

On Wednesday, we brought together leaders from our Kshetriya Gramin Financial Services (KGFS) companies to talk about best practices from across our operations in Uttarakhand, Orissa and Tamil Nadu. One story really stood out for me – the green stool innovation.

When we were setting up branches in villages which had never been served by formal institutions before, we were very eager to imprint our values in all aspects of our operations. So, our wealth managers hired from the local villages wear uniforms to signal that they are professionals. All visitor cars need to be parked 100 metres away from the branch entrance so that there is no sense of outsider-insider within the branch premises. We insisted that our landlords build bathrooms adjacent to every branch so that we would be able to hire women wealth managers. One of the early things we also did was to have locally made benches painted bright green as the furniture in the branch. The bench seemed to us, to be the metaphoric leveller in a village context often characterised by caste and class divides. Until, one of our employees realised the awkwardness of the bench design.

As part of our enrolment process, we have a long (somewhat tedious) interaction with the customer about her family members, income streams, household expenses, assets, liabilities, goals etc. As a consequence of the bench design, we had situations in which the neighbour would chime in with details on some asset that the customer had forgotten to disclose! We were guilty of the assumption that surely, if people in the village are willing to guarantee each other’s loans, there would be no problem with a communal environment for enrolment. One of our employees figured out that this assumption was completely wrong and that the customer really valued privacy in these discussions. He came up with the idea of the branch having, in addition to the green benches, also a couple of green stools where they could break away from the group and have a one-on-one discussion with the wealth manager in the branch. This change in design cost us nothing but has had a pretty big impact in signalling to the customer that we will protect her privacy.

This is a great reminder that the small details matter so much. As our mentor & former Starbucks executive Deidra Wager tells us, “retail is detail”.

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