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OCT 30, 2013

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What We're Hearing

Monkey Court, Take Note

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WE’RE HEARING last week I wrote about my perceptions of what mortgage folks can learn from the health care glitches before the congressional hearings. And I talked about the people involved, and how my prediction was that that they would not clearly establish the time/feature/resources tradeoff.

Well, that surely was an issue, as the vendors blamed the government for “changing requirements” or specifically for requiring the login and registration process earlier, and downplaying the price comparison feature. That appeared to be a change in requirements without a change in resources or time, a sure indicator for a project that could fail.

We learned a lot more at the congressional hearings, and since I am at the Mortgage Bankers Association’s annual conference in D.C., I am tempted to walk down the street and try to talk to the “monkey court,” but instead will pen my thoughts here. I am chagrined to discover that our mortgage websites make one of the same mistakes as healthcare.gov does.

I had written, but had not yet published that they ought to do two things. One, make it easier to figure out the options before you are required to apply and two, make the paper or offline option more apparent. Here is what drove me to those conclusions.

I tried to use the website, as I’m one of the types who could use the ability to shop for insurance to lower my premiums. I am technically self-employed (partner in a firm) and pay for my own insurance. But I am also in Florida, where our state decided not to offer a marketplace and thus I needed to go with the federal one.

So, I went online and saw the big button (the primary navigation element) that said “apply.” I tried. And failed. Many times. While this provided good fodder for this blog, it was frustrating. Obviously the technology failed, but I also think the process was not well designed for two reasons. First, the website did not not “trade” information but rather “took” information. In fact, the primary navigation is to apply with a smaller option to “see plans and prices.” If you try to apply, it never took you to plans/prices. You had to dig for it.

Actually, the health care plans/prices functionality is pretty good. At least it gives you some information on the type of plans available and whether you qualify for them. In fact, within a few screens, it allowed me to see that I can save roughly $200-$400 per month. However, it’s hard to find that information if you just “apply” and expect the magic to happen. Does this sound familiar?

We do this in mortgage banking, where we build web “apps” that literally ask for a ton of information and provide little information back. Granted, the answer is better if the consumer fills out all the information accurately and our systems work perfectly and we can get an automated approval on the first try, just like healthcare.gov could work well if everything works perfectly. But that often is not reality. It’s much better to trade information quickly, which lets consumers opt out if the new program does not meet their needs.

The health care plans section does work well and gave me a range of information, but I had to search for it to find it. When I ran a call center, I stressed the importance that our technology enable loan officers to provide information back to the consumer after every few questions. For instance, if a refinance consumer says, “I have a rate of 5.5% currently” and rates are approximately 4.5%, then the customer can save 1% which is roughly $2,000 per year on a $200,000 balance. Now, I know that is overly simplified and not perfect, but it’s a valuable piece of information to a consumer, and gets their buy in for the next few minutes of conversation. If the consumer has a current rate of 4%, then they know to get off the phone (or the website) because they can’t be helped.

On a purchase deal, give the monthly payment range quickly, provide the after tax payment estimate, and then ask how that compares to their current housing expense. The key is to trade information because it provides a much better experience and takes away the pressure of having to have a perfect online experience in order to get any information at all.

So, for the health care site, why not start with the high level compare feature rather than the apply feature. By trying to do too much, they provided the consumer too little.

The lesson here is to have a process focused on the customers’ experience as a key part of the inputs for design. For an LOS engagement, do you really want to do the process the same old way in a new system, or do you want to fundamentally change how loans are handled? Before a process is “automated” there should be careful consideration as to whether it can be “eliminated” or at least altered in a way that makes it work better for the end user. This is why Stratmor incorporates operational reviews as part of our engagements. These assessments are focused on “as-is” workflow processes with recommended “to-be” outcomes to optimize the lender’s technical, human and financial resources as part of the overall project. Don’t implement new technology with the goal of continuing to do the same old thing faster—take the opportunity to invoke positive process changes that complement and enhance the technology capabilities within your organization.

Now, here is my technology comment. I am now going to introduce an amazing, advanced solution that only the most seasoned tech professional would understand (as well as introducing another amount of sarcasm). A couple of weeks ago, after my frustration with the online health care process, I went back to the site and started digging a bit. There I found a very useful link to an alternative option that I have never heard mentioned in discussion of the healthcare initiative. That option was “below the fold” and I had to scroll down to find it, but there is an option to apply by mail by downloading the PDF. If you don’t believe me, click here.

Note, as of the time I first wrote that paragraph and today they have actually moved up the written option to above the fold, where a consumer is more likely to see it. Now, the PDF is well laid out, easy to understand, and I could easily complete this in my own time, offline, not frustrated with crashes and web errors. What is so crazy is that this link is not provided on any of the error pages, and actually is not provided as one of the primary options. They try to make you apply online, yet they have a perfectly good mail option available. Like mortgage banking, I may be waiting for 60 days for an answer, but at least I have started the process and will stop banging on the website, trying to get it to work.

Here is the very technical part. Try to follow this—perhaps they should create an adobe form, rather than just an adobe document. A form lets you type your answers into it, while a document really is only good for printing and filling out by hand. I ran form recognition through adobe and it took me approximately three minutes to convert it to a form. Now, as a consultant I sometimes charge for my time, so someone at the government owes me $18 for that work. But the average consumer is not going to have adobe pro, so why not create as a form in the first place? Maybe someone on the project team at healthcare.gov should think about doing that, too. That way, you can type into the form and thereby create a nice legible data entry. And if you wanted to be really advanced, they could provide an email address to email the form or even a PDF email option to send from within the form with the data which they could have extracted and put into the database. Ah, I love rocket science!

In the world of journalism (in which I play a bit part), this is what is referred to as a fast moving story. By the time you read this, they may have made all sorts of changes to the website. But that does not change what we can learn from the issues they encountered. First, have a project team that clearly defines the priorities of time, features and resources. Second, be sure the process is well thought out from the consumer’s perspective, not just from the entity that is driving the process. And finally, provide a range of technical solutions that provide options, both online and offline, that can work for consumers.

Garth Graham is a partner with Stratmor Group, and has over 25 years of mortgage experience, from Fortune 500 companies to startups, including management of two of the most successful mortgage e-commerce platforms. He was formerly with Chase Manhattan Mortgage and ABN Amro, where he was a senior executive during the sale of its mortgage group to Citigroup.

Comments (3)
Maybe they'll read your post. What would have been really helpful to everyone is if the 27 states who refused to do their exchanges had actually done them or at least a lot of them. I live in a state where we have our own exchange the site was up day one with no problems. It is simple to use the website and easy to estimate what insurance may cost. Perhaps rather than delaying Affordable Health Care, they can simply give states more time to do the right thing.
Posted by Griff | Thursday, October 31 2013 at 8:56AM ET
I'm not sure when you attempted to apply Garth. I applied on day three, and had no problems. Those that tried on the first couple of days or last Monday probably hit snags. My understanding is that your success rate goes way up after midnight as there are few users.

The original site is different now, as they have taken your advice and no longer require an application to see the prices of plans. They do refer you to Kaiser though to calculate your tax subsidy which should be available within the government site. The MOST IMPORTANT information that is being overlooked though, is that the exchanges are not the whole market. They are a good place to start, but one can often get a better deal if they shop around at individual carriers.

It is unfortunate that Florida politics got in the way of a state-run system. Kentucky, arguably a much more "red state", has an excellent state-run system. Given that the Florida legislature's intransigence will cost the state a good $150 million next year in additional Medicare costs it is likely we will see some movement off this idiocy.

Posted by Markus | Thursday, October 31 2013 at 10:53AM ET
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