Streamlining aid delivery: Lessons from SBA’s digital modernization journey

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America’s more than 32 million small businesses play an indispensable role in driving the U.S. economy. Small businesses account for 43.5% of gross domestic product, employ 61.7 million workers and generate payrolls topping $2.9 trillion, according to government data.

In March 2020, as COVID-19 emerged as a global threat, it became apparent that millions of small businesses were headed into economic peril. While White House officials and lawmakers moved with unusual speed to enact the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, the task of administering financial aid to small businesses suddenly fell on the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA).

Legacy challenge

As an independent cabinet agency with fewer than 3,000 employees, the SBA had, until then, managed small business loan and grant applications using an email-based

processing and approval system involving shared mailboxes built on Microsoft Outlook. The agency’s outdated backend infrastructure had never been designed — and was ill-equipped — to handle the overwhelming volume of relief requests flooding in from all 50 states once the CARES Act was enacted. Inboxes and storage capacities hit their daily caps almost immediately. Customers started to receive “undeliverable” messages. And SBA employees were unable to keep up with the skyrocketing workloads.

SBA’s leadership quickly recognized what many other public and private sector organizations discovered at the onset of the pandemic — to remain effective in an environment of rapidly escalating and fast-changing needs, they needed to transition quickly from their existing operating systems and adopt a more modern and scalable digital solution that could meet their rapidly-changing needs.

Transformative solution

SBA officials turned to a cloud-based customer relationship management (CRM) platform, Microsoft Dynamics 365. The platform not only offered the scalability and customization the SBA needed but also allowed the SBA to implement a wide range of integrated features, including email automation, auto-routing, metrics recognition, storage optimization, spam prevention, app integration, and auditing capabilities.

More fundamentally, the shift to a modern CRM platform enabled the SBA to transition from a series of manual, labor-intensive processes to a more efficient, automated system that could quickly scale to the volume SBA needed.

Improved outcomes

Adopting a modern, cloud-based CRM platform not only helped SBA overcome a host of technology bottlenecks but also resulted in significant improvements in the SBA’s internal operations and customer service. The platform:

  • Centralized all customer interactions and attached documents into a single contact record, saving a significant amount of time previously spent verifying that all required documents had been received.
  • Categorized requests and automated routing, resulting in timelier responses and fewer requests left in limbo.
  • Reduced much of the manual work associated with evaluating requests and eliminated common processing errors, enhancing productivity.
  • Allowed SBA staff to more quickly triage cases and review work origins, notes, updates, and activities that had occurred across multiple teams for faster response.
  • Provided customers with an easier way to submit a standardized inquiry using a convenient web form on my.sba.gov, built on Dynamics 365 Portal, rather than typing out an email. Customers can also schedule appointments through a Microsoft Power Pages Portal (appointment.sba.gov), assigned to SBA staff and fulfilled within the Dynamics 365 Customer Service platform.

By making it easier to integrate apps and implement a knowledge base reference library, the modernization effort also allowed the SBA to consolidate information from various sources and streamline the decision-making process. That effort was further enhanced with the creation of a Tier 1 dashboard for individual users and a Tier 2 dashboard for team leads to track overall caseloads, giving SBA staff the ability to make data-driven decisions faster and adapt to changing circumstances.

Mission modernization

Moving to a scalable, cloud-based CRM platform helped the SBA rally quickly in response to the sudden flood of aid requests. It also catapulted the SBA’s ability to meet its broader mission of serving and supporting small businesses.

In particular, the new platform made it possible for the SBA to manage activities more effectively with — and gain deeper insights about — more than 11 million individuals in its contact list.

“We can come to the campaign tabs [on the dashboard] and see a list of all of the different campaigns that the SBA has created inside of the platform,” explained SBA Program Manager Brian Quayan. The software allows SBA staff to roll up all the cases associated with a contact record and even view image files to validate what information has been provided. It also allows SBA staff to see the status and performance of various marketing campaigns and activities.

“We can see…the number of members that were on [a particular] marketing list, how many messages were successfully sent to them, and failures. This is something that has been a huge productivity gain for SBA [staff], who were previously mainly sending those emails out through Outlook without an ability to track success,” the official said. Altogether, the platform helped SBA create and send more than 50 million templated outreach email from February to September 2023.

Another dimension of the SBA’s customer service modernization is the implementation of Power BI dashboards natively embedded into Dynamics 365. This allows executives who aren’t trained to use Dynamics to still access the metrics it provides by leveraging Power BI on the web or their mobile devices.  

Within two and a half years, the SBA expanded the platform from four mailboxes to over 200 individual inboxes, used by close to 80 teams with an unprecedented volume of activity. According to recent estimates, the platform now tracks over 20 million cases to date and has resulted in operational cost savings of over $25 million.

Lessons learned

The SBA’s transition from an email-based tracking system to a cloud-based CRM platform yielded several valuable lessons for federal executives considering a similar transformation:

Firstly, the importance of scalability cannot be overstated. In a crisis situation, the ability to quickly scale up operations is crucial, and a flexible digital platform can make all the difference.

Secondly, customization matters. Tailoring the system to the agency’s unique needs ensures maximum efficiency and usability.

Thirdly, integration capabilities are a game-changer. The ability to connect different tools and data sources creates a unified ecosystem, enabling faster decision-making.

Lastly, automation is a key enabler of efficiency. By automating routine tasks, agencies can focus their efforts on high-impact activities and respond swiftly to emerging challenges.

The Small Business Administration’s journey to digital modernization also demonstrates that in a rapidly evolving world, embracing innovative solutions is not just an option; it’s a necessity to empower organizations to thrive, grow, and support those they serve.

The report was produced by Scoop News Group for FedScoop, as part of a series on innovation in government, underwritten by Microsoft Federal.

Scoop News Group

Written by Scoop News Group

Scoop News Group is the parent company and publisher of FedScoop. “Sponsored content” from Scoop News Group is original content produced by SNG Content Studio, a subsidiary of Scoop News Group. While the content conforms with FedScoop’s editorial and design standards, it is developed in consultation with and sponsored by Scoop News Group clients and is not produced by FedScoop’s editorial staff.

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