From processing payroll and administrative tracking to underwriting or managing analytics, any kind of operations role is far from simple. Luke Lavanway, the Director of Lending Operations and Analytics at CommonBond, knows this reality all too well.

In his role, he guides how CommonBond—an online lender that provides both student loan refinancing and private student loans—manages operations for things like underwriting and forbearance.

Luke knows better than most how much smooth operations matter—when it comes to fintech, having an efficient ops team and processes is crucial. What’s more, better ops lead to better products and services, thus differentiating CommonBond from its competitors.

“As an ops team, we know the requirements of what we do all day at a high level of detail. We’re passionate about improving how we do things rather than sticking with the status quo, and we know that any gains are passed on to our customers,” Luke explains.

Innovation without execution: Missed opportunities

Ops teams can often provide valuable insight into problems and opportunities that can unlock revenue, create customer delight, and streamline a business, but they are rarely empowered to execute on their ideas to implement solutions.

“Businesses lose out on revenue and cost savings by not acting on the ideas brought forth by operations teams—but it doesn’t have to be that way.”

“The ideas ops teams have for improving workflows are often really simple to execute on—most can be done with a small set of technical skills, such as joins, upserts, string manipulation, logic, or math, but we often reach a natural impasse because product, tech, and engineering teams need to focus on strategic initiatives instead of ops workflows,” he adds.

Many businesses believe that products and features for customers should always be prioritized because their impact on the customer is direct.

But the reality is, back office improvements for staff can lead to huge improvements for customers, too—yet they’re so often overlooked. “It’s a trade off that many organizations feel they must make but don’t have to,” Luke says. “Operational improvements tend to lead to better experiences for customers, and they may reveal significant opportunities to deepen the relationship with the customer at the same time.”

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Helping people help themselves: Empowering the ops team with tooling and skills

When Luke first saw a Retool demo in 2018, he recognized the potential it had to be the solution that would allow CommonBond to put ops—and, therefore, its customers—first.

Because a lack of technical skills often gets in the way of ops teams solving their own technical problems, Luke was looking for a tool that would help them help themselves.

Retool was an opportunity to remove the technical barriers for his team to build apps because it only requires basic knowledge of SQL. And since a few people on the team already knew SQL, Retool would let them start building apps right away.

Seeing some success with the first apps built in Retool, Luke and his team knew there was potential for more. So they developed a program for ops team members who didn’t already know SQL to get educated around basic programming skills through platforms like Udacity and Coursera—and help them use Retool to its full potential.

“It was a great way for us to use educational resources to teach basic programming skills and empower ops teams at their own pace, without costing us a ton,” Luke says.

“Our new approach—empowering ops to solve technical problems using education as the gas and Retool as the engine brought significant growth in the capabilities of the team.””

Over time, the ops team garnered buy-in and support from the senior management team because of the impact they were having. And in an effort to scale their impact, senior management helped to launch CB University, a program through which tech experts at CommonBond give classes to people interested in learning basic coding.

“We saw immediate success from these educational efforts so we doubled down and now, two years later, we have over 100 Retool apps that are used regularly on our Operations team,” Luke says.

CommonBond’s use of Retool, combined with its investment in its employees, has had a massive influence on how things are done in the back office, streamlining dozens of processes and improving operations efficiency.

Gained efficiency: Using Retool to simplify the forbearance process

One way Luke’s team uses Retool is to manage the forbearance process—when CommonBond pauses the payment of a customer’s loan to help the customer manage a financial hardship.

Before, forbearance requests were managed in Jira and involved 27 manual inputs. Data was copied and pasted from the CRM, lending platform, and servicing platform into a Jira card, which took two full time employees most of their time. “It wasn’t a fun workflow to be in,” Luke says.

The process took over 30 minutes for a single request—simply gathering the necessary information was very intensive.

And because it involved hopping between platforms and lots of copying and pasting, it was also prone to errors. “The whole thing was ripe for improvement,” according to Luke.

So the team built a Retool app for the forbearance process and now manages every request through the tool. There’s no longer any manual input required because all of the necessary data is joined from databases reflecting the CRM, lending, and servicing platforms.

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“The Retool view synthesizes information from all three data sources so a human can make a decision quickly and easily, instead of spending time finding and inputting the data."

The Retool app also allows for actions, like status changes, with simple buttons right there on the interface. “Retool facilitates modularity,” says Luke. “For example, we added a survey module to collect data from borrowers and help predict performance of their credit over time.”

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Before, building a solution like the current forbearance app could have taken months. But the Retool app was built entirely by one person on the ops team within a few days.

Now, ops team members can see a queue of incoming forbearance requests, the status of any request at any time, and make changes or updates to the data or request—right in one spot.

Doing more: How empowered ops teams improve business outcomes and their careers

Since empowering the CommonBond ops team to build their own solutions and improve their own workflows, Luke and the team have noticed some huge improvements:

More time

The forbearance workflow went from taking two full-time employees most of their time—and 30 minutes per individual application—to two minutes per application, a 93% decrease in time spent. “It went from being a significant workflow that needed to be managed to something that one person, in a few minutes a day, can handle themselves,” says Luke.

More focus

“The magic of Retool for our ops team is that it allows us to leverage basic technical skills by abstracting away a lot of the tedium of building applications,” Luke explains. They can focus on the results they’re trying to drive and execute easily using short SQL statements in Retool rather than relying on other teams and losing sight of business goals.

More career opportunities for ops employees

Using Retool has proven to be a great development path for the ops team at CommonBond. By empowering employees to develop technical skills, they’ve seen people make technical contributions, improve their performance, and even transition into technical roles across the company.

“For a lot of ops folks, developing these skillsets has proven compelling as both a growth path and a way to increase their contribution to CommonBond’s success as a business—a win for everyone,” says Luke.

Of course, there’s an investment required to make this approach work—the space for people to skill up, support from tech teams, and the necessary guardrails to ensure security and reduce the risk of breaking things.

“We found that by pairing an individual from ops with a technical mentor and timeboxing the commitment from the mentor, we were able to strike a balancewhich allowed the ops person to learn without the tech person getting bogged down,” Luke explains.

“As a people manager, you’re always looking for paths for people to grow and how to show that your reports are adding more value than they were at their last review period,” Luke explains.

“Being able to show actual applications that people have made and the impact of those apps has been a very meaningful growth path for employees at CommonBond.”

Changing how ops teams operate to better serve customers

Ultimately, by empowering ops teams to automate processes and develop their own applications, technical teams can focus on strategic initiatives instead of responding to requests to overhaul things in the back office.

For CommonBond, taking this approach and leveraging Retool has let its technical teams build and iterate faster, thereby providing better products and services—both technical and operational—to its customers.

To hear more from Luke, as well as other financial services experts from Brex and Ramp, check out our Financial Services Lightning Demo