Three Ways To Keep Your Clients Front And Center

Imagine if your funders treated you like a loyal customer that they could not afford to lose. One social investor, Root Capital, does just that. First published on Forbes on October 29, 2015, here’s a terrific piece spilling the beans on how.

It’s conference season and the panels have been pulsating at events like the Clinton Global Initiative, SOCAP and the annual meeting of the Aspen Network of Development Entrepreneurs—all of which took place within a few weeks of each other.

Admittedly, the awards, accolades, and trumpeted talk of disruptive models and breakthrough solutions can sometimes give the social enterprise and impact investing sectors a rap as being more sizzle than substance. Don’t get me wrong: we should celebrate and share our successes and accomplishments—there are many, and they are important. But none of it leads to sustained impact if we lose sight of what the enterprise is all about: serving our clients.

It’s a truism for any CEO, but I’ve discovered there’s nothing more powerful than getting out of the corner office to remind yourself why you’re in it to begin with—and for whom. As a result, I make every effort to get out of Cambridge, Mass., where my organization, Root Capital, is headquartered, and meet with clients, new and old, traversing back roads in beat-up buses to hardscrabble places across sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America.

I recently visited clients in Nicaragua ahead of this year’s coffee harvest, which officially began on October 1. There, high in the country’s verdant mountains, I reconnected with old friends like the inimitable Fatima Ismael, who runs SOPPEXCCA, one of the most innovative and highest-impact enterprises in Root Capital’s entire worldwide portfolio. And Merling Preza, who leads PRODECOOP, one of the most successful coffee farmer cooperatives in all of Latin America.  These individuals—both women, I should add—and thousands of other rural agri-entrepreneurs collectively form the foundation upon which our organization has been built.

The problem, however, is that these vital client voices are not always heard above the hype, or through the hyperness of entrepreneurial instincts and enterprise building. Thus, the feedback loop between service provider (us) and client (them) is often broken. So how can we strengthen, not sever, that loop? How can entrepreneurs cultivate and codify a culture of empathy and understanding and always put clients at front and center?

I’ve written previously about the importance of staying as close as possible to your clients. In the case of Root Capital, this has meant decentralizing operations, hiring many more local staff, and pushing loan approvals and other decision-making responsibilities out to colleagues in places like Dakar, Nairobi, Lima and San Jose.

Yet cultivating empathy requires a lot more than simply being geographically close to your clients. So over the past few years, we’ve attempted to operationalize empathy throughout our entire organization. We’re still learning what works, but here are three approaches that may apply to other ventures:

First, in strategic planning, start by understanding your stakeholders. Last year, rather than organizing around different departmental objectives for the year ahead, we reverse-engineered the annual planning process. We identified the priority stakeholder groups that Root Capital serves, with a primary focus on clients. Then, each department defined its unique value proposition for our clients, asking questions like “How is our team uniquely positioned to help clients meet their business objectives within the next 12 months?” Only after we answered these questions did we begin to craft departmental goals and budgets. We call this stakeholder-based planning.

Second, regularly (but concisely) ask your clients what they needand then figure out how to deliver a solution. Earlier in Root Capital’s 15-year history when our portfolio was much smaller, our loan officers had their fingers on the pulse of each and every client. They built and maintained strong relationships, and they knew at a moment’s notice what was working and what wasn’t. As our client base expanded, our visibility into their individual needs became less clear, and we weren’t approaching client relationship management as systematically as we could. To better understand, segment and address client needs, we designed and administered a custom survey to all of Root Capital’s active borrowers, with the help of Keystone, a constituent feedback consulting firm. This gave Root Capital’s clients the chance to report their satisfaction (or lack thereof) with specific products and services and provide suggestions for improvement. Think of it as a Net Promoter Score for a social enterprise. We call this voice of the client. Armed with comprehensive data and candid responses, we uncovered critical areas for improvement and have since been able to deliver more tailored client service. For instance, we learned that clients were becoming confused and frustrated by multiple contact points for our lending, risk monitoring and training teams, so we streamlined client interactions by appointing primary relationship managers.

Third, when measuring impact, create value for your clients, too. Fortunately, social enterprises have awoken to the fundamental importance of measuring results to understand if their model is actually achieving the intended impact—from simple surveys to in-depth randomized control trials. But the very methods of impact evaluation threaten to re-entrench the power dynamic that many social enterprises seek to overcome in the first place. Too often, the surveys, interviews and focus groups in which clients are asked to participate become extractive. They tend to be long and tedious, and the results—if they’re even shared with participants—provide little value to them. Several years ago, when a mango farmer in Burkina Faso expressed fatigue and frustration after participating in what to him seemed like a countless number of surveys, we realized that we too were falling into this trap.

So we began to shift our strategy. With each subsequent impact study, we have sought to increase not only the quality of the research but also the value created for our clients. At minimum, we now start each project by engaging clients directly in the survey design, and we share results with them no more than four months after collecting data, in time for them to use the data to plan for the upcoming harvest. For example, a coffee cooperative utilized our survey results to learn what agronomic topics farmers wanted to learn more about during trainings. Another cooperative was able to verify that 75 percent of its members had succeeded in increasing production in recent years. We call this “client centric evaluation.”

This fall, as I participated in conferences like the Clinton Global Initiative and Concordia Summit, I was reminded of the broad and diverse ecosystem of practitioners, capital providers and, increasingly, policymakers who are collectively helping to achieve long-term, sustainable impact. But my team and I strive to stay grounded in the reality that it’s people like Fatima and Merling who, in the end, actually make this all possible.

Indeed, there are as many inspirational movers and shakers in Nicaragua as there are in New York City. Let’s remember to always keep them—the clients—at the epicenter of our organizations.

Willy Foote is a Forbes Contributor writing about agri-business and the impact of social entrepreneurship.



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