The CFE Fund published Neighborhood Trust‘s essay on the importance of investing in a database to further professionalize organizations in the financial counseling field. In the essay, Chief Program Officer Sarah Sable and Director of Program Design Alana Perrone discuss the results of Neighborhood Trust’s investment in building a consistent and comprehensive Salesforce database, which included enhanced customer service, a better-supported professional staff and  a more automated workflow. 

Neighborhood Trust Financial Partners is the leading provider of financial empowerment services for low-income New Yorkers, directly serving approximately 6,000 clients each year. By connecting clients to productive banking services and a personalized Financial Action Plan, we help families reduce debt, build credit, and pursue financial goals. We work with leading nonprofits and government agencies to integrate financial services and have provided technical assistance to 24 organizations in support of their financial empowerment efforts.

In 2012 Neighborhood Trust invested in the design and build-out of a Salesforce database to support our financial counseling services and track our clients’ outcomes. We believed a well-designed database would enable us to simplify program monitoring and the analysis of client outcomes and provide consistent, quality services to clients across our programs.  As it is constructed, our database is not only a place to store information about our clients, but also a tool that facilitates a standard intake and follow-up interview processes, ensuring we have accurate and pertinent information about our clients’ financial situation in order to recommend the best course of action.

Managing debt is a primary financial concern for many of our clients, and the information contained in their credit report is invaluable to developing a plan to tackle their debt and to tracking their progress over time. However, from experience with other database systems, we found that manual entry of credit report information was both time consuming and often led to inaccurate information due to human error. To remove this obstacle, we designed a system that allowed for automated upload of credit reports. Now, with a simple click, our counselors can upload the entire credit report into our database, saving on average 10-15 minutes of data entry per client.

The large, accurate, and complete dataset we have been able to compile using Salesforce has allowed us to take full advantage of the platform’s reporting capabilities. We can monitor our progress toward contract and program goals, easily measure long-term client outcomes, and ultimately, analyze and improve the services we provide to our clients. Quick, clean data-entry on services our counselors provide allows us to effectively monitor the situation on the ground across our sites in real time, allowing managers to identify and address pain points as they arise and keeping us on track to meet our goals. Consistent baseline and follow-up data has allowed Neighborhood Trust to measure our impact with greater detail and form new hypotheses on how we can better achieve outcomes. For example, through analysis of our dataset we have learned that access to credit building financial products from our local credit union partners can have a clear and tangible impact on clients’ credit reports. This has driven us to invest more time in researching similar financial products for clients, to seek new partnerships, and design a tool in evaluating those products.

Consistency of data collection has also allowed us to see where there are weaknesses within our processes. For example, we have long believed that a healthy relationship with a financial institution is instrumental to financial success. After three years of tracking total financial service fees, we have learned that this client data was insufficient from an assessment and counseling perspective, as well as that of outcome improvement. Beginning in 2016, we will be tracking fees and usage on the account level, allowing counselors to provide more specific and relevant recommendations and thus achieve better outcomes.

By facilitating accurate and consistent data collection, our Salesforce database has improved the quality of the service we are able to provide to our clients. Our Financial Action Plan (FAP) tool is the primary way in which we assist clients in creating a roadmap to financial health. The plan, created with their counselors, includes: an identified financial goal, baseline or follow-up information on savings and financial products, their credit and debt profile, and most importantly, an agreed-upon set of recommended action steps that they can implement immediately. Neighborhood Trust’s database was designed to mimic the process of creating this plan and therefore ensures that counselors collect all relevant information required to build an effective and actionable FAP.

Additionally, because the data we collect is consistent, we have been able to automate the process of delivering the action plans: our platform includes a feature that can export the FAP into a template that is printed out and given to the client at the conclusion of the session, ensuring a clear and thorough action plan is generated every time. After the engagement, clients receive ongoing support via text message reminders automatically generated from our database that encourage them to complete their action steps. Supervisors can guarantee this level of quality and consistency by monitoring the components of the client FAP, along with the outgoing and incoming messages based on their action items. Moving forward, we are piloting a new feature that enables clients to access their FAP through a secure webpage.

In our technical assistance engagements, we have found that the greatest area of need for consistency is in creating action plans and ensuring follow-up. Clients can easily get overwhelmed by all of the information that they receive in a counseling session and the tasks assigned to them. Introducing a uniform action plan template will allow professional financial counselors to cultivate client investment in their recommendations, facilitate and follow-up on specific actions, and subsequently better understand and share best practices that lead to outcomes in financial counseling.

At Neighborhood Trust, we have found the Salesforce database to be an essential tool in ensuring consistent, quality services to all of our clients. Through accurate data collection and reporting, the seamless delivery of a client’s individualized Financial Action Plan, and automated support services, financial counseling programs can be scaled efficiently to serve more clients. Thus, this provides professional financial counselors with the opportunity to devote their time and effort to the individualized recommendations that lead to greater outcomes.

Link to CFE Fund article: