Retention, Relationship Building, and Meeting Customers Where They Are – An Interview With Kristen Baker

Interviewed by: Darren Liddell, Director of Program Innovation

Recently, the Clinic’s Senior Financial Coach, Kristen Baker, was recognized for having the most customer sessions, the highest customer retention rate, and most customer outcomes achieved in 2017 among all coaches in the NYC Financial Empowerment Center Network.

Kristen’s outstanding achievements have shown us all that when it comes to helping people build financial security, she is a bit of an expert. In the hopes of spreading some of her expertise, we asked the Clinic’s Director of Program Innovation Darren Liddell to sit down with Kristen and learn all about how she got into financial coaching, what she believes are the best practices for engaging customers, and how other financial coaches can maximize their impact.

[This conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.]

Darren Liddell (DL): Tell us about yourself, when you began to work with The Financial Clinic, and a little bit about your background.

Kristen Baker (KB): I joined The Financial Clinic as a financial coach in 2015 and have been working on the Office of Financial Empowerment (OFE) contract for just over two years. Before joining The Financial Clinic, I worked at a domestic violence shelter and in workforce development and college career development at a community organization in Queens. I moved into direct service work after getting my Masters in social work here in NYC.

I also have 13 years experience in culinary retail, selling pots and pans, and that was certainly very customer driven. I think that really honed my ability to work with different populations that have all sorts of different goals. And, if you have any questions about the difference between a braise and a roast, then I’ll be happy to answer those as well!

DL: Good to know!  When my meat-making skills need refining, I’ll come to you for the best pots and pans to make it happen. Kristen, I wanted to ask a follow-up question on something you mentioned in your prior answer, your background in social work and in sales. How do you feel those experiences tie into your daily work as a financial coach? Do you have any recommendations for new coaches?

KB: Sure. There are many social work practice skills that I continue to use daily. Whether it is engaging customers and creating a plan for their very general goal or figuring out a specific asset-oriented, forward-thinking, strengths-based goal, I spend time getting to know people and validating their experiences while offering some insight. That has been extremely valuable and shows in my coaching where 48% of customers come back for at least a second meeting

A lot of the conversations we have here in our direct services department has been engaging the coaches in exploring what their soft skills are. That means really being able to sit down with people from all different walks of life and aid them in identifying what their own passionately held goals are. As a financial coach, and also a supervisor, I get to practice this daily to hone and refine these skills. I also get to engage with my team of coaches and use our professional development time to teach a little about what I have learned as a social worker without the hefty student loans.

DL: Love that and also love that you are tying in a personal finance issue – student loans – that is very near and dear to many of the customers that we serve, as well as practitioners that may be reading this now. You also mentioned customers a little bit, and I wanted to ask you if you have a favorite customer story? What is the story? Who was the customer?  Why are they your favorite, and what was the result of them coming in for coaching?

KB: I am not sure whether I can choose a favorite, but I can spend a little bit of time talking about one of the customers I’ve seen this week.

One of my sites has a customer I’ve been seeing every six months or so, and her presenting goal is to retire comfortably. She is older and she has had an inconsistent work history. Her social security payments are very low and as people know, rents are going up everywhere, not just in New York City.

It’s really great to have her come in regularly so that we can see how her budget is going and see if the goals we set out are still on track. The way her bank balance increases and how she manages the credit cards is sometimes an extension of what we count as her budget.  She actually just filed her taxes and that’s always an exciting opportunity for saving.

For me, being able to maintain a relationship with someone, is the most rewarding part of the job.  I love it when people are coming back and checking in with me.  You can see how all the hard work they have been putting into their finances positively impacts their lives.

DL:  Getting back to your awards sweep, you have received recognition from the NY Office of Financial Empowerment for the most sessions, highest retention, and most customer outcomes achieved. Can you share with other practitioners things they should keep in mind to increase their impact with the customers they meet?

KB: Sure, these are conversations that we are constantly having on our team. I would say that having a really solid intake process where there is customer engagement, where you can achieve mutual accountability, and where you can build trust to encourage follow up is key. We are the coaches, and while it is up to our customer to identify their financial goals, it is up to us to do the coaching and keep people engaged. If they fail to follow up or maybe don’t come in, just check in and say, “How are you? I was just thinking about you and that question that you had, here is an article that reminded me of you,” then from there, re-open the conversation about outcome areas, connect those outcomes back to the goal. I think it’s important to have that holistic view of who this person is. What is their environment like? What are their goals in terms of finances and otherwise? How does financial coaching fit into what they are looking to do with their lives?

DL: It sounds like keeping the customer’s goals at the forefront of the conversation and taking good notes for the next meeting so that you can refer back to what their main objective was, is essential to the process.

KB: Yes! Especially as a supervisor, I love data! If it’s not in our system, if it’s not in Change Machine, then it didn’t happen. Actually, I can attribute a large majority of my outcomes to absolutely baselining everything. If someone comes in and says they have one checking account and it has $10 in it, the next time I’m seeing them I’m asking, “how is your bank account doing these days? What’s your balance now?” Then tracking their savings progress towards their goals and watching it build can be that much more gratifying.

DL: Thanks for highlighting the importance of baselining and data. This is actually tying into a question that I was going to ask you. What would you say is your “secret sauce” in terms of getting customers to come back for second meetings and beyond?

KB: Well, first and foremost, it’s my personality, Darren. (Insert big smiles!) You have to be approachable and you have to build trust. But also, I bring a level of professionalism and make sure to convey to customers that I care about their success. This is all part of a larger system, but it all basically comes down to the relationship and letting people know that I believe in them.

Often times, I’m seeing people who haven’t had many people in their lives that think they can achieve their goals. So, to really normalize it and say that every person who comes in here sets a goal, makes all the difference. People just need someone to believe in and advocate for them, and when they come back and stick with the process, the likelihood that they’ll meet that goal skyrockets!

DL: What about monitoring progress and tracking outcomes when customers aren’t in the room with you for coaching. Do you do follow up calls? Is there a check-in?  Are you updating customers about things between appointments? Tell me a little bit about that.

KB:  As any coach or social service practitioner knows, it’s difficult to get people in the door. Whether it’s child care challenges, the weather, mass transportation, or traffic jams, there are always barriers. So, our priority is to meet customers where they are and accommodate what works for them while also maintaining our schedule and workload.

I do stress using email and phone follow-ups because I think that is an easy way to keep people engaged. For example, if someone calls me in the morning to cancel their 12 o’clock appointment because they have to stay home with a sick child, I’ll ask them if we can have a quick phone check-in when it’s nap time.  Also, using technological supports like delayed or pre-scheduled emails to remind someone to bring in a document or put something in the mail before their next appointment will help keep them on track.

Another helpful tip is to set automatic check-ins at various intervals after the initial meeting.  So, maybe at 3 months we will follow up on a credit score, and at 6 months we will check in on a debt reduction. We also take advantage of built-in reengagement times, like tax time. Tax time is great for re-engaging customers because for many people receiving certain tax credits, it is the best opportunity for saving.

DL: I love that you are leveraging opportunities in the natural calendar and in people’s lives to make the maximum impact.  As we wrap up our interview, can you tell me what you think the most important practice is for coaches to implement?

KB: Financial coaching is something that is beneficial to everyone. People will come in and say “I don’t have any money coming in, so I can’t do a budget yet”, but that’s actually the best time to make a budget because an approach to finances should be forward thinking and asset-oriented, not reactionary.

The best thing we can do for the financial security of our customers is to help them plan. This way, no matter what their financial goal is, it is intentional, and they have an action plan to get there. When people are working daily towards a plan and meeting little milestones along the way, we know they are really being empowered by having a choice of what to do with their finances, and that there will be a sense of pride when they reach their financial goals that will help them succeed long into their financial futures.

Have a burning question to ask about becoming the best financial coach you can be?  Email us, and we may invite you to be a guest on one of our upcoming podcasts. (Launching soon!)

Financial Coach Kristen Baker received recognition from New York City’s Office of Financial Empowerment for Most Sessions, Highest Client Retention, and Most Client Outcomes achieved.

  • MOST CLIENT SESSIONS IN 2017: Holding down the OFE team during staff transitions in the beginning of the year, KB held over 700 meetings. That’s about 17 meetings per week sustained through the full coaching year.
  • HIGHEST CLIENT RETENTION ACHIEVED IN 2017: Almost half (48%) of KB’s customers came back to see her. That’s out of the total 354 customers she met with in 2017.
  • MOST CLIENT OUTCOMES ACHIEVED IN 2017: She was awarded for the 254 outcomes achieved from the OFE framework, but according to Clinic Mission, KB achieved 403 total outcomes at an Achieving Mission rate of 22%. In other words, 22% of her customers achieved both asset-oriented (A,B, T, G) and debt-oriented (C, D) outcomes.