Published on 2017/06/30
The EvoLLLution | Leveraging Tech Systems to Drive the Student and Staff Experience
Technologies like CRMs require high levels of customization and training to operate as needed by non-traditional divisions, but once they’re in place the personalization and automation make a massive difference to the student and staff experience.

Delivering a great student experience, buttressed by personalized service and simplified interactions with bureaucracy, is critical for higher education institutions today. And, though always important for non-traditional postsecondary divisions, the experience today’s learners have as customers makes the student experience outside the classroom essential to their retention and continued enrollment over time. Delivering this experience has traditionally relied on superhuman effort and manual work from staff, but new technologies are coming onto the scene to help ease the burden and allow staff to work more closely with students. The question is whether these technologies are truly providing the solution that non-traditional divisions need to serve their learners. In this interview, Jason Smith reflects on the importance of CRMs in improving the student and staff experience in non-traditional divisions and shares his thoughts on some of the gaps that are left even after a successful CRM implementation.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What are a few of the key challenges CRM systems help enrollment managers who serve non-traditional students solve?

Jason Smith (JS): Having worked in enrollment management offices for the past decade, I have had the opportunity to select and implement several CRM systems for both enrollment-specific and campus-wide use. As an enrollment manager, it is my belief that a well designed CRM can vastly improve both the effectiveness and efficiency of an enrollment office and directly affect both the staff and the student experience. In my years of experience, I have worked solely with non-traditional students and, as with any student population, data—clean, actionable data—is the key to fully understanding your student population and providing a seamless experience for those students.

CRM systems provide a way to collect, store and (most importantly), report out on various data points at each stage of the enrollment funnel. Without a CRM, data points are often stored in disparate systems and rarely, if ever, “meet” in a single system that can truly analyze and manipulate the data to offer actionable trends and insights. When a CRM system is implemented in a way that allows these various data points to intersect, the power that comes with that capability is limitless.

In addition to data insights, a CRM system provides an opportunity to automate regular communications that do not require staff “personality.” I am talking about transactional emails, text messages or newsletters on which, without a CRM, staff spend countless hours developing and sending to students. In a recent implementation, staff spent 30 percent less time managing their email and text communications once the CRM went live, thanks to this automation. This allowed the staff to spend that time doing much more important tasks—like calling students who were identified as needing additional support or contacting students who had accepted enrollment but had not yet registered for their course and offering them advising support—adding that personal touch to the enrollment experience.

Evo: Broadly speaking, how else can CRM systems support the management of a non-traditional division?

JS: The opportunities with a CRM system are truly endless if you pick the one that best fits your division’s needs. I have participated in CRM implementations that, along with adding support to the enrollment process, have built custom workflows that allow for faculty recruiting, knowledge base creation, custom professional development contracting and community engagement—for student, staff and faculty use.

In higher education, many think of the CRM as a tool to assist with the recruitment, enrollment and success of the student population; however, the C stands for customer and any constituent or customer of your non-traditional division can be included in that CRM strategy. The key in being successful with this is planning the implementation around the various customers or constituents that you wish to serve. Each one will have a unique need and the process may not be the same for each customer; however, most CRM’s are capable of serving multiple customers in a single instance. If I have learned one thing in my experience implementing CRM systems it is to take the time, at the front end of the process, to truly discover the unique needs of your audiences, customers, constituents—whatever you may feel comfortable calling them. Do not treat them as the same and do not try and force the technology to conform to the way in which something has always been done. This is a fantastic opportunity to rethink everything and build a more efficient and effective process for all.

Evo: What are some of the gaps present in traditional CRMs when it comes to delivering a high-end experience for non-traditional students?

JS: Traditional CRMs, especially those that are directly associated with the higher education landscape, often overlook the unique needs of a non-traditional college or university. I have noticed in recent years that many are beginning to offer more flexible options when implementing the CRM that include, and I hate to say the word, custom development. However, some of this custom development is much more affordable and far less time consuming than it has been in the past.

In my most recent implementation experience, there was very little by way of true gaps —meaning areas where the system simply could not accomplish what we had hoped it could—but there were aspects that simply weren’t included. So that’s to say, rather than identifying minor gaps we were being told, “That’s not part of the “out-of-the-box” solution,” which meant we would need to build it as a custom process. This can certainly get expensive, even though that custom development has become more affordable. This, in my opinion, is certainly a gap. Many institutions need an out-of-the-box solution that will meet their needs without a lot of custom development that increases the overall investment.

Additionally, and this is more of a gap in the overall implementation of the CRM, training has always been a gap in my opinion. I have been part of implementations that have used consultants for assistance and have gone solo in implementing with the CRM partner—in all instances, training has been a huge gap in the process. Not enough time is dedicated to training the staff on the capabilities of the CRM system and how to best incorporate it into their day-to-day routine. Implementing a CRM, especially for an institution that has never had one, is a huge change and staff members have various comfort levels with technology. I would love to see an increase in emphasis on training from the CRM companies themselves to ensure a seamless implementation.

In terms of manual work from staff, the biggest opportunity for improvement that I have seen over the past few years is the de-duplication process of student records. Although there are applications and CRM systems that have de-duplication software available, it is not yet sophisticated enough to notice small variations and often requires staff to manage these instances to determine whether the records are truly the same. If a CRM system can figure out this issue, it would be a huge win for enrollment staff.

Evo: Looking long-term, how can leveraging systems designed to improve communication and the student experience across their lifecycle impact a non-traditional division’s bottom line?

JS: Simply put, it is in any institution’s best interest to retain the students they recruit and enroll, and an improved communication and student experience has a direct impact on whether a student persists in an academic program. By taking the time and resources to develop a seamless recruitment and enrollment process—and carrying that into the student experience—institutions can directly influence their bottom line by improving their retention rates.

I have seen retention rates increase over 5 percent after implementing a CRM system and designing a fantastic communication and student experience from inquiry to matriculation. Additionally, from the staff perspective, in all of my CRM implementation experience, staff—although frustrated at times with change and the pitfalls that come with any technology implementation—are always happier with the quality of their work and the process in which they do that work after the implementation is complete. Staff member have more opportunities to connect on a more personal level with the students and other staff, and the faculty in which they work, and with that comes the employee satisfaction and overall employee retention. This also influences the bottom line.

Additionally, implementing technologies like a CRM system automates routine activity, which enables an institution to harness the technology to accomplish tasks that they may have previously hired a temporary worker or student worker to accomplish. By using technology to do this work, it lessens the need for these additional employees or enables the institution to assign them to work that more directly improves the student experience and thus the institutions bottom line.

Download this Primer to learn how a Customer Lifecycle Management system can help you get the most of your CRM

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Key Takeaways

  • Investing in technologies like a CRM system that support a high-touch/high-tech environment, helps institutional staff re-allocate time to more critical and personalized work.
  • One key benefit of bringing in a new technology is the opportunity to rethink workflows and processes, shaping them to what the technology offers rather than forcing the tool to adjust to the institution’s embedded status quo.
  • Adapting and customizing a CRM to fulfill all the unique demands and requirements of managing a non-traditional division can be time-consuming and expensive, while still leaving gaps in the process.
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