Applying Behavioral Sciences in the Real World
Can a Few Kind Words Increase Successful Food Stamp Applications?
Guest Blogger: Dale Carlson-Bebout, Step Up Savannah, Director, Supporting Work
At Step Up Savannah, we had a problem. We work with employers to introduce a variety of public work supports-- like food stamps-- to their low wage employees, but our data showed that employees were not following through with their applications even when they were considered potentially eligible for the benefit. They might start the application process but too often they weren't completing the application.
People appeared to need the benefit to help expand their budgets, but they were overwhelmed with the documentation requirements, and seemed to struggle with the motivation to complete the process.
Our goal was to increase the number of completed applications and thus increase the rate of successful benefit awards. A joint team of representatives from Step Up Savannah, the Poverty Reduction Initiative, and the Department of Family and Children's Services who administers the benefit of food stamps was formed to think about how to tackle the problem.
What we tried
What if people needed reassurance that their paper work really would get processed? What if it helped to hear that the case worker helping you wanted to see you through the process and was on your side? To encourage application completion, the case workers from the Department of Family and Children's Services agreed to add a closing statement at the end of their client interviews. The case workers thought about the right statement and came up with a simple but potentially powerful message: "I look forward to receiving your information so I can process your case as soon as possible." At first, it was difficult to accept that a simple phrase could have a measurable impact.
Three case workers measured the number of applicants and the percentage of applicants who submitted all their documentation and completed the application in two 2-week periods. The first 2-week period conducted business as usual. During the second 2-week period, the case worker closed each interview with the phrase: "I look forward to receiving your information so I can process your case as soon as possible."
What we found
The results of our initial intervention are listed below. It's important to note that these are exciting but preliminary findings. More study needs to be done with a larger sample to determine if the results can be replicated.
* Intervention conducted from Sep 8 -18 (no phrase used) and Sep 21-Oct 2 (phrase used)
In addition to these results, the case workers observed that the customer appreciated the encouragement and the excellent customer service. The customers appeared grateful that closing their cases quickly was a priority.
What we learned
Our greatest learning was that a simple, positive statement, at the end of an interaction, could potentially impact results directly. This finding has re-emphasized the importance of the client's perspective and experience as we attempt to make other improvements. In addition, positive messaging within a particular process as well as with a particular audience has to be considered as a strong driver.
Specific to this work and the use of the closing phrase, our next step is to work with the Director of the Department of Family and Children's Services to expand the implementation of this process change. We hope to implement the change with a larger group so we may determine if the initial results are replicated with a larger number of client workers participating.
This project was supported by a generous grant from the Ford Foundation