Is your application more than 10 pages? Is your applicant waitlist growing longer by the day?
If you’re managing more program applications than you can count on one hand, it’s worth taking the time to become an effective pipeline engineer. To do that, you need to identify and reduce friction in the process and make your application pipeline as efficient as possible. Here are a 5 strategies to help you save time and effort for you, your team and your applicants. By taking the time to thoughtfully evaluate and improve your applicant process, you can be confident you’re program design is both intentional and effective.
1. Set the status labels you use for your applicants
In order to better segment your pipeline and report on your activities, sync up your language with standard status labels to more easily sort and report on all of your applicants and pipeline. Even if you aren’t using HomeKeeper yet, you can align your terminology with these universal applicant status labels and supplement if you want more nuanced segmentation for your applicants.
According to Susanne Hepburn, a Housing Coordinator from the Northshore Housing Initiative, “We use our pipeline to report to the board of directors to explain where we are in the process, how many applications we’ve received, how many inquiries we’ve received, and how many houses we’ve closed on. It’s an excellent organizational tool.”
2. Know Your Status Quo
Identify how many inquiries generally lead to one home buyer. Fill in the blanks, “From _______ inquiries, we typically receive _____ completed applications for every ____ homebuyer(s).”
This is the outline of your applicant pipeline. No two pipelines are the same, and each process will yield a different shape. Depending on how your application process is designed, you will have drop off of varying amounts as the status changes towards becoming a homeowner. So if the applicant’s first step in your program is to call the staff during business hours and inquire, the top of your pipeline might look different from another organization where the first step is to attend an orientation in person, or complete an online eligibility checklist.
You can also assess how fast applicants currently move through the pipeline. Fill in the blanks, “It takes ______ different staff a total of ______ hours over ______ weeks to take one application through the approval process, from “Inquiry” to “Application Complete.” For example, Katie Jo Flint, Outreach Coordinator for Grand Forks Community Land Trust has found that it takes 2 staff at her small organization approximately 20 hours and 4-6 weeks to process one application.
Once you understand your baseline, you can make program refinements and see how that affects the shape of your pipeline.
3. Map your applicant flow
How do your applicants move through the process? For each status label, like inquiry or application submitted, identify the interactions with applicants and the steps behind the scenes. It doesn’t matter how you make your map. You can use chart paper, an online tool or just type up a numbered list. The point is to lay out out all the steps visually so you can start refining your process. Map out the flow with your team to make sure you have wholistic view of each step. Start by asking these questions:
- Where will homebuyers spend the most time?
- Where will staff spend the most time?
- How many steps does it take to get through?
4. Eliminate bottlenecks
Which steps are the most time intensive for the applicants and which steps are time intensive for staff? There is often a mismatch between intention and implementation. For example, some programs require a full, 20-page application from anyone interested. That’s time intensive for applicants and may create expectations of getting a home because they had already put in so much effort. Another program might conduct interviews with every applicant who submitted a complete application whether they were eligible or not. While this is incredibly time consuming on the part of staff, programs might see this as a way to build homebuyer and community relationships– even if it doesn’t result in a homebuyer for several years. Look at your bottlenecks and identify the priorities for making your process easier for you and your applicants. Here are some bottleneck-busting tips from practitioners:
“Get applicants pre-qualified before doing anything else.” – Susanne Hepburn, Northshore Housing Trust
“We scan completed applications so we don’t have to deal with physical storage.” – Eric Swanson, City of Boulder
“We include a thorough checklist at the beginning and end of the application.” – Maria Starck, Lexington Community Land Trust
“Our online database is tied to our online application which has made data transfer super quick!” – Allie Berg, Twin Cities Habitat
“We’re leveraging HomeKeeper and Salesforce to automate our process” – Patrick Urion, Homestead CLT
5. Set appropriate expectations for applicants
Hello Housing has focused on improving the homebuyer experience and managing applicant expectations since they deal with a lot of big lotteries in the Bay Area. They give detailed information on their website regarding lottery dates, numbers of applications received, response times and whether or not more information will be requested in the future. And they’ve refined their application process so that the level of effort for applicants corresponds to the likelihood the applicant will move on to the next step in the process. Set appropriate expectations by asking thee questions:
- Can you describe your application process succinctly?
- Are you collecting information you don’t need?
- Are you collecting too much information too early?
- Do applicants understand the likelihood they will buy a home through your program?
Have you refined your applicant pipeline process?
What did you learn in the process and what changes did you make?