Transforming Enrollment and Lifecycle Management with the Cloud
Students today expect a customer-centric experience that is highly personalized and relevant. They also expect their institutions to provide them a great deal of convenience when it comes to performing tasks and obtaining critical information. Today’s more innovative enrollment management teams also realize that, given the tendency for professionals to continue to enroll in postsecondary programs for continuing education and development, their engagement with learners does not end when they enroll for the first time. In this interview, Brian Murphy Clinton sheds a light on the work Northeastern University is doing to create a great student experience through engagement and shares some insights into how cloud-hosted tools and services are supporting them.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): What are a few of the most significant benefits of managing enrollment and CRM processes through cloud tools?
Brian Murphy Clinton (BMC): Cloud-hosted CRM really provides greater flexibility to everything from the staffing models that we deploy within the unit to our ability to be nimble with other technologies that may integrate with tools we already have in place.
The biggest advantage for me is the flexibility we gain in terms of staffing—where staff are physically located as well as when work gets done. Gone are the days of the 9-5 type of workplace atmosphere in higher education, especially for institutions and units that serve the adult, professional and online audiences. Our students are always on; as such, software and platforms that are central to our enrollment efforts must be in an environment where we can access them anywhere, anytime, ultimately allowing us a great deal of flexibility in terms of hiring and in terms of allowing staff to work remotely.
Additionally, this is important in terms of a disaster recovery standpoint. Here in Boston, we had a historic winter—from a snowstorm perspective—in 2015 that led to more days of main campus closure than I can remember in 15 years. But in every one of those storms, my team did not have a snow day—we were totally operational. We engaged in lead nurturing, we took inbound calls and we processed applications. We enabled ourselves with a robust and impressive disaster recovery plan by having software that could be accessed everywhere without needing to have hardware on-site. At the end of the day, this enabled us to provide exceptional customer service to prospective and current students.
Finally, leveraging cloud-based tools helps us be nimble in onboarding contractor or temporary staff to enhance our efforts—whether that’s in terms of technology builds or recruitment efforts. Being able to train contractor or temp staff up on cloud-hosted software rather than on hardware-based systems allows us to find talent from literally anywhere in the world. This is hugely important.
Evo: Your team is currently in the process of merging two massive CRM instances together. How will this single instance improve Northeastern’s capacity to effectively engage with its current and prospective students?
BMC: We are in the stages of merging two significant enterprise instances of Salesforce on campus into a single instance that is going to open up a range of new opportunities for us.
First, it’s going to allow us to connect data in a much more meaningful way for staff and administration. In the past, we would have had to do a great deal of data manipulation and a number of extracts from one system to the other to allow us to really understand the experience of a given student or subset of students. Much of that data will now all be housed in one system and we will be able to analyze and manipulate that data in a whole new way. This will allow us to know more about our students, which allows us to engage with them in more meaningful ways and provide more customized and personalized service. The idea of personalization and customization can’t be done without really knowing who your students are; data serves as the foundation of our ability to move forward and serve our students in an effective way.
The single instance will also make a significant difference from a communications standpoint. Currently, in one of our instances of Salesforce, we have a really robust marketing automation tool sitting on top that allows us to provide a very rich communication environment for prospective students and applicants. But our current students sit in another version of Salesforce that doesn’t have that robust communication tool, so the communications experience we’re providing to our current students is not as robust. By merging these orgs into a single instance, we’re able to leverage a lot of the customizations we’ve made to each tool and provide a consistent look and feel to our communications. Achieving this becomes the outward illustration that, internally, we’re aligned and organized and focused on each individual student experience. We’re speaking with the student the same way from day one across their entire lifecycle and we’re providing the student a great deal of comfort and security as they understand we value them. It makes sure they understand they’re more than just a number. We’re now at a position with this new single environment where we can leverage a consistent and robust communication tool and provide customized messages to the students. That will provide a rich and engaging experience for them.
It also provides us the opportunity to take advantage of the cloud-based aspects of the tool by thinking in a much more rich and robust way about what kinds of additional applications and customizations we want to allow students to engage directly in that environment. For example, they will be able to create social media-style communities where students can tap into the system we’re currently leveraging and build communities both with the administration and other students. The communities can even extend all the way from prospective students to alumni, and that’s extremely important to us. We highlight the power of the network Northeastern can bring, so to provide more opportunities to connect somebody who is considering Northeastern with an alumnus of that program or maybe even a corporate partner is very exciting. It’s a powerful way for us to amplify the alumni voice, the corporate partner voice or the student voice and does a great deal of the recruiting and brand building that we want. It also takes some of the pressure off our internal team as we are letting the strength of the network speak for itself.
At the end of the day, the single environment creates the foundation for us to grow and provide the best experience to those who matter the most to us—our students.
Evo: Did you have a Eureka moment that made you realize that these two systems needed to come together?
BMC: Joining the two environments has been discussed for a long time. I can remember a few years ago when we made the decision to build out a second instance of Salesforce, it was a very purposeful decision at the time but we considered bringing it together as a single instance. We elected not to at the time for a number of reasons.
For me, the Eureka moment came as we started to expand the second instance of Salesforce that we developed, which at the time was only developed for one college on campus. As soon as we started to take in student and application data across other colleges at the institution, it started to become an enterprise system in and of itself. That was the moment I really got behind the initiative to bring the two systems together and say, “We can’t go on operating two enterprise versions of this. We’ve got to find a better way of facilitating and managing the overall lifecycle.”
Evo: What impact does a consistent engagement experience across the institution have on the student experience overall?
BMC: There are those of us that really feel the more activities that we can manage within this CRM environment—or even the more data points that we can bring into the environment—the more we know about a particular student. This allows us to provide the best experience possible.
You can have a really robust set of services across a campus, but if we don’t know anything about the financial aid experience for students and they’re having a bad experience, we’re unable to respond effectively to that student’s concerns. We want to be able to pull in that kind of information and then allow us to customize and personalize the messaging that we send out to students that lets them know they’re valued and that we are a connected university despite being administratively very big and dispersed across a big footprint.
At the end of the day, the student or the alumnus or the prospective student can feel that there’s integration and communication within the institution about their unique situation or activities. This makes students feel that they have received a really solid experience and that’s ultimately what we want to provide.
Evo: How can cloud-hosted tools help universities serve students across their entire lifecycle, from inquiry to alumni to re-enrollment and beyond, in comparison to what’s possible from a tool hosted on-premises?
BMC: In many ways, it goes to the flexibility I mentioned earlier. We have staff now located in numerous parts of the country and across the world representing different Northeastern offices. For them to be operating in disparate systems and trying to do their work would be crazy. Where we’re going now, we want them all operating in the same system so they can be highly attuned to what’s going on. Even if, on the surface, you don’t think that the work of an admissions officer could impact what’s happening on the development or advancement side of the house, there are a number of synergies that could be created that would be facilitated by the cloud.
For example, if there’s a particular corporate partner that may be working with us, knowing the number of applicants that might be coming from that particular company, or the number of graduate students who we have enrolling from that particular company, is a huge data point. Enabling our staff to be operating in a shared system that has the appropriate level of access—we’re not giving every single person on campus access to every single data point—facilitates collaboration and allows us to make our staff members’ lives easier and provide a better experience for the constituents they’re trying to serve.
Shifting to the cloud allows us to focus less of our energies on maintenance, desktop support and fixing hardware. It allows us to innovate and focus on the next application that we want to add on to the system, ultimately with the goal of providing a better experience for our students.
Author Perspective: Administrator