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CRM Pushing into New Areas of Higher Ed

Implementing a customer relationship management (CRM) solution can require "difficult or even painful behavioral challenges" for administrators in higher education, according to Nicole Engelbert, a lead analyst with research and analysis firm Datamonitor. "It means re-orienting yourself to your students. That can be tough, so you need to be ready for that."

As a class of software, CRM solutions help automate processes. In higher education, that often means automating recruiting steps like generating and coordinating letters, calls and e-mails, tracking marketing efforts, and collecting customer service information. But more innovative uses of CRM are ahead, Engelbert says.

According to a recent survey by Datamonitor, only a third of colleges and universities have any sort of CRM solution in place. As the number of high school graduates continues to drop, however, increased competition for students will drive more CRM adoption. Datamonitor predicts a steep CRM adoption rate in higher education over the next six to 24 months.

Engelbert's research has focused on how education institutions use mission-critical applications such as enterprise resource planning (ERP) and CRM solutions, among other tools and technologies. We recently spoke with her about the growing role of what she prefers to call "constituent relationship management" software in education, especially its push into new areas of higher ed, such as student retention.

Campus Technology: How are CRM tools currently being used in higher education?

Nicole Engelbert: Higher education has a history with CRM, but it's been more or less limited to the admissions office... and to areas such as campaign management, where it's used in contacting prospective students and alumni... In more recent times, CRM has migrated to the middle of the student lifecycle, into areas like the IT help desk.

What's new--and where thought leaders in this space have started applying CRM applications--is retention efforts. This is really exciting for higher education; this is the core for higher ed. Admissions is at the front of the campus gates, development is beyond the campus gates, but retention really is in the middle...

Institutions are starting to pull information from their student information systems, from their ERP systems, their learning management systems--to create this 360-degree view of the student experience, and to use this to manage relationships with students over a longer period of time. [It's being done] in an effort to keep them connected to the institution, and to ensure that they have a productive experience on campus.

CT: How new is this use of CRM you've just described, in which it's used for long-term student relationship management?

Engelbert: In the for-profit sector [of higher education], I would say the last five years or so. Formalized retention programs are the sine qua non in this sector because tuition is the main revenue source and business model for these institutions.  But the traditional, non-profit institutions are catching on, as the competition to recruit and retain has become more intense in recent years. That's been happening in the last eighteen months to two years.
At this point, the majority of institutions are not using CRM for this purpose, but are starting to understand that it's something they need to be implementing.

CT: Is CRM an area of technology where higher education is behind the private sector?

Engelbert: Absolutely, higher education has lagged behind the private sector. Where education is now with CRM is parallel to the concept of sales force automation, which occurred, oh, 10 years ago [in the private sector]. Whereas now, higher education is starting to move into student retention, and that gets into customer satisfaction and customer retention, and that's where the corporate sector already is.

CT: In fact, the whole concept of referring to a student as a customer is a different idea for schools.

Engelbert: Right. In fact, I like to use the term "constituent" in the higher education market. I think it's a bit more appropriate, and a larger umbrella. For example, where do parents fit into the [CRM] equation? Where do faculty fit? Where do alumni or potential student employers fit in? The term "customer" is a bit narrow for higher education.

CT: In terms of getting a CRM system in place, where's the best place to start?

Engelbert: It really depends on the institution, in terms of where they see the greatest immediate need, as well as their readiness for this step.

[Implementing a CRM solution] can mean some difficult or even painful behavioral challenges. It means re-orienting yourself to your students. That can be tough, so you need to be ready for that... You need to figure out where the greatest need is, who is ready, and if there's someone who is ready to take this on and be a champion.

CT: And this champion isn't necessarily someone on the technology side, right?

Engelbert: Right. It needs to be someone with a line-of-business or departmental position. It might be the director of admissions, or an associate dean in student services. You certainly need to have that [technology] person on board, but they're not the ones who focus on student relationships. [A CRM initiative] really needs to come from people in the field, on the ground, who are engaging with students on a day-by-day basis.

CT: You said earlier that starting up a CRM system can mean "painful behavioral challenges"--can you describe what sorts of changes you're referring to?

Engelbert: If it's done well and it's done right, it starts with moving some routine inquiries so that the information is readily available. [For example], "When is that organic chemistry course offered?" or "How do I get a transcript sent?" or "How to I make a donation to the annual fund?" Those types of routine interactions can become almost completely automated using CRM.

That shifts individuals from handing commonplace interactions, toward more complex ones, the 10 or 20 percent of interactions that are special--a student with a complicated financial situation, say. That's where individuals at the institution are now going to be focused. And that can be a real shift; how your time is spent as a representative of the institution shifts. You become a subject matter expert.

It requires individuals to understand more comprehensively how problems are solved within their institutions. A good relationship management strategy won't be able tolerate individuals who say, that's not my area, or that's not my problem. That doesn't work for relationship management.

It's going to mean breaking out of your departmental silo and seeing the whole institution. Because quite frankly, the level of satisfaction of your students isn't going to be partitioned off into, "I'm not happy with financial aid, but I still love my institution." Students tend to see their institutions as a whole... so departments need to see themselves as contributing to overall student satisfaction.

In Part 2 of this interview Engelbert gives tips on selecting a CRM tool, and talks about one university that is setting the standard for student relationship management.

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