Code for America built GetCalFresh to make the online experience of applying for CalFresh an easier one. Instead of clicking through endless, complicated screens from a desktop computer for the better part of an hour, clients can answer questions via their smartphone and submit an application in under 10 minutes.
But it’s more than just a static application for people to fill out; GetCalFresh also has a dedicated client success team that supports clients though the process in three languages. They answer questions and address concerns, and then elevate what they hear from clients to other team members so they can make continuous improvements to the application experience.
We spoke to Client Success Lead Atzay Perez Estrada about what brought her to client success, how her role has changed since the COVID-19 pandemic hit California, and what she’s hearing from the clients she communicates with every single day.
First of all, how did you become a client success professional?
I have been at Code for America for three years now, but I didn’t start on the client success team. I started on the operations team, fielding questions from our own staff. I was on that team for about a year and a half before making the transition. Before joining the client success team, I was at a crossroads deciding what I wanted to jump into next. I have a background in customer service, and found myself missing that aspect of my past work, and a desire to feel more connected to Code for America’s mission. As a natural problem solver and people pleaser, the idea of joining the client success team was exciting. I was thrilled to be able to connect with and provide a more direct service to help the people we serve.
Can you tell us a bit about what your day-to-day looked like before the pandemic hit the United States, and what some of the biggest changes are from then to now?
Before the pandemic hit, our workload and volume was relatively manageable for our team of two. We averaged about 430 client conversations a day. My day-to-day typically started by logging on around 9 a.m. and beginning to chat with our clients. I would work on prioritizing any client messages that came in the night before, and then move onto responding to incoming messages. My conversations with clients would vary widely from hearing about how much CalFresh meant to them to de-escalating feelings of anxiousness when they had not heard from their county yet about a benefit they were really counting on. Throughout the day, I would work with GetCalFresh program managers to elevate any serious cases or themes we were hearing from clients, or ask for help on how to handle difficult questions. If clients were reporting a bug or issue in the application, I would work with the engineering team to address it.
Another large part of my role is also engaging with community-based organizations (CBOs) in the food assistance space. There are over 400 CBOs that use GetCalFresh to assist clients in completing applications. I worked with schools, religious groups, food banks, other nonprofits, and more across California to field questions and to help them get the best use of GetCalFresh. Our work with our CBO community became even more crucial once the pandemic hit. We worked together to find a solution to provide CBOs the tools they needed to serve clients digitally, since closing the CalFresh participation gap felt more pressing than ever.
In early March, we saw an exponential spike in our application volume—our small client success team immediately felt the impact. We went from about 430 conversations a day to over 1,200. Some days we received up to 200 messages per hour! The work felt endless as we were adjusting to such a different and large scale of volume. The need was unprecedented, and continues to be.
“This was a seamless process. Far better than unemployment insurance benefits. Thank you for making the website easy to navigate, it feels clear that making sure people can eat is important here. Thanks.”
How has your small team been able to keep up with the unprecedented growth in GetCalFresh applicants over the past few months?
I am so proud of this team, as we’ve managed to keep up with the striking volume so gracefully over the past few months.
We quickly realized that the volume was far more than our small team of two could handle, so we turned to our staff as an immediate solution. We solicited help from not only other GetCalFresh team members, but the entire Code for America staff, and the response was so swift that we were immediately comforted knowing we didn’t have to do it alone. I gathered those interested and provided training to about 35 staff members to help get them up to speed and jump right in. I provided ongoing training, shadowing, and support while staff members across the board signed up for shifts to respond to clients. I am eternally grateful for the support our staff provided during the most pressing times.
While we had the temporary help of our staff, I knew folks were providing the time they had but also had responsibilities of their own. That's when the team turned to our CBO partners. We knew that their work was also displaced due to the pandemic, now that they could no longer assist clients in person. And who better to bring on than experienced CalFresh outreach assisters with deep eligibility expertise! Our client success team went from two to eight folks almost overnight to meet the demand of inbound client conversations. I feel so fortunate to have been able to bring on such dedicated individuals who have provided immense relief to the client success team.
What do you think would surprise people most about what you’re hearing from GetCalFresh applicants?
Despite how trying the situation we are in right now is, I think the most surprising thing for people is when they find out that clients often deny or cancel their own benefit to save it for someone else. I primarily hear this from our Spanish-speaking clients—they don’t want to use the benefit because they feel someone else might need it more. It has been a common belief for years that taking government benefits means taking them away from others. This is also an insight our research team confirmed, and that they have been learning more about while thinking about inclusion. In spite of struggling with serious financial and food insecurity, clients are choosing to skip the benefit instead of accessing what might be available. People would probably be surprised to learn that this has been a longstanding barrier when it comes to accessing benefits.
What’s the hardest thing about your job? What’s the most rewarding thing about your job?
There can be a lot of challenges stepping into a job like this. Especially in California, since CalFresh is a county-administered (instead of state-administered) system, keeping up with all 58 counties and their business processes definitely keeps me on my toes. But at the end of the day, I think both the hardest and most rewarding thing is definitely the client stories.
Sometimes we hear really disheartening stories that clients share about their situation that really make you stop and think “We need to do better.” It can get really heavy constantly hearing people tell you about their experience and what brought them to a place of need. Clients also share frustration about their efforts in trying to apply for CalFresh, and how it can feel like an uphill journey. Although challenging, I appreciate clients sharing their difficult stories just as much as the happy ones because it really highlights all of the damaged parts in the ecosystem that we have an opportunity to touch and make better—even if just a tiny bit.
I also hear good stories. It feels pretty reassuring when clients tell us how easy their process was, and how much receiving CalFresh has helped them get through some of their toughest times. It’s encouraging to know we are doing something right.
“I want and need you to know that I never could have succeeded this easily without the CalFresh staff’s guidance and brilliantly kind follow-through. You are truly angels of help and mercy.”