Changing the way we change the world

Closing the loop on customer feedback

By Lydia Prokosch, Guest Blogger

Lydia became interested in customer feedback loops while conducting a multi-method assessment of a water filtration and health education program in rural Guatemala. She is a consultant available for research (more info here).

This man is happy with his rainwater tank, but not everyone is (photo by Susan Davis)

Treating people as customers could improve services (photo by Susan Davis)

Customer feedback has been defined as “a systematic process of listening and responding to an organization’s constituents that goes beyond accountability in ways that are transformative for organization and constituents”. Most development organizations refer to the people they are serving as “beneficiaries,” but calling them – and treating them as – customers could improve services.

Water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) organizations in particular need to solicit the perspectives, preferences, and expectations of customers in order to realistically gauge how well services are working and to improve their future programming. Even though organizations often ask “beneficiaries” personal questions about hygiene behaviors or water use during monitoring and evaluation visits, they rarely loop back to customers to share results, and even more rarely do they respond to any problems. Ideally, organizations would attempt to deeply understand their customers before, during and after program implementation.

For decades, the success of water and sanitation programs has been measured by access to clean water and improved sanitation facilities. Many WASH development organizations report on the numbers of toilets and water points installed as their contribution to the Millennium Development Goals. A few organizations and national governments are capturing snapshots of water point functionality (some are shared here). While access and functionality are important indicators, they do not sufficiently represent the long-term sustainability of water and sanitation services. More specifically, they do not capture the users’ acceptance and satisfaction with services, which can directly relate to sustained services.

Some organizations have begun to collect data on water and sanitation service levels – which consider typical factors like quantity, quality, reliability, accessibility and affordability. The IRC and SNV (Netherlands Development Organization) point out that assessments of service levels can illuminate patterns that functionality and access metrics miss, such as users’ satisfaction with taste of water, their use of multiple water sources in addition to the improved one, or allocation of limited drinking water for a wide range of purposes.

Organizations such as the World Bank/Kenya Water and Sanitation Services Improvement Program (WASSIP), Water & Sanitation for the Urban Poor (WSUP), and the Citizen Solidarity Forum for Right to Water and Sanitation, India solicit feedback from customers using citizen scorecards, SMS texts, surveys, suggestion boxes and community forums. Organizations use customer feedback for variety of purposes, including pressuring providers to offer better services or informing internal policies and practices.

WASH organizations could learn from WASSIP and World Vision Sudan (food assistance program) because they respond to customers. The organizations prioritize reported concerns and respond to them as quickly as possible, adapting their responses to be site-specific and customer-centered. Challenges to their work are ongoing, and include political unrest, low staff engagement with feedback processes and distrust among service providers. In many rural communities, some water users are also the service providers, so a user might be reluctant to give honest feedback about a neighbor.

The act of collecting information and opinions from water and sanitation customers and responding is important, not only in terms of ensuring high quality services, but also in recognizing that customers are rational decision-makers, capable of contributing towards sustainable transformation in partnership with service providers, organizations and donors. Feedback can also serve as an anchor for non-profits and their funders, strengthening alliances by centering both parties’ work on understanding customers. Ultimately, non-profits and funders have the opportunity, and the great responsibility, to listen and respond to those they serve.

Other References

Bauer, R. and T. Wildman. 2014. Unsafe to drink? Perspectives on water quality among NGOs, commercial firms and consumers.

Braucher, Emily. 2013. What Effective Collaboration Lacks.

Buteau, Ellie, Ramya Gopal and Phil Buchanan. 2014. Hearing from those we seek to help: Nonprofit practices and perspectives in beneficiary feedback.

Boulenouar, J. et al (2015). When Access to Improved Water Points Does Not Lead to Use: Understanding Consumption Patterns in Burkina Faso.

Long, P. (2015). Systems Change Should Lift Up Beneficiary Voices.

WHO/UNICEF JMP. 2014. Change in urban-rural disparity in drinking water coverage by change in national drinking water coverage for countries, areas and territories, 1990-2012.

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