Using CX to Help New Producers Fund Their Farms
For new farmers or ranchers who need funding, getting a Direct Farm Loan from USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) can be vital to starting or growing their operations. But the application process can be complicated, especially for new producers who don’t have much experience farming or working with USDA. Between an unfamiliar process, a lot of paperwork, and extra trips to their local service center, the loan process can be stressful… even with the help of FSA loan staff dedicated to helping them succeed.
Challenges in the farm loans process, as represented by paperwork seen in field visits to USDA service centers (clockwise from top left): typical farm loans folders in Fredericksburg, Virginia; a file room in Wynne, Arkansas; a loan officer’s checklist in Rensselaer, Indiana.
In Phase 1 (spring and summer of 2018), the Customer Experience Center of Excellence (CX CoE) went into the field to speak with producers and loan officers to learn more about the pain points they faced during their loan journeys. (You can see what we learned in our Direct Farm Loans Customer Journey Map and research reports).
For Phase 2 (starting fall of 2018), we wanted to solve some of the producers’ key pain points, by giving potential loan applicants a better, simpler view of their overall farm loan journey: What to expect, what they needed to do, and how to avoid common pitfalls. Also, we wanted our solution to use simple methods that we could deploy quickly and test with real users.
After some early research and ideation, we chose a two-part solution: a digital wizard-like Farm Loan Discovery tool, and improved paper and PDF Application Quick Guides.
We started by working off the Phase 1 findings, then supplementing them with additional research and conversations with local USDA subject matter experts (SMEs). We also did a competitive analysis of the best practices of commercial lenders, since we needed to know what potential customers have come to expect:
Left, some of our competitive analysis of farm loans application processes; right, some of our Application Quick Guide prototypes being developed.
Next, we created low-fidelity paper prototypes that we could use to test our assumptions with users and went back into the field. In a return visit to the Fredericksburg, Virginia service center, we observed how loan officers and technicians worked to overcome challenges and help customers. We also set aside dedicated, one-on-one time with loan staff to test our prototype guides. They provided invaluable feedback, flagging content that we needed to change and helping us tailor the guides to match how the loan process works in the real world.
In the Fredericksburg, Virginia service center, testing prototypes with a loan officer (left) and a producer (right).
Then,we made back-to-back visits to service centers in Rensselaer, Indiana and Wynne, Arkansas, where we continued to improve our understanding of the customer (both loan staff and producers), further refining and testing our prototypes with them (using higher fidelity paper and digital prototypes).
(Above) More testing with a producer (left) and a loan officer in Wynne, Arkansas
The Result: A Digital Tool and Printable Quick Guides
In a close, collaborative partnership with FSA, we developed, tested, and launched the Farm Loan Discovery Tool, now online on farmers.gov/fund. The tool walks potential loan applicants through a few simple questions to help direct them to FSA loans that could match their situation: Direct Operating and Ownership Loans for Individuals and Entities, Youth Loans, and Microloans:
(Above) Example questions and results from the Farm Loans Discovery Tool.
The Farm Loan Discovery Tool also gives users the relevant printable Application Quick Guides, where they get a high-level overview of what they can expect—and what’s expected of them—through the loan application process. The Application Quick Guides also stand on their own, as printable guides (each eight pages or less) that loan officers can use as informational handouts at outreach events.
(Above) The four USDA Farm Loans Application Quick Guides for Individuals and Entities, Youth Loans, and Microloans: short, printable PDFs to help prepare producers for their farm loan journey.
The goal of both the Farm Loan Discovery Tool and the Application Quick Guides is to make producers better prepared and more comfortable for their first meeting with an FSA loan officer, who remains an irreplaceable partner in producers’ success.
As we evaluate how the Farm Loan Discovery Tool and Application Quick Guides perform in the field (with real producers and loan staff), we’re hopeful that USDA can expand this discovery, development, and testing model in the future to include other types of USDA loans and grants, and eventually serve as a template for improving all of USDA’s applicant experiences
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