Valerie Mendonca

Sr. Associate Insights, CIIE.CO

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Engaging With The Bharat (Low Income) Customer

Entrepreneurs and startups approached us with various challenges; one among these was the struggle in understanding and relating to the Bharat customer.

Engaging With The Bharat (Low Income) Customer
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In an ecosystem that has been pushing for AI-backed technology and Big Data, there have been calls to humanize data. Humanizing data consists of collecting and highlighting stories that make it easier for tech builders to relate to issues/challenges faced by users. More recently, the Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in huge stress and losses for the startup sector. Many startups have chosen to engage deeply with their customers to make the most of this downtime in business. Many people of the Bharat segment have also suffered job and income losses, and, therefore, unable to engage as a customer with startups.

The year 2020 was a perspective-shifter for many of us in different ways. In the backdrop of Covid19, we at CIIE.CO were called to support entrepreneurs across our Portfolio. Entrepreneurs and startups approached us with various challenges; one among these was the struggle in understanding and relating to the Bharat customer.

Who is the Bharat Customer?

The Bharat customer is typically the low-middle-income customer whose annual income ranges from INR 0.01 - 1 million. The penetration of the internet and ubiquity of smartphones have brought the Bharat customer to the forefront. A Bharat customer could be a rural or urban resident, characterized by unreliable or volatile income. This type of customer has limited spending capacity, and seeks ‘value for money’ to upgrade their lifestyle. With over 60 per cent of Indian population living in semi-urban and rural areas, many startups from Fintech, Edtech and rural e-commerce have been attempting to service this target segment.

Challenges in engaging with the Bharat Customer

One of the issues that the entrepreneurs shared with us was the difficulty in engaging with the Bharat segment. Engagement was limited to product usage (mostly in the form of apps) but conversing with the customer to get deeper insights was a struggle. Attempts to gather customer data/information were met with resistance, distrust or apathy and sometimes resulted in logging wrong information and waste of time/effort.

This struggle was real and prevented startups from discovering customer preference, complaints, need or service support. Through conversations with entrepreneurs and field observations we surmised that most people (entrepreneurs and startup employees) were remarkably under-skilled in qualitative data collection techniques. Despite training, some still lacked an empathetic approach while conversing with a potential or existing customer. This made data collection difficult and affected the authenticity of the results. Some of the major failings of the entrepreneurs while attempting to converse with the Bharat customer were as below.

Six mistakes that entrepreneurs make (and their solutions)

1. Not building a rapport - The most rookie error was to start the interview without setting the tone. Customers need to be prepared for an interview physically as well as mentally. Timing is a key factor – entrepreneurs could attempt to connect with customers during the time they would be generally free. Before conducting an in-depth interview, it is a good practice to spend time explaining the reasons for the questions and clarifying any doubts that the interviewee has. Investing time in rapport building has also the potential to build long-term trust for the startup.

2. Overuse of English words or jargon - Sometimes the interviewee sprinkles the conversation with English words. Although many customers understand some English terms, compound words and jargon may confuse them. In many instances, when the interviewees do not understand the question, they refuse to answer or glibly agree to whatever was being asked. Entrepreneurs should be mindful and translate English words into the local language. For example, words such as ‘insurance’ or ‘financial information’ could be said in Hindi as ‘bima’ and ‘aarthik jaankari’. Not being able to understand parts of the question leaves the customer vulnerable too as they have not been able to communicate their truth.

3. Making assumptions about the customer - The greatest danger while collecting data from the Bharat customer is to make assumptions about their behaviour or preferences. Entrepreneurs sometimes let personal biases become the base of certain assumptions. For instance, entrepreneurs might assume that customers do not know about alternate products available to them and would skip asking them about it. Assumptions are psychological barriers that do not let us investigate an issue properly or make us favour a certain perception of the customer.

4. Asking leading questions - This is a fairly common interviewing bias. The answer to a leading question not only favours the interviewer’s bias, but it also forces responses into a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ leaving no room for finding a new/different perspective and defeats the purpose of the interview.

5. Sticking only to product usage questions - A trap into which an entrepreneur may fall in, especially when they are interviewing users of their product. A winning product is one that serves a need. While designing and implementing a product is important, meeting a need is critical! Customers who are not being specifically queried on a need cannot articulate it themselves. The need for a product and its usage can be drawn out by asking questions about the customer’s lifestyle, checking where the product usage features in and capturing the customer journey.

6. Requesting sensitive information - Sometimes, entrepreneurs need access to sensitive information of customers for instance, for a financial product. A customer will be hesitant to reveal their income or savings in front of others. An entrepreneur should be able to anticipate this, and plan for the interview to be held in private.


As entrepreneurs attempt to reach and service the Bharat Customer, it is imperative to be mindful of barriers; key among them is the ability to communicate effectively. These could easily be overcome through a) awareness and b) training for startup entrepreneurs or their employees. Hopefully, this would be able to speed up the meeting of India with Bharat.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house

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