Banks and other financial service providers sometimes use agent networks instead of traditional branches to reach more customers at a lower cost. Agent networks may comprise an established distribution network, such as post offices or retail chains, or be built from independent, small-scale traders and other retailers. Agents often are able to conduct basic financial transactions, such as withdrawals, deposits, money transfers, and payments on behalf of banks, depending on existing rules and regulations.
Agent networks have several advantages over branch networks: agents often live or work close to clients, so they typically are familiar with the community, are trusted by clients, and are able to acquire and educate new customers. Agents that are part of an agent network earn a portion of the transaction fees, and can benefit from increased foot traffic in their businesses.
There are, however, several challenges: A successful network needs adequate volumes of transactions and revenue flow. Agents need comprehensive and on-going training and must have sufficient liquidity on hand to satisfy demand. It is also necessary to monitor and update technology and provide support if systems break down. Finally, agents are vulnerable to being robbed, so they need to take steps to ensure their own safety.
Governments in many countries are still developing and refining their regulatory oversight of agent networks, many of which are in their early stages. Agent networks are evolving along with the rapidly changing financial inclusion landscape, and experience to date in several countries shows that they hold significant promise for extending financial services.