P.R. Ganapathy and Jessica Seddon

You Probably Don’t Know Your Customers: Harnessing mobile to connect for product development

Who likes your solar lamp? Who’s annoyed with your home health kit? What do people think of your small business finance service? And if you’re thinking of expanding into new territory – how do you gauge customer appetite? Not to mention actual and potential social impact: Have your products and services changed lives? How so? And how could they do even more?

Customer feedback provides the information and insight relevant for developing new products and services and improving existing ones. It drives and refines innovation and clarifies routes to social impact. All businesses need some kind of systematic interaction with the people that power their growth, and social-impact businesses require even more of these conversations and inputs. Their reason for being and ability to attract favorable finance depend on demonstrating not only financial success but also substantive impact on the range of stakeholders that they touch, from suppliers to employees to customers.

The challenge has always been interacting with these groups often enough, in large enough numbers, to truly understand the way that the business has affected and could improve its impact on their lives. The lack of sharp and insightful customer feedback is in fact the single biggest weakness we see in the business models that come to Villgro for funding. The challenges of understanding impact inevitably emerge as ideas and theories of change go to the field.

The old model of product development, where you gathered some requirements, closeted yourself in your lab, and came back eight or 12 months later, no longer works (if it ever did). Product development today requires rapid, detailed and frequent inputs from customers, throughout the development cycle. Short iteration cycles where customers are weighing in on the value of features and the detail of their design, is essential to success. If you aren’t talking to customers frequently and keeping them at the heart of your enterprise, you’re setting yourself up for failure.

Entrepreneurs working with net-savvy customers have many options to leverage free or low-cost survey tools to reach out to the masses – SurveyMonkey or Google Forms, for example. These have starter templates, easy interfaces, links to email, data management, and visualisation. Yes, there are challenges in getting people to take the time to click on the link and continue, but at least the channels to the eyeballs are there.

We’ve been working on creating options for entrepreneurs who are looking beyond these groups, to serve households and individuals who are outside of the data network, who do not have smart phones and may not speak, type or read English. Nearly two-thirds of Indian households have a phone connection, and half have a mobile phone (according to the latest census), but just 10 percent have access to a smartphone let alone the data signal to ensure that the phone is actually as intelligent as it could be. This 10 percent is growing for sure, but it’s a small base to start from and networks have to catch up.

Entrepreneurs working with these groups often rely on unreliable anecdotal evidence, too few data points and a host of assumptions from whatever sources they can find, from anecdote to outdated academic papers. Robust, representative user voice and empirically credible information on social impact can be difficult for small enterprises to obtain and analyze in practice. Potential and actual customers are simply too remote (in terms of geography and Internet access) and too “undocumented” in publicly available data. The voices of the poorest often enter into the invention process as anecdotes to be used in fundraising or marketing materials, but these data have limited utility for invention or measuring impact. Listening to the poorest on a scale that gives their voice more weight requires investment in field research that many early stage businesses simply cannot make. This is the point at which human resources are taxed and financial resources are stretched, but evidence-based decisions are essential – the point at which companies with deeper pockets invest in large-scale market research.

We worked with Uniphore Technologies, with support from the Lemelson Foundation, to create TouchPoint as an alternative for small businesses. It allows businesses to create and conduct mobile-based surveys of their customers (through automated calls) in a language or dialect of their preference and subsequently analyse the same. Uniphore’s proprietary speech-recognition technology simulates a natural conversation and can be used on low-end phones. It is currently capable of recognizing 14 Indian languages and over 100 dialects and is used by international survey firms, government agencies, agricultural supply companies and others working with constituents in rural India.

The beta version is now available for free. Please try it out, and we hope it helps to open up to new voices, new conversations and new outreach.

P.R. Ganapathy is the chief operating officer of Villgro.

Jessica Seddon is the founder and managing director of Okapi.

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