Starting with the question, “How can we pull repetitive tasks off our directors so they can serve the mission at a greater capacity?” Natalie has been laser focused on streamlining business processes. From manning the front desk and folding towels, to memberships and business processes, Natalie Johnson’s Y career spans from South Florida to Pikes Peak, Colorado.
In her new venture as the Vice President of Customer Transactions at the YMCA Managed Service Organization, Natalie is trailblazing a new path and sharing her passion for helping YMCAs find better operational processes. Listen how in this week’s episode of the Accelerant.
As Paperless as Possible
Innovating in the midst of a pandemic, Natalie’s team found ways to go from nearly 80% to 100% paperless. Using their website and their operational platform powered by Daxko, they found greater efficiency to scale processes, access to vital membership information, and curate the best member experience.
One core area the MSO specializes in is ensuring the data needed to function properly is accurate, including helping Y’s evaluate if their operating system is set up to count members correctly.
Own Your Calendar
Natalie’s skill in driving operational health shows up in her life and personal practices. In blocking time between meetings, Natalie ensure she has space to prioritize her wellbeing. While easier said than done, she noted saying it out loud or setting that intention helps ensure you respect that time for yourself.
This episode was recorded on April 12, 2021.
Saranda West: Welcome to another episode of the Accelerant. I need to prepare you: You should get out whatever note taking capabilities you have – Evernote, pencil, notepad, something – and get ready, because there is so much information coming your way.
I talked with Natalie Johnson from the Managed Service Organization, which is a new entity helping Ys streamline so many different areas, but in particular, just operational processes she started with now.
I left conversation with, “Man, that was just a pivotal moment where they are trailblazing a path, a path for this new organization, a path for YMCAs, and really helping organizations come out of a really difficult time and give them hope where they can get everything done in a world where it feels like we can’t.” I hope you enjoy.
Natalie Johnson: The thing that was on my mind then and remains now is how can we put some of these repetitive tasks off of our directors, which are wanting to be in front of people, get some of that work off of their plate so that they can serve the mission at a greater capacity, whether it's teaching swim lessons, engaging in youth sports coaches or whatever that looks like.
SW: Accelerant: A substance use to aid the spread of fire, accelerating or causing acceleration. This is the Accelerant podcast.
Hi there. Thank you for joining me on the show today. I'm your host, Saranda West. Our guest today, I wish you all have had the pleasure of working with this lady. Her infectious, hardworking attitude, care for those around her and unwavering ability to just get stuff done is mind blowing. Natalie Johnson is currently the Vice President of Customer Transactions at the YMCA Managed Service Organization.
Prior to that, she held many positions at the YMCA of the Pikes Peak Region and YMCA Broward County. Natalie, welcome to the Accelerant.
NJ: Hello. Good morning everyone.
SW: So, let's start out, Natalie, if you will just tell us how you got started in your career at the YMCA.
Natalie’s Y Story
NJ: Like many YMCA people, I think my story is one of, I didn't know it was going to be this way.
I'm from Kansas originally graduated from college and moved to Colorado because Colorado wasn't Kansas. At one point, as that recent college grad, three part-time jobs, one of which was the Y, I decided to maybe leave a career in customer service, in retail, making good money at the time, to work for that hourly job at the YMCA.
I really worked my way up from front desk person, doing everything from scanning people in, to folding towels, to back-office business, to really then landing in full-time roles, basically in membership over the course of the years, held operation positions from leading center operations to really what led me to the point I am at today and back in 2011, centralizing our business practices for the YMCA of the Pikes Peak Region and going through what would now be one of my first of many software transitions.
Really, that's how I got connected with Daxko. So as Saranda mentioned, I did some time in South Florida to come back in 2015 and worked for the Y in Colorado Springs and also simultaneously for the last eight months with Denver as well. Like many Y people, I was wearing many hats, from operations to back-office business, but I think all that experience has really given me the opportunity to do what I am doing today.
SW: I think what you enjoy doing, which is just bringing people together to get whatever the job is in front of you done, can you go in a little bit more detail about the process you mentioned at Pikes Peak, when you were working on centralizing the business office? Can you just walk us through what that process was like?
Centralizing the Business Office
NJ: Yeah. At the time, I was a membership and healthy living director at one of the Ys in Colorado Springs and oversaw a lot of the membership functions for our associations. Some Ys still have them, and they could call them core groups or lead groups, but really when there's not a lot of centralization, how does the team work together to reach the common goal?
Even just as a membership director at that time, I knew across our association, in our different branches, we were doing different things, but we were calling people for renewals and bad debt or some weren't. I think really, for me, that's when my business mindset kicked in, that “Okay. There's gotta be a better way.”
Fortunately, we did decide to go through a software transition and our newer COO at the time. Boyd Williams had been familiar with this centralized model within an association. And so really, you know, a 29-year-old kid, if you will look back right was just, “Okay, you're going to take us through the software conversion,” and “Oh, at the same time, yep, make everything streamlined.”
That really, honestly, that was a pivotal moment in my career because it was... I didn't have a roadmap. I had great people and project managers, if you will, that guided me along that process, but really at that time, there weren’t a lot of associations that were centralized.
I remember speaking with the YMCA in Birmingham and some folks in Nashville, but those, even at that point, Nashville was a larger association than us. Really shifting at that point from a lot of operational experience to the back office, the thing that was in my mind then and remains now is how can we pull some of these repetitive tasks off of our directors, which are wanting to be in front of people, get some of that work off of their plate so that they can serve the mission at a greater capacity, whether it's teaching swim lessons, engaging in youth sports coaches or whatever that looks like, but really finding ways to make jobs for our program directors more streamlined and effective.
SW: What were some of those tasks you mentioned, maybe like renewals or bad debt, like what are some of those tasks that team is responsible for?
NJ: Yeah, so specifically in membership and honestly that's the largest areas. There's all those for anybody that's ever, even at the small level, been involved in membership. Think of all the different things in your operating system or that we need to communicate with members.
That could be, they have some type of discount on their membership. Does it expire? Should it expire? What does that communication look like? Same thing with that bad debt sort of things. That was one area that we found by centralizing it, we were able to actually save money because we were actually able to not have to cancel those members, but actually collect those dues.
It's one of those that it's like, for an association of our size we probably all in paid the amount of about one person per year. So, really once again you go back to scale of economy and getting things done. We don't have one person do it. We have a team do it, and they're concentrated, so it could be that it's two hours every Friday that the team dips in and handles this type of work.
We're communicating, collecting, and honestly, at the same time, what the main point of this department is that customer service aspect. When you look at the program director side of things, some of this is just for ease, but also things are so different now than they were even five years ago in terms of mobile work, mobile responsiveness, and people doing things on their own.
When you pull off that program entry piece into Daxko and allow a consistent person to do it, but all of your search things are going to be correct, your tags are streamlined so that basically the marketing department can push the programs out in the appropriate manner.
I think back to really how things have even changed in the last year, and it's really the shift, and COVID did push it, but we were already trying our best to really make things as paperless, as broad as possible. I remember on a Monday going, “Okay, we're going to need to close, but wait, we just drafted. How are we going to intake all this work?”
Now everybody has to stay home. I think the ability of at least the Pikes Peak YMCAs to be so effective in that is we had already centralized certain things, talking to other Ys across the country that maybe aren't centralized as well, asking: how did you get the work done?
I managed it best I could or tried to have other staff do it, but when you aren't already set up to be able to handle that. I just look at any of these associations that were already centralized, just the ability for us to be able to handle in such a timely manner all these member requests that came in really a year ago mid-March.
SW: I was actually going to ask you that exact question. If this centralized piece actually helped you with COVID, and I can only imagine, because not only were you able to handle the volume, but then get the message out consistently, which was the key point last year to those members.
NJ: Yeah, and just to go into that in a little bit greater detail, I know all Ys had some change and transition within staffing during COVID.
It became very evident, very early on that if we needed to reduce our workforce force within that department, we could, but it's not going be until we see some of this level off because we wanted to make sure that we were communicating with all the members, whether they were putting on hold, had sports questions, just a variety of different things.
It was one of those that, okay, we put stuff in with other staff, but these are the experts that are used to doing these tasks on a day-to-day basis. They really became well, especially in those initial months, but yeah, hands down, especially in membership, we were about 80% paperless between the shutdown and then us opening back up, we're completely paperless in membership and really using a lot of the functions of Daxko, and then our website enabled us to basically to make that switch in a matter of days.
SW: That's amazing. Real quick, let's go back. Depending on which area of the country, how the pandemic has impacted or is still impacting is very different. Will you just give us an update of everything in Colorado Springs?
The Latest in Colorado Springs
NJ: Yeah. For the YMCA of the Pikes Peak Region, I hate to say it this way, but at our lowest point, we were probably drafting about 50 to 60% of our membership based at the highest. We were close to 16,000 units and dipped significantly down the past few months, we have seen that turn, and for those of you in membership, February is a very hard month to net positive.
That was actually the first month that we netted positive since the pandemic began, so it'd been really about 11 months. Things tend to be going in the right direction now. We still do have some operational restrictions, just in terms of how many people in a space. Colorado is still a mask while you're working out location, but we're definitely turning things in the right direction.
We were able to open our doors mid-June, and then we stayed pretty consistent with just facilities open and then slowly integrated with programs. Then like many other Ys across the country, December came really that Thanksgiving timeframe, and we had to push way back.
At one point, we were only able to have about 10 people in a space. Unfortunately, like many Ys, we have a lot of rooms, but we also have a couple of newer facilities that are a big room, so really trying to be strategic and creative was most critical. My role obviously was different at the time and working really with the healthy living directors and our executive directors to go let's move stuff.
What can we do? Let's look. This is how we're going to be successful with the people that are comfortable, because unlike some of the other quote, unquote gyms out there, we haven't many spaces that we can put equipment in, but yeah, things are definitely starting to come around.
Youth sports are full to the capacity that we can have them at. Childcare is starting to come back around, and like I said, membership is continuing to net in a positive direction. So, really optimistic about where things will go and looking toward the future.
SW: Let's transition into your new role. You were with the Pikes Peak Region Y, but now you're in a new role with the Managed Services Organization, and for those that are not familiar with that organization or the motto, you just give us an overview.
YMCA Managed Services Organization
NJ: Yeah. The MSO or Managed Services Organization was founded by a lot of the CEOs in the Southwest Alliance.
The Southwest Alliance is composed of Ys in Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada. And we've got a little Texas, El Paso area over there. The conversation started amongst the CEOs even before COVID began, obviously that has accelerated a lot of the movement that they've done to be able to get this off the ground because everyone now is even more than ever, especially with reduced staff workforce and so on and so forth, looking at how we can be more effective than efficient.
The work with the MSO really began last year. The Southwest Alliance hired a consulting firm to help us really get this off the ground, because this is a separate entity, a new separate nonprofit that will serve Ys in seven main areas.
Customer transactions, so think your back-office business functions, a lot of what I just thought about it. Human resources, risk, finance, HR, and properties. Really, over the course of this year, the consulting firm is working to build out those areas. Customer transactions and IT were the first two product lines that the governance committee, which is now formed of this certain CEOs in the Alliance, to really kick off.
My role right now, as an official employee, is to build out what that work would look like, so centralizing customer transaction on a larger scale, figure out pricing models for YMCAs based upon a variety of different factors. Then right now, I'm also in the process of building out stats.
This is specifically for my area with customer transactions. We basically developed three core levels of service that Ys can buy into and then additional add-ons. That transactional level is a lot of those repetitive tasks that I mentioned before. It's the foundation that is going to keep your members happy, keep people drafting, and then a lot of the changes and things in the system.
In addition to member communication, I think one of the fundamentals of this transactional level is really data, data quality. The MSO staff will be doing a lot of tasks, no matter what operating system that you're on, that need to be completed in order to ensure that staff memberships do or don't count.
How are you setting up your operating system to count your units correctly? All those different types of things. Then, we have two other levels, managerial and strategic managerial really focuses on that debt collection of things I've been in the movement. As I told you for quite a while, I am just very firm on YMCAs, associations handling their own bad debt.
Even though I will now be a third-party entity, I instill those operational fundamentals that I learned at a center and at multiple associations to ensure that, yes, while we may be calling members for somebody that's on the East coast or the West coast, we really have the YMCAs goals, the mission values, all that in place.
Then really at that strategic level, it is that one-on-one support that Ys may need – on-demand reporting, different things like that. We have a bunch of different add-on areas really focused around financial development.
In many conversations with associations that I'm working with right now, the level that help is needed varies. It could be that it's just kind of your data support, or it could be that, yes, they have a lot of membership add-ons or staff pledges or different things like that, so that is an add-on, in addition to all things related to childcare, so that's resident camps, summer day camp before and out of school time, whatever you might call it.
Then preschool. Once again, that's handling, questions, registration. Many states have third party billing, which can be a bane of a lot of staffs’ existences. Really having us own that piece, being the liaison, and once again, doing those transactional tasks within childcare to ensure that you get your money and people have a good, friendly, pleasant experience with it.
That's just a quick overview of the department, and the process that we're in right now is working with our initial founding member YMCAs to determine a variety of different things. What are their needs in terms of this area? More importantly, talking to them about some initial pricing to see what they can figure out for this year or for the future.
SW: You are a busy lady. Oh, my goodness. For those listening, essentially, the MSO is coming together, like you said, separate entity. If for all of those areas that you mentioned, if they have real needs where maybe they don't have the staff like they used to, or just, they struggle in a certain area, they could reach out to you to the MSO and you could basically come in and help them trait all of those operational procedures and either may do some of the tasks for them, or they could maybe pick some of them up on their own.
The Mission of the MSO
NJ: Yeah, how those conversations are looking at associations right now is really, we start with just a very high-level overview conversation of what I just explained, what the MSO does, then allowing time for them to marinate and go, “Okay, how we are doing these things right now?”
Then, because it is a lot, I'm circling back with the YMCA associations to really talk in greater detail in three big buckets, to learn more. What is going on in development? How does your operating system, no matter what it looks like, what does it look like? Are you utilizing it to its full potential?
Then lastly, in the childcare area, because I think within those three big buckets, that's where Ys need some of the most admin help and support, and then really after that kind of deep dive, going back to the YMCA and presenting, okay, based upon our conversation, this is where I think the MSO could help you.
Then, what the costs look like where we're not fully stood up into it yet. Four Ys right now, at least the four founding Ys that I'm communicating with, I'm really building out a timeline over the course of the next six months, knowing that as many Y things are basically not necessarily year-round going on.
My goal for resident can't help is we really wouldn't start to do work with that until the fall, because that's when we'll begin the registration process for summer 2022 resident camps, so really building that out. The other nice thing about that is I think for Ys that aren't used to spending money on a lot of this centralized or maybe any type of admin work, it can give them time to settle into what those increase in fees would look like.
The other thing is the goal and the mission of the MSO is to increase revenue or decrease costs, so over time, my goal would be that as we build up a staff team and build up the number of associations that we're serving, Ys, maybe initial costs that they provide to the MSO would could actually go down just because we're able to get more done and be more efficient over time.
SW: That makes sense if you're looking at it from a straight business perspective, ROI, if you will, right? Just based on your experience with Pikes Peak and knowing you could actually increase their revenue in a lot of cases, if you're going through their renewal process or whatever it may be, not just a staff efficiency, which is like a little bit harder to calculate in some.
NJ: Yes. Yeah. That's the goal between loss and renewals or any type of memberships that just go away and bad debt, that's an area that I'm confident that we can, to your point, increase revenue or at least offset some of the costs of, so with some of the Ys that I'm talking to right now that maybe, for instance, because it's one of the easiest ones aren't handling their bad debt the most efficiently.
It’s like, okay, what is your collection right now? Start to track that even maybe before we start to provide service for you so that I can really show them to your point what those ROI dollars look like down the road.
SW: So, you're starting with this piece now, which is your main role is customer transactions, but then you mentioned several different major areas, I guess then the MSO will just grow into those other areas as you add staff?
Growing the MSO
NJ: Yeah. We're going through the build out process of the entire MSO right now. It's basically looking at it every quarter in onboarding new product lines for our entity. While I started this role at the end of March, it's probably going to be early to mid-June before I can actually onboard any customers, just because there's so much work in building it out and no different than my area.
Which what is the top priority? It's that transactional level that I think we can get that return on investment and keep our costs down. That would be the model for each of the other areas within HR, what needs to happen right away, risks, certain things like that. It's going to look a lot different 12 months from now than it does in two months.
I think that's the biggest and, honestly, one of the most challenging but exciting things for me is how I onboard customers now is going to look entirely different once I have an actual team with department of one, right?
SW: Now, it is an exciting time. I know that so many Ys, having just gone through such a hard year need so much help.
NJ: In so many different areas in my work with YUSA as a service delivery partner, Y even before that had talked to a variety of different Ys even a call I had this week.
Depending on what they can afford to buy into in terms of customer transactions, I still want to be here and help and support and know. I might not be able to do the work for you, depending on what level they buy into, but here are a few things that you could do different in your operating system, or even outside of that, just different in your day to day operational work within membership to help you get these key critical things done.
I think, over time, as I communicate, not only with Ys that do come onto the MSO, but if it's just a Y that has questions or needs membership, helping support, that's what we're here for over time.
It's growing into how to come up with those breakdowns so Ys can see, okay, you may spend this much money, but actually we're gonna get you back as much as possible or your customer service level, or think of people when they come into the front desk and they may have to spend 20 minutes on a transaction.
Well, if we could dummy that down and they only have to press one button and somebody in the back end takes care of it. That way, your frontline staff can continue to engage with your members at that deeper, meaningful level rather than just, yeah, let's update your billing method. Oh, I'm not really sure I know how to do that, and which credit card is it and all those different types of things. Really taking some of that, once again, transactional work off of your staff or any staff to be able to do what it is that we like to do, build those relationships.
SW: I've tried to see as a silver lining of the pandemic is I think we, as a society, I'm talking broadly, have gotten more used to technology where we probably just, I don’t know, used the manual processes as a crutch, and I'm really hopeful that we actually keep a lot of that. I even think to ordering food from a restaurant or just different things.
It sounds like you've taken full advantage of that technology that's at your disposal and will be doing more.
NJ: Yeah, and I think to your point, we've all experienced it, even you and I, having this conversation via Zoom right now, you guys were always doing it indoc. Before then it was like, do we turn our camera on? Do we not turn it on?
Well, now your camera on, I need to see a human and outside of that, even with different Ys, no, we want to do that. We want to keep it on. It's like, yes, but how effective and efficient are you being with it? I even look at working for a bigger entity now than just for Pikes Peak.
There are certain things that I'm even looking at in terms of automation and staff productivity and different things like that are just going to ensure we can serve more people at a faster rate. It's like, how can we continue to use technology in an individual? The Y might not be able to afford this technology platform, say that we're going to purchase to help automate things or create tickets and different things like that.
Knowing that they're a part of a bigger being, that's how we get the scale of economy and different things like that. But it's for Ys by Ys, and that's a big thing is that it's a fundamental mission of mine in a customer service. You can ask any of the staff at Pikes Peak: What do we do? We figure it out or we make it go away. That's just what we do.
That was even at the, not the association level, but we are here. The MSO will be here specifically in this area to make things easier, whether it's for that parent that's registering for resident camp or summer day camp or that front desk worker, or even the program director. That's the mission of the MSO, but specifically my department as well.
SW: That's so great. I'm so happy to see y'all moving in this direction. You obviously have had a big role at Pikes Peak helping to navigate the pandemic and streamlined so many things I'm taking on a new role with the MSO. How do you stay healthy and happy yourself amidst all of that chaos?
NJ: Honestly, I think, like many people during the pandemic, it was, sometimes you have good days and sometimes you have bad days. I think really for me now transitioning into a 100% remote role, fortunately, we all dip our toe into it over the past year.
I'm trying to personally own my calendar better, and really what does that mean? Okay. If you need more time in between meetings, take it. Don't sit in front of your computer all day. These are all things that everybody knows. It's easier said than done. I think for me, the other thing is saying it out loud, “This is what I'm going to do. I'm going to go and work out in the middle of the afternoon because I'll be in front of my computer for too long.”
The other things now that things are opening back up and you can communicate and be around more people. What does that look like? How am I getting out?
Fortunately, I still do live in the Colorado Springs area, so I'm still personally very much connected with those Pikes Peak people. I think that not only helps me personally, but I'm building a new thing here and I'm not the only expert out there and communicating with colleagues from different associations as well.
Then again, I do live in the beautiful state of Colorado and things have started to melt here, so I know, and I've read many articles on it. It's amazing what a little outdoor time can do for people.
SW: I have a confession. Right before we got on this call, I was working with someone to schedule a meeting for later this week, and she was looking at my calendar, “Do you even have time to breathe?” And I was like, “Yeah, no, I don't.” So, I think that's good.
NJ: Yeah. Yeah. I think the other thing is, and I think it's hard, whether it's for people working right now or since, but they know, yes, I know you looked at my calendar and you saw I had a 30-minute break, but that was for me to be able to get up and get something to eat and clear my eyes or whatever that looks like.
I think it's saying, no, this won't work for me. How about this time? Unless it's really an urgent fire or whatever then, okay, but if it's just, we need to meet to talk about this, maybe it can wait 24 hours.
SW: Yeah, and then you will be in a better space mentally to be able to absorb whatever else.
For those that are interested, we just talked through the MSO is a new thing. How and where can they go to get more information?
Get in Touch with Natalie and the MSO
NJ: Yeah. If anybody is interested, we do have a website up now. It's ymcamso.org. Once again, ymcamso.org. We're still building it out. There's not a terrible amount of information on there, but there are contact forms in case anyone is interested specifically as it relates to customer transactions.
Anyone can reach out to me directly. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org,so pretty easy, but yes, I love to talk to anyone that might be interested, not only in what the MSO can do, but as I mentioned before, I'm always here to help anyone when it comes to best practices within an operating system and membership transaction.
We'd love to connect with anybody as needed there.
SW: Great. As we are wrapping this up, you're taking on a new role. You're seeing the YMCA, I think, evolve in a lot of different ways for those that are maybe experiencing similar situations. Do you have any final words that you would leave them with the biggest things?
NJ: Yes. It's been a challenging year for everyone, not just the YMCA, but I am very hopeful and optimistic about what's to come. I think this is another time period in the Y’s history that we have shown to be resilient and, yes, certain maybe not all Ys, they're going to come out of it, but I think if anything, it proves to all of us how we need to continue to be diverse depending on what happens also then on my current role, I believe this is the way of the future.
We can't do everything, whether you're a small Y or a large Y, a mid-sized Y, we need to be more effective and efficient and we probably need to work more together, but I think this is just one entity and, like I said, I'm hopeful about how we can help Ys. But outside of that, I think the Ys are positioned in a good place.
Now, what do we do? We help people get healthy. We work with kiddos and all that is becoming even more important as we look towards getting to the next level of where we're at in the pandemic.
SW: Thank you. I have envisioned this whole time the YMCA timeline with all of these major events, I could, even if it's not on the timeline officially, we will all remember 2020 as that year, I think in a lot of positive ways where we could see a different trajectory in the types of services that are offered and new models like this, which ends up being really exciting.
NJ: Yeah, for sure. Yeah.
SW: Thank you so much for joining us today. Best wishes on your new endeavor. I look forward to checking in and seeing how it ends up going
NJ: Well, thank you, Saranda, and it's always good to touch base with you. I do appreciate your time.
SW: Thanks so much for listening to the latest episode of the Accelerant. As always, this is about inspiring you, and me. Okay, all of us. Let us know what you've learned, what you want to hear, any other thoughts on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter at Daxko. That's at d-a-x-k-o, or post with #accelerant podcast.
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