My attempt to go cashless in Myanmar

In the last 30 days, I started using my credit and debit cards more and more. I wanted to understand why only a few people use cards here in Myanmar. There are so many different types of cards that you can use in Myanmar: JCB, UnionPay, VISA, mastercard, MPU and more. You name it — we have it. This also reminds me of my childhood where we had GSM, CDMA, Cellular, WCDMA and other different standards, yet, nothing worked well.

Hence, I started prioritizing card payments over cash payments in my daily transactions. Here are my findings.

THE GOOD: If it works, it works!

Let’s not be so negative and let’s be thankful that we can use cards in Myanmar. The banking sector has grown quite significantly (I didn’t say fast though). We have that to be thankful for. Just a few years back, cards were unheard of. Using a foreign card to withdraw money was impossible. Now, not only it has become possible, we even have VISA/mastercard credit cards now.

Now, before I tell you more about the bad stuff, here’s some good news. If card payments work in Myanmar, it works well. If there’s no screw up from all the parties, such as the cashier not knowing how to operate the POS, bad connectivity and etc., the experience is superb. You’d almost feel like this is a whole new brave world where you can say goodbye to those dirty, old notes.

THE BAD: Legacy POS systems

Here’s a big frustration. I realized that at least 75% of the merchants that I frequent to have card acceptance POS systems. However, not all of them accept Visa/mastercard. Some accept MPU. I’ve been getting around this by carrying both Visa and MPU cards. In my opinion, the banks should start working towards upgrading POS systems instead of focusing on releasing all kinds of cards into the market.

THE UGLY: The merchant fees

This is what usually really pisses me off. Merchants are not enforced well enough to absorb the transactional fees. I’ve been asked multiple times to absorb 1% to 5% transactional fees. Also, sometimes, I get charged in USD instead of Myanmar Kyat (MMK). If you add both of them up, you end up paying hefty additional fees. This is where things get counter-intuitive. The whole point of using a card is to reduce cash management for all parties. The banks should start educating and enforcing these little details before releasing new products into the market so that the card payment usage will go up.

THE FRUSTRATION: Other issues

Here are a bunch of other issues that are making this card payment experience really bad.

  1. Connectivity of card acceptance POS systems — I’ve met a cashier who had to run out of the outlet so that the POS terminal could get connected to the network. Quite a scene! Imagine the cashier holding the terminal in the air for 2–3 minutes.
  2. Untrained cashiers — I had to take over the terminal once and had to handle the transaction myself because the cashier at this particular merchant didn’t know what to do.
  3. Inconvenience —If you want to do anything with your card such as updating your phone number or email address, you’d have to walk over to the nearest branch. You can’t change all these things via iBanking or mBanking.
  4. Support experience at the branch — Some of the bank staff are still not well-trained. A lot of the questions that you throw at them get redirected to their manager.
  5. Lack of integration — You can’t see your balance or credit amount (especially VISA/mastercard) from your iBanking or mBanking.

Where do we go from here?

The cards are here to stay — no doubt! But I’d like to encourage the banks to think and think hard about providing a good customer experience (CX). It doesn’t feel like a proper strategy to me if you are just focused on providing as many product varieties as possible without thinking and caring deeply about CX. Maybe, there are legacy issues with the core banking system. Maybe there’s lack of proper integration between core banking systems and card management systems.

Mobile money and eWallets are coming, surely! But it’s going to take time for the ecosystem to be more mature. Quite a lot of time, actually; judging from where we stand today. Let’s not jump onto the next “big” thing so quickly before ensuring a really good customer experience.

Meanwhile, my attempt to go cashless in Myanmar will continue. There will be a lot more frustrations, but I strongly believe that any product needs a bunch of good beta testers who will provide valuable feedback. And I hope I am one of those beta testers.

I want to see Myanmar going fully digital.