Caroline Ashley

Caroline focuses on how innovative economic models can deliver more inclusive and resilient development.

Caroline has worked on markets, business models and investment approaches that deliver social impact for many years in roles with challenge funds, impact investors, entrepreneurs, corporates, NGOs and policy makers. As Results Director of the DFID Business Innovation Facility, and Sida Innovations Against Poverty programme, she founded the Practitioner Hub for Inclusive Business in 2010, then took on hosting it, and acted as Editor of the Hub for 7 years before it transitioned into managed by IBAN.

Most recently Caroline led economic justice programmes at Oxfam GB, before moving to Forum for the Future, to lead global systems change programmes to accelerate our transition to a sustainable future.

Listening to consumers is putting consumer voice at the heart of the social enterprise model

20. Feb 2017

If Apple and Samsung do it, can social enterprises do it too? Sophisticated consumer intelligence is regarded as the preserve of the large corporates and the tech giants that have terabytes of browsing and transaction history and teams for market research. But this month's theme on the Hub shows a different revolution underway. Lean consumer insight is taking off in the social enterprise sector: is it valuable? is it feasible?   A host of contributors answer two questions with a strong yes.

There is a big picture trend here, which is customer-centrism. Social enterprise approaches have already turned a traditional 'beneficiary' of development into a 'client' of a business.   Now listening to consumers is putting consumer voice at the heart of the model, driving improvements throughout business processes.  As Acumen explain in their introductory blog, it's about building customer-centric cultures.

Examples of how enterprises working at the BoP are improving their business thanks to consumer feedback now abound.  My favourite is probably our interview with Jorge Tung of Dr. Consulta, a low-cost health provider in Brazil.   Data from daily SMS, bi-annual surveys and analysis of customer journeys is used continually, from giving feedback to doctors on their performance, to ensuring the website booking processes meet the needs of women booking for their husbands. Another clinic provider, Access Afya, explains how customer feedback gathered with support from BCtA influenced where they opened their third clinic, and their management of price points.

In another great interview, Karl Skare of d.light shares several surprises. They were pleasantly surprised to find their Net Promoter Score was better than Apple products typically get, but puzzled to find that customers with concerns didn't bother to get back in touch.  If you still doubt the value of investing in customer feedback, consider this: it helped d.light reduce their default rates on client payments.   Feedback gave them understanding on client perspectives, which led to editing the call centre script to a more empathetic approach, which has delivered financial results.

Consumer insight feeds directly into improving business processes, from design to marketing, pricing, and staff behaviour. But it is also changing how we think about 'social impact'.  'Are we meeting our stated objective' is a hard question to answer, but also the wrong priority according to several of our contributors.  Social Value International, sharing cutting edge methods, Acumen Lean Data, as a long-established impact investor in social enterprise, and TTC as a young enterprise providing SMS based research come to the same conclusion: understanding customer segments, and what they value is more important for understanding true impact.  As a sector, our understanding of impact will be enhanced if we focus on value created for the low-income consumer, not just hitting high level targets.

Finally, the best news of all, is that gathering consumer insight is not expensive and not that hard. Acumen Lean Data have helped investees to hear from 9,000 clients in 3 days, and to estimate charcoal expenditure savings through a $3,000 investment (whereas a rock solid randomised control trial would cost around $300,000). Having now worked with close to 40 enterprises and engaged 25,000 clients, they are learning - and sharing - tips on what questions work best, and what tools increase engagement.  Sending a text before a Interactive Voice Response call, for example, increased response rates by 14%.

The consensus amongst our contributors this month is striking: this stuff works. I don't hear people saying it works only for this kind of business or that, or in these conditions.  The results are never to be assumed, but that something surprising and something useful comes out, seems pretty much assured.  The question I'm left with is not whether, or why or how.  But if this is so powerful, is it near being mainstreamed in the socent and impact investment sector?  If not, why not?

This blog is an overview of the February series on Customer intelligence revolutionising business at the Base of the Pyramid in partnership with Acumen Lean Data.  Access the series for interviews with social enterprises Dr.Consulta and D.light, as well as blogs from Business Call to Action, Social Value International and many more.