How informal agricultural traders capture and preserve customer loyalty

They may not advertise their products in the formal media, but informal agricultural traders have results-driven ways of capturing customer loyalty. Most of their skills have been honed over generations into unwritten intuitive laws that almost every trader is aware of. They understand customers more than customers know about themselves.  According to traders in Harare and Bulawayo markets of Zimbabwe, there are many categories of customers. “There are customers who come to learn about commodities and those who do not hesitate to flaunt their knowledge and power by voicing their concerns.  Some can even tell you that the way you are packing your fruits is not ideal for female customers,” said one trader.


Informal agriculture markets as knowledge centres

If marketing is about human interaction, informal agriculture markets provide superior experiences.  While ‘the customer is king’ suggests the customer knows everything, the majority of customers who frequent the informal agriculture market are lured by its functions as a learning space. Traders ensure these markets have sufficient convenience and personalisation than can be found in other modern markets. Younger middle class consumers who have not been exposed to the tricks of cooking traditional vegetables visit the market for the purposes of acquiring new skills.

Each market has gatekeepers whose roles include continuously tweaking and perfecting knowledge in line with consumer habits. Besides availing knowledge regarding the complexity of transactions in informal agriculture markets, traders facilitate different levels of human interaction.  Although technology has a supportive role in informal agriculture markets, most customers are influenced by personal experiences. Mobile phones come in to cement relationships that will have been created through face to face interaction.  As an institution, each informal market has a collective way of managing and enhancing customer experience in ways that stick with each customer. The more they interact with customers, the more their customer-satisfaction capabilities improve.  They don’t have to go to school for such skills that are entirely practical.

Insights into income levels and personality

Traders have also become very good at segmenting customers by their needs and income levels.  For instance, they can acquire stocks in line middle class pay dates.  While automation is transforming traditional marketing in supermarkets, it is difficult to imagine a time when technology will meet all customer requirements in agriculture markets without human interaction. Machines will never become aware of the competitive advantages of superior customer experiences. It takes a certain level of humanity to facilitate meaningful transactions.

As an example, where eMKambo uses its call centre to facilitate marketing of agricultural commodities, voice recognition has become very important. A farmer can call and if she does not here Tenjiwe’s voice in the person answering the call, she demands to speak to Tenjiwe. Such farmers have built a particular relationship with Tenjiwe through speaking to her over the phone on several occasions. Trying to substitute Tenjiwe with a machine will de-humanize the marketing process, leading to loss of confidence in eMKambo services and the market.

Handing down knowledge to the young generation

The majority of traders train their children in the art of customer care and retention. Such knowledge is not found in any text book or classroom.  It may seem a pervasive form of training but it builds the most useful capabilities needed by the younger generation. The ability to Google or play computer games will not prepare children for a purposeful future in economies dominated by agriculture. The most important problem-solving skills can be acquired in dynamic informal markets where one has to connect with diverse customers, leading to lasting customer loyalty.

As consumers become more sophisticated, traders are also updating their customer care knowledge with full awareness that it is no longer one-size-fits-all.  It is more about taking time to understand customers in order to satisfy their needs.  That is why traders are honing a unique way of anticipating customer expectations in order to come up with the right level of human interaction.  They are also becoming aware of niche commodities for specific customers such as those suffering from High Blood Pressure or other ailments that demand specific types of food.  Traders are convinced that human interaction will always remain important in validating commodities and explaining benefits.  No machine can fulfil such critical roles.  To gain a competitive advantage in agriculture markets, farmers and other value chain actors will have to balance the evolving value of digital technology and the power of human interaction.  / /

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