Even before COVID-19, the Cambodia-based biodigester manufacturing and distribution company ATEC had started implementing online and digital communication strategies. However, the pandemic forced them to rapidly speed up this transition. The Clean Cooking Alliance spoke with then Country Director (now Head of International Operations) Rebecca Penglase about how ATEC adapted to pandemic-related challenges and what the future holds for the company.

This interview is part of a series showcasing women entrepreneurs in the clean cooking sector.

When Rebecca Penglase joined ATEC as Country Director in Cambodia in 2019, the biodigester company had recently begun transitioning to digital communication approaches, both in its interactions with staff and its customers. That decision turned out to be fortuitous, according to Rebecca:

“Without realizing it, the timing of these new components to ATEC’s ways of working, including our marketing and our sales strategy, were incredibly beneficial when COVID-19 hit,” she said.

For example, Rebecca and her team had already started using Zoom to hold daily check-ins and weekly meetings with ATEC’s international leadership team. With the onset of COVID-19 and Rebecca’s subsequent relocation to her home country of Australia, the ATEC team continued using video conferencing to stay connected.

On the customer side, ATEC had to adapt its outreach and sales strategies, as many customers expressed fear in meeting with ATEC’s sales agents in person, particularly if they were new clients. ATEC focused on growing its call center, which had been piloted in 2019 and already had a fully functioning tele-sales team. As a short-term solution to COVID-19 restrictions, Rebecca worked closely with her two Regional Sales Managers to integrate ATEC*’s field sales teams into the tele-sales team.

“I provided our sales team with over-the-phone coaching and scripts to use with customers until it was safe for them to conduct in-person operations again,” said Rebecca. “This really helped ATEC maintain its operations during a time filled with uncertainty.”

In addition, ATEC continued expanding its online marketing presence and explored new advertising approaches, such as Facebook marketing and television promotion. Through funding from USAID, ATEC was able to produce an editorial segment on a national farming television program.

“This program was highly respected throughout Cambodia, and the opportunity helped us gain awareness and trust of those who weren’t used to buying products over the phone,” said Rebecca.

Throughout 2020, ATEC successfully produced three editorial pieces, resulting in a 75% spike of new leads coming into their call center compared to the previous month.

But while ATEC was finding creative solutions for reaching customers, the company also faced the broader economic impacts brought on by the pandemic. Thailand’s farming industry, which has historically employed a significant number of Cambodian migrant workers – including many of ATEC’s customers – was hit particularly hard during the spring and summer of 2020. With fewer financial opportunities for farmers, as well as declines in the tourism, garment manufacturing, and construction industries, many rural households in Cambodia saw their incomes decrease substantially.

In response, Rebecca and ATEC implemented a sales promotion offering new customers a three-month free trial before any purchasing commitment was made.

“We knew that jobs would be heavily impacted by the pandemic and we saw a lot of families fearing not having enough money for their first biodigester payment,” said Rebecca. “This three-month free trial promotion really helped to reduce that fear and allowed rural Cambodians to still receive the health and financial benefits of having a biodigester.”

Not only did this tactic reassure customers, but ATEC also saw an unexpected spike in sales and deposits after the free trial ended. In many cases, once a customer’s first payment was made, subsequent payments remained consistent. Based on these promising results and the ongoing economic challenges people across Cambodia were facing, ATEC cemented the three-month “try before you buy” strategy as a long-term “Brand Promise Guarantee.”   

Rebecca has since transitioned to a new role as the Head of International Operations with ATEC’s Head Office team. While she is no longer based in Cambodia, her experiences and lessons learned while working with ATEC’s sales team are guiding the company’s evolution.

“The insights I gained into how ATEC’s country teams work are helping me set up new operational frameworks and People and Culture strategies to support ATEC’s future growth in products and markets,” said Rebecca.

ATEC’s goal is to be the global leader in sustainable, affordable, and accessible clean cooking products for the 4 billion people who live without it. ATEC launched new operations in Bangladesh in 2020 and, over the next 10 years, plans to launch clean cooking products in five new countries across South East Asia and the Pacific, while continuing to expand its successful tele-sales and digital marketing strategy in Cambodia.