Human Insights Program Innovation: An Interview with Credit Advisors Foundation

The Credit Advisors Foundation is a credit counseling agency in Omaha, Nebraska with a mission to provide programs and solutions that empower consumers to effectively manage their finances, create economic security, and realize equality of access and opportunity. In response to a concern that some consumers who could benefit from a Debt Management plan weren’t signing up, it participated in the Smart Growth Innovation Program and created a playbook to help counselors work with clients to counteract the barriers were facing.

The Smart Growth Innovation Program is a series of innovation cohorts hosted by Prosperity Now to learn about human insights research and design techniques that help improve programming. In 2017, 65 participating agencies had the opportunity to identify a new improvement or feature for their services with web-based technical assistance from Prosperity Now and connections to peer agencies. Agencies were also invited to apply for an Innovation Grant from Capital One in October 2017.

In the innovation cohort, Prosperity Now shared research methods such as interviews and surveys to connect with low- and moderate-income communities around the country, learn about their personal stories and lift up their voices on how products and services should be delivered to them. As part of the cohort, Credit Advisors Foundation set out to discover a challenge facing their clients, design a set of solutions that might address these challenges and test the solutions to assess their viability. Sam Hohman and Anissa Schultz from Credit Advisors Foundation share what they learned from applying a human insights process to developing their new playbook.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

In the human insights process, you transform a problem into a question that your team sets out to answer. What was the problem you were trying to solve?

We wanted more consumers—who we knew the debt management plan would help—to actually sign the contract and give it back to us. A debt management plan rearranges the finances of an individual consumer to help them pay back their debts quicker, but at a monthly payment they can afford. There was a big disconnect between our counselors determining a client needed a DMP with clients who would initially agree it was in their best interest, but then fail to return a signed DMP contract. We started with that as our problem.

Tell us a bit about the client interviews you conducted and the process?

The whole point of this process was to test our assumptions. We usually would have jumped straight to trying to address what we assumed was the problem—they aren’t returning the contract because our paperwork is too difficult, or they're not receiving it, or somehow, we made it too hard for them to actually get all this back to us. That would've been our initial assumption. We wanted to test these assumptions, and this is what led us to consumer interviews, which ultimately led us down a completely different path.

What did you learn from the interviews?

We found out that majority of our consumers don't make financial decisions alone. Most who didn’t sign said they had spoken to someone else and decided the DMP wasn't a good fit. Whether it be a significant other, or family member, or friend, most of our clients wanted someone from their inner circle to get a second opinion, and that wasn't even on our radar of why they weren't sending their paper back to us. That told us our clients were getting lots of misinformation from what we call “the influencer”, or whoever it was they were speaking with. It shed a light on something we weren't even really focusing on.

After you identified barriers from the interviewees, how did you come about your process for ideas to combat these barriers?

Having the grant from Capital One and the support from Prosperity Now really helped, because without that we would've just jumped in and tried to figure this out as fast as possible. Having that investment, as well as support to bounce ideas off really took away the pressure.

We wanted to bring in someone completely from the outside who wouldn’t have any preconceived notions, so we brought in a consultant. From their work with our counselors and the client interviews, the consultants were able to come up with a systematic way to approach client objections. They looked at it much more holistically than we would’ve, explaining there are a lot of things you could do to change outcomes. The consultants worked closely with the counselors—it was really the counselors dissecting the process for themselves and finding ways to talk to potential clients about their “influencers’ concerns.”

What the counselors and consultants ultimately came up with was a list of when you hear a specific objection, listen and respond so they don't seek the opinion of a non-expert to guide them. The consultants said try these approaches, which in theory sounded good, but like with anything it's better to test and see, and so we had the counselors try out these methods in a mini pilot.

Once you had developed the resource, you launched a mini pilot to test out what you'd created. What were your goals?

Our goal was to see if, tackling these obstacles, we would have a higher conversion rate for the DMPs. We ran a four-week mini-pilot, having counselors record when and which part of a playbook that they used when objections were raised.

We conducted weekly debrief sessions with our counselors and listened to call recordings during the mini-pilot. I heard the counselors asking clients up front, “who else is going to be a part of this decision and what's going to be important to them?” We also compared the DMP conversion rate to last year and saw a meaningful increase. That tells us that we’re now counseling more effectively to address potential influencer concerns.

Thinking back on your experiences in Smart Growth, what tools or activities were most helpful, that you would recommend to other credit counseling agencies?

It was the logic model because it was able to identify fault points. The logic model also made us realize that a DMP is a really cool program to be able to offer people, it lets us see potential short-term and long-term outcomes, it solves immediate problems, it allows clients to make some long-term goals, certainly it has some generational effects, which motivated us to take action and address this challenge.

I liked that when we met with the Human Insights team at Prosperity Now throughout the process, we were coming together from totally different industries. There were moments when we would be like, “oh we wouldn't even have thought of that.” I thought it was very helpful for me, just to have those 15- to 30-minute technical assistance sessions, to see it from a different perspective.

If you’re intrigued to use human insights in your own projects, check out the human insights tool kit to find out more.

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