How empathy deepens customer relationships in rural India

Boy in green shirt in rural India leans on solar panel
Rupesh Shah
Business is unusual, according to U.S. standards, in a place where generations of families have lived together for centuries.

“What it is like in an Indian village?” is a question I often get.

The answer is that it is like stepping back to the year 1500. There is no electricity, and farming is done by hand and by animal power. Cow dung is a critical commodity, used for cooking fuel, fertilizer and flooring.

However, the more time I spend in villages the more I realize that my standard answer is not very accurate, and is very surface-level. It ignores the people, the relationships and the power dynamics.

Only through deeper understanding of people’s ambitions, problems and frustrations can you start to understand their mindset, needs and actions.

At Simpa Energy, we are not just creating an energy product; we are creating a long-lasting customer experience that allows customers to climb up the energy ladder. We want to become a part of their lives by bringing in energy they can use. By offering energy as a service, we are also developing a financial relationship with our customers; they are making a commitment to us just as we are making a commitment to them.

Deep customer empathy

To be successful, we have to better understand them and their needs. Deep customer empathy is the process that occurs when you seek to understand what is behind the customers’ words. We start with open-ended questions, and move further upstream from energy questions.

We ask about their personal history, which often leads to financial history. We talk about children, school, and their hopes, aspirations and disappointments. We use observation because we are often sitting in the customers’ home. We casually inquire about items or people we see, or overheard conversations.

We listen and look for surprises, and then over time we see if the surprises are one-offs or an actual pattern. This effort is more art than science, although we try to employ tried-and-true techniques I learned in the States, not surprisingly with mixed results

When I was a product leader at Intuit, we dug in deep with small businesses to try to understand them. When we did a “follow me home” to their office, we focused on the work they did outside our products and services so we could see the intersections of their financial tools. We had customers write journals, take pictures for us, answer questions, use our products and use competitors’ products to get a better sense of their needs.

Very successful Indian companies that have been selling in rural areas for decades have management training programs designed around gaining a deeper understanding of the rural experience. For example, the HCL Rural Training Program takes new employees, called freshers, and gives them a 3-to-6-month experience living in an Indian village.

The freshers stay with a family in the village, eat the local food, use the outhouse and perform work such as farming or fetching water. Once a month the freshers compare notes and insights. These experiences have contributed to many new insights about the rural market for HCL.

A friend, Roy Rosin, said that to develop deep customer empathy and walk in another person’s shoes, the hardest part is to first “take off your own shoes.“

This is accurate and, indeed, extremely difficult. How can I possibly remove all the instincts, judgments and the sense of right and wrong from growing up in suburban Silicon Valley, and understand how an Indian villager thinks?

This is true even of my team of product managers at Simpa, who have all grown up in India. Life in rural India is so different that we have to consciously remember not to judge. Curiosity is the best weapon.

One of my superstar product managers, Neel, is insatiably curious. We were on a weekend trip with some friends and walking to dinner when Neel suddenly stopped and ran back up the street. I ran behind him.

He had noticed a small mirror nailed onto a wall at an interesting angle. It was a small “chuppel” (sandal) shop, and the mirror served as a security “camera” that helped the owner see the one blind spot of his shop. As with many innovations in India, it was ingenious, cheap and effective. In Hindi, that type of innovation is called “jugaad.”

Over the past few months, we have been going deep with customers trying to understand their needs and current reality, in order to better design our products, improve financial offerings and innovate.

Living together for generations

In the west, it is unlikely that we know our neighbors’ grandparents or great-grandparents. Most of us don’t live in the same neighborhoods that our families have lived in for generations. Yet in Indian villages, most people’s families have lived on that very piece of land for generations, literally for hundreds of years.

Living together means something more intimate in an Indian village, where homes are always open, conversations are for everyone to hear, and anything new gets noticed immediately. It’s a fishbowl, generation after generation. Your neighbors will scrutinize your every move. They’ll know when you do something different. They’ll tell others.

Your neighbors might not want you to succeed because it may put more pressure on them. I am not suggesting that all village neighbors are like the Hatfields and McCoys, but change is riskier than it might appear at face value. 

Unseen struggles

India’s caste system leads to power dynamics. There are some serious inequities in village life. It is not the chatter of everyday conversation, as most villagers like to keep what happens in the village in the village. However, through inquiry, we have managed to learn of some of these additional struggles:

Diesel mafia

In India, rural customers have a government ration card that allows them to buy a certain amount of kerosene for a reduced price. A common problem is the diesel mafia, which pervades rural India. The distribution chain has been infiltrated by those that steal hundreds of thousands of liters, preventing villagers from getting the amount they are supposed to receive.

Instead of 4 liters, typically villarges are only able to buy 2 liters at the discounted price. If they want the other 2 liters, they have to buy it on the black market for more than twice the subsidized prize. 

Delayed payments

Some farmers in the Uttar Pradesh region are farmers of lucrative sugar cane. However, they have become caught up in government red tape when it comes to receiving their payments.

Potential Simpa customers have told us that they hadn't yet received their payments from previous harvests. Going deeper, one of my other superstar product managers, Kiran Gaikwad, found out that a farmer had sold his sugarcane to a processing factory, which in turn provided a credit note. The farmer had to show this credit note to the bank to get the money.

Sugar cane factories often sell the sugar to the government. and once the government pays the factory, then the factory will pay the farmers. However, often the local government is slow to pay the factory, so the farmers don’t get their money on time. This sometimes persists for months after the farmer has sold his crop.

It also comes when the farmer needs to invest for the next planting. Instead, thousands of hand-to-mouth farmers are actually providing free financing to the government.

In addition, farmers waste time and money going to the bank several times to see if their money has arrived. If it hasn’t, and they have to prepare land for the next planting, they will have to take high-interest loans from local money-lenders. 

These types of deep insights about our customers’ mindsets and the types of difficulties they face will enable us to develop more compelling energy and financial offerings for our customers. Using these insights, we have been working across Simpa to define new solutions and to inform our design principles.

One principle is to be patient and flexible with customers who need more time to make their monthly payment. One feature allows customers to use some of their Simpa down-payment money for an emergency energy payment when their cash flow gets tight.

These insights and our resulting offerings will enable us to grow through positive word-of-mouth throughout northern India. We have a variety of experiments running and I look forward to sharing the results in the coming months. 

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