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The Value of Customer Relationship Management in Non-Traditional Higher Education (Part 1)

The Value of Customer Relationship Management in Non-Traditional Higher Education (Part 1)
As higher education students begin behaving more like customers, institutions must use customer relationship management as a strategy to promote enrollment and retention.

Education within non-traditional programs has become a commodity. Articles in this forum and elsewhere have described this phenomenon and you have experienced its impact on your campus. Adult students no longer seek out a degree based mostly on its potential to meet learning or career objectives. Instead, students look for the best value, using the same shopping criteria they might apply to purchasing a car. This includes an almost retail-like service expectation.

Commoditization has opened the door for colleges and universities to look more closely at how businesses operate and to apply business principles to the delivery of student services. One method gaining consideration is customer relationship management, or CRM. The concept is intended to focus attention on forming an ongoing relationship with the goal of increasing sales to existing customers.

The highly competitive business environment in the higher education space has driven interest in CRM, which can create efficiencies and control costs. In addition, the battlefront for customers has moved from the initial sale to retention, as businesses recognize it’s cheaper to keep a customer than it is to create a new one. For many businesses — the cell phone industry is a good example — price pressures combine with intense competition to put the focus on providing improved customer service and selling add-on features. Consider how the cell phone has evolved and the elements now available in the palm of your hand; each at a small cost but, incrementally, they add up to tremendous revenue for the carriers. While gaining customers is important, there is a critical shift in focus to enhancing existing relationships.

Now consider education in light of the value-added expectations of the adult student. Program selection is often based on a combination of factors including cost, location, length of program and, most importantly, ease of doing business. In education, the “C” in CRM is usually changed to client or constituent. These terms highlight an institutional focus versus the purely product or service orientation normally found in business. Technically, CRM refers to a tool (software) and a process (the tasks aligned to maintain the client relationship) and should be considered as a package.

Out of CRM comes “life cycle management,” again, intended to drive processes and behavior in a way that retains a customer for as long as possible. This concept is easily applied to traditional education, where the life cycle begins at recruitment and moves through the undergraduate experience, graduate program and into alumni status, with the intention the cycle is repeated via alumni progeny or other referrals to the institution.

The life cycle of the adult student is a little harder to define. Much of what goes into creating a relationship is unavailable to the adult student. Think in terms of student life; living in a dorm, attending sporting events or engaging in campus projects and activities. If nothing else, the life cycle is much shorter. The life cycle milestones of a non-traditional student might include initial enrollment, matriculating into the “next” program, gaining referrals and expanding the positive reputation of the institution through word-of-mouth. Thus, the relationship must be created quickly, maintained closely and maximized in a relatively short period of time.

Administrators know from experience what it takes to move a traditional student through the events that define a college career. For the adult student, the CRM delivery cycle might include the institution’s knowledge/anticipation of needs, the creation of a single contact point for accessing services and a program design that blends academic rigor with the value proposition alluded to earlier.

What is CRM?

It’s managing the student life cycle as effectively as possible. Businesses have created the one-stop shop to manage customer expectations. Instead of basic customer service, where only the single question or concern is addressed, the one-stop shop method never fails to solve the current problem without attempting to add service or features to the existing customer portfolio. Implicit in this approach is developing and maintaining a relationship.

In education, a one-stop shop should include the availability of an admissions counselor, financial aid officer, a registrar representative and an academic adviser — all in one location. Appointments should be managed to ensure a student can accomplish as much as possible in a single visit. This concept has implications for staffing, systems support and even office layout. Adult students often prefer face-to-face contact while moving through the enrollment process. There is, however, a growing expectation much of the service required by a prospective student is also available online. One way to incorporate online and on-ground service is to have the online portion focus on pre-enrollment activities while on-ground efforts address admissions and advising. However, a mature CRM process can help implement fully online programs. In these instances, the single location becomes virtual; an online storefront.

Academics are still important. Program quality and integrity will pay off in the long run as students benefit via employment and personal development and share their success stories with others. CRM does not mean an abandonment of institutional objectives or values. The implication is for how we deliver the service and the programs. The challenge is in maintaining academic standards and requirements while expanding our client-centric perspective. CRM becomes a blend of people, tasks and methods.

CRM began as a software solution that mimics and supports the “people” process. Good CRM will encompass, at a minimum, the following components:

  • Marketing
  • Student inquiries
  • Admissions
  • Enrollment
  • Advising
  • Registration
  • Academic achievement

This was the first installment of Kevin Mokhtarian’s two-part series. To read the conclusion, please click here.

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