Published on 2017/06/29
The EvoLLLution | Where Technology Goes, So Too Must Culture
While CRM systems are effective mechanisma to drive improved student engagement, administrators and staff must recognize them as tools whose implementation must be accompanied by a broader culture shift toward relationship building.

The shift to a student-centric institutional culture shows many different forms, from changes in curriculum design to shifts in service availability to the improved leveraging of data. From the perspective of students, one major tell that an institution has transitioned to a greater level of student centricity is in the personalization of communications and outreach, and CRMs have a massive role to play here. But the implementation of a tool does not a culture create. In this interview, Heather Chakiris reflects on the benefits CRMs bring to the table when it comes to delivering a personalized experience to learners and shares her thoughts on how the implementation of a CRM system must be accompanied by a broader culture shift to be truly effective.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): When it comes to attracting and serving non-traditional students, how can an effective CRM make life easier for administrators and staff?

Heather Chakiris (HC): A Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system can improve recruitment and engagement for all students. In my opinion, there is a growing danger in referring to college students as either “traditional” or “non-traditional.” The students typically referred to as “non-traditional” are fast becoming the new majority on college campuses, as rising tuition costs require more and more college students to work at least part-time in order to afford higher education. Categorizing this important population as “non-traditional” reinforces an otherness—a sense of “you don’t belong here”—that only serves to make these learners feel like they have failed before they even got started. Time to change that!

When implemented fully, a CRM can enable personalized, automated communications, track the history of those communications, anticipate what communications a student may need based on their behaviors, and provide a complete 360° view of a student from prospect to alumnus. It is also possible to implement only part of a CRM system—for example, I have seen CRM systems implemented in marketing and/or admissions offices for student recruitment and conversion, but only as a method of automating communications. In other cases, I have seen CRM systems integrated with contact center solutions and student information systems—and even predictive data systems—to identify segments, forecast student actions, and assist in developing the lifetime value of each student. These are all key to delivering a completely personalized experienced for each student from lead generation to graduation—and beyond.

One question I have heard raised frequently at the beginning of various CRM implementations—and it is a valid one—has been, “What about privacy?” CRM’s are typically role-based. The information housed in the system is not open for everyone to access freely. It is possible, for example, to set up permissions so that the marketing team can see info for prospective students, but then once the student applies only the admissions team can see the full profile, then once the student matriculates and enrolls only the academic advisers can see the full profile, and so on. This is a very broad example, but you get the general idea. The key, which I have touched on below, is that, prior to implementation, all stakeholders should partner together on what the complete experience will be for students being served by the CRM. It is a big mistake if each stakeholder group develops their workflows in a vacuum. To do so runs the risk of having a student experience frequent touch points as a prospective student, few to no touch points as an applicant, frequent touch points if they are a business student, no touch points if they are an education student, and almost daily touch points as an alumnus. Students should not be held hostage by internal institutional politics and silos. As far as they are concerned, they signed on to one institution. One brand promise. It’s the institution’s responsibility to honor that promise.

Evo: What does it take to set up a CRM system to serve its unique role in a higher education organization? 

HC: The first and most important point to make is that a CRM system is simply a technology tool. If an institution implements the tool without also creating a CRM culture—from the executive suite to the front-line service teams—the opportunity for true impact is lost. A great place to start is by mapping the current student experience from the student’s perspective. Too often, higher education institutions make the mistake of thinking they know what is best for students—and certainly, in some cases they do; for example, pedagogically. From a service and an experience perspective, however, the institutions who get this right are the institutions that take the time to map the experience from the students’ perspective qualitatively and quantitatively. Where are students saying they are falling through the cracks? Where is the institution not honoring its brand promise? What is the student experience like seeking help via e-mail, phone and web? Be open to learning your weaknesses. This is the most exciting part! Having this knowledge can help the institution to determine the desired future state, which is critical in informing the CRM implementation.

Second, what is the organization’s Strategic Enrollment Management plan? From prospective student through alumnus, are your students having a consistent experience from recruitment to conversion, matriculation to retention, completion to alumni status? Who are the owners of the different phases? Are they working together to ensure a consistent experience from start to finish or is the experience changing each time the student enters a new phase? What policies and processes need to change to enable this future state to happen? Whose buy-in is required? What will success look like after implementation? Start with the end goal in sight and work back.

Next, the entire process of selection and implementation must be cross-departmental and collaborative in nature—genuinely cross-departmental and collaborative, with all parties committed to mutual wins. Identify a project owner—ideally the person responsible for Strategic Enrollment Management—but also ensure stakeholders are at the table helping to develop user requirements, workflows, and a plan for implementation. The stakeholders must be empowered to make decisions on behalf of the units they’re representing, so—with something as important as a CRM implementation—identify your most engaged people, not your most available people. Move lower-priority projects off their plates in order to allow them the capacity to focus on the implementation.

In a small continuing education environment, an ideal structure might comprise one representative from marketing strategy, web services, admissions and/or advising, enrollment, internal IT, and program planning. Larger organizations might want to include a career services representative and/or alumni affairs, student technical support, etc. Be inclusive, but keep the team small and nimble. No more than eight to ten people. There can always be smaller subgroups created later to complete specific parts of the implementation.

Evo: Where are the limits of a traditional CRM in serving non-traditional and non-credit students?

HC: If there are limits, it is not because of the category of students served. As mentioned earlier, there is no reason to differentiate students as traditional or non-traditional, credit or non-credit. They are all individuals with expectations and goals. Just as email might no longer be the best way to communicate with a 20-year-old on-campus student, it might also not be the best way to communicate with a busy 35-year-old registered nurse. This is where the importance of the experience mapping comes in. How do your students want you to communicate with them? Today’s CRM systems are typically pretty dynamic in tracking diverse communication methods, including SMS (text).

The limits of a CRM system are typically placed by the institution or by the system itself. Factors impacting how a CRM can be implemented might include how and where institutional data is stored, whether the other systems that need to “talk to” the new CRM have open APIs, whether the server architecture is robust enough to seamlessly facilitate data updates in real time or (at longest) daily, the cost of partial vs. full implementation, and so on. A CRM has the potential to help to build affinity between student and institution whether a student attends part time or full time, is undergraduate, graduate, or non-degree, or takes credit or non-credit courses.

Evo: How could CRM systems evolve or change to better allow colleges and universities to serve their non-traditional audiences?

HC: My first piece of advice applies to CRMs in general and not specifically to a student audience. The CRM system must be easy to use. If the UI/UX is poor—if it is not intuitive for staff members—system adoption will not happen. If the system is not stable—if it crashes, fails to support attachments, delays delivery or sending of communications—system adoption will not happen. The mapping exercise that can show where a student is falling through the cracks is also going to show where an institution’s internal infrastructure is failing. As important as it is to have a solid understanding of the student experience, it is equally important to understand the staff experience. They are customers, too.

Second, the more efficiency the CRM system creates—the more seamless the interactions—the better. Does it integrate with calendars so that student appointments, events, etc., can be scheduled via the CRM and appear on both the student’s and staff member’s calendars? Does the CRM have a mobile platform? An app? With what office applications does the CRM integrate out of the box?

Finally, I’d like to end at the beginning. A CRM is only a tool. If an institution invests in a CRM system but uses it only to conduct transactions with students, there are likely a lot less expensive ways to do that. To realize the true benefit of a CRM system, however, an institution must first devote time and energy to developing an internal culture of relationship building with students, regardless of age or life circumstances. Welcome student praise, but welcome their critical feedback even more. Be vulnerable. Show responsiveness.

If there is one thing an institution of higher education can leave its students with when they complete their academic journey, it is the feeling that the institution invested as much in the student as the student invested in the institution. A CRM culture and system can be a great first step in getting there.

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

  • While a CRM can greatly improve the level of personalized service a division can deliver, its success is contingent on an accompanying culture change that includes a willingness to update workflows and processes and an openness to relationship building.
  • The limits of a CRM are usually defined during implementation, and can include integration into other tools and server capacity.
  • It’s critical for CRMs to have a strong UI/UX that supports a great staff experience and to be a feature in a seamless management infrastructure that supports efficiency and effectiveness.
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