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Alumni Relations

Managing the Student for Life

Higher ed institutions are using CRM tools to move students through the entire campus lifecycle—from recruitment and retention to alumni outreach and beyond.

Ever since the first customer relationship management (CRM) tools found their way onto North American campuses around 2002, higher ed administrators have cringed at the mention of the word “customer,” preferring to substitute “constituent” for the more sales-driven term. Yet, with competition for qualified candidates heating up over the past decade and the recent economic downturn decimating recruiting budgets, nomenclature has come to matter a good deal less than fresh intelligence and the ability to attract top-level prospects.

The same has been true as student services professionals more recently turned to CRM systems to help them with student lifecycle management—the art of monitoring and retaining students as they progress through their college years. With timely data and feedback, administrators are better able to deliver the type of campus experience that holds onto their students, keeps them engaged with their college, and sends them out into the world championing their alma mater.

Yet why should administrators end student lifecycle management at graduation? Why lose the campus-student connection as graduates move out into the world, allowing the institution’s foremost “friends” to disengage until the annual pledge drive? Some tech-savvy advancement professionals have taken the question one step further: Why not use the same CRM tools that manage current students to reach out to them after they leave? Why not broaden student lifecycle management to include alumni relations?

Joanne Murray is one of those forward-thinking advancement officers. Two years ago, when Murray, assistant dean for graduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication, was tasked with implementing a new central admissions system as part of her overall responsibility for “everything from recruitment through student services,” she knew she wanted a system that could integrate student services data and functions, as well as those for alumni outreach.

“You build relationships from recruiting through student services and beyond, so it seemed strange not to continue on through alumni relations,” she says. “We’d had three disparate systems throughout the school, and here I was building the tools for recruitment, so I thought: Why not go crazy and put all our eggs in one basket?”

A Comprehensive Lifecycle

Murray is one of a growing number of higher education administrators who believe that what colleges and universities ordinarily consider the three main constituent lifecycles— admissions, student services, and alumni—actually constitute a single, comprehensive lifecycle. And, increasingly, these officers are seeing that CRM tools—often already in place at the institution—can help manage all phases of that cycle.

According to Paul Greenberg, author of the CRM industry bible, CRM at the Speed of Light: Essential Customer Strategies for the 21st Century (2004, McGraw-Hill), the lack of CRM penetration on US campuses is not solely due to administrators’ lack of awareness about the tools. It’s also due to CRM vendors’ reticence to work with the higher ed sector which, historically, they’ve seen as slow-paying. But, says Greenberg, these vendors have begun to scrutinize the Big Three (government, healthcare, and education) for new revenue streams, even before the economic downturn. Now, with corporate America in a stall and campuses under-penetrated, the higher ed market is primed. Greenberg predicts that the higher ed vertical will see a real uptick in CRM installations in 2010, and the alumni relations area will be a major focus.

“Schools need money whether there’s a recession or not,” he asserts, pointing to the “enormous sums some university fundraising machines” are generating. What’s more, he adds, in this economy, critical components of schools’ CRM strategies will revolve around both cost (of engaging students and alumni, historically through print and direct mail) and constituents’ newfound desire for ongoing engagement (through social channels, customized contact, affinity groups, and so forth).

It’s the student-for-life approach, he maintains. “The question today is how to keep the lifecycle going from candidate to student to alumni to children of alumni.”

Finding the Right System

In Annenberg’s case, fundraising was not a prime objective, as the school is fully endowed. Nonetheless, one of Murray’s boss’s strategic goals was to make sure that students who had graduated didn’t get lost. Even if Annenberg alums are not being contacted for direct financial support of the school, their involvement is critical to the success of the program. Explains Murray: “Penn students and potential Penn students hear about a program through advisers and recruiting e-mails, but they also hear about it through alumni. We need the alumni connection to help us build a solid community of incoming students.”

So Murray had her dean’s full support when she opted not to go with one of the several CRM systems already in use (primarily for admissions) in various campus programs, and instead went shopping for a package with which she could build her own system to handle the entire student lifecycle, including graduated students. Though the Annenberg program has only 88 matriculated grad students, throughout the entire lifecycle there are currently up to 20,000 prospective students, 1,000 applications in the system, 2,700 undergraduate majors, and 1,000 grad alumni.

“Our people would be lost in a big enterprise system, but with this system I could create our own fields andprocesses to build our own lifecycle,”says Murray. The school may have fewerindividuals to track than would a largeuniversity, but, “the number of fields Imaintain is huge,” she maintains. Murraysays she ultimately chose the IntelliworksCRM system because it offered her theflexibility and the customization optionsshe needed. With it, she says, “I can gettremendous depth of data; I can be bigwhen I need to be, or small and refined.”


LAST FALL, WITH THE GOAL to improve service to students, faculty, and staff, and to provide greater reliability university-wide, Mercer University (GA) embarked on an 18-month ERP migration to the Campus Management One Campus Ecosystem. First on the project list: launching the vendor’s Talisma CRM system in the advancement office. Previously, no such CRM system existed anywhere on campus, so, according to university CTO Michael Belote, it was a “no-brainer” to take advantage of Mercer’s strategic ERP plan and get CRM going for the campus fundraisers. CRM for the admissions office will follow the advancement launch, this spring.

“Our primary motives were to provision advanced tools and capabilities to increase efficiencies around alumni outreach and fundraising initiatives,” explains Belote. “Strategically speaking, more effective and better-managed campaigns through CRM—regardless of type or function—will improve our success rates and increase efficiency while reducing overhead.” Specifically, he says, because of the better alumni intelligence afforded by the system, the university expects to achieve significant benefits with regard to more effective campaign design and management. The new system will enable much more “personalized” communication with constituents.

While Mercer’s advancement team is reaping early benefits from the new Campus Management ERP system, the university’s overall goal is to integrate and streamline its business processes, and make them more consistent across all departments. Says Belote, “Leveraging the capabilities of a single suite of advanced tools, as opposed to a unique toolset for each functional area [such as admissions, advancement, HR, or other business areas], will allow us to be more proficient and effective.” One key benefit of the new tools: Staffers are able to do much more without increasing headcount, and they don’t have to rely on a programmer or business analyst to assist them with routine requests, he notes. “This will allow the IT staff to spend more time building enhancements and integration with other systems.”

At Mercer, the CRM advancement rollout is so new results are yet to come, but Belote says that he and the faculty and staff are “very excited” about the new capabilities and the potential for further enhancements and integration with other systems across the campus. To put it simply, says the CTO: “It opens up a world of additional possibilities.”

Benefits and Outcomes

Murray has mined the depths of her new CRM system to discover innumerable benefits for managing alumni relations:

Just-in-time delivery. The new CRM system keeps alumni really up-to-date about what’s going on at their alma mater. “It used to take us weeks to get printed information out to the alums,” Murray notes. “But this year, when Mrs. Annenberg passed away, we were able to get that information out in a matter of hours.” As a result, Annenberg is getting “a lot of qualitative feedback from alums,” she reports. “They’re saying, ‘Wow! I love finding out what’s going on. Please keep sending the e-mail!’”

Tailored messages. With the new system (which rides on top of the university’s central e-mail system), Murray and her colleagues can get a very clear picture of precisely which kind of information most appeals to alumni recipients, and quickly tailor e-mail blasts and newsletters to those interests. “Recipients click on certain links in the e-mails and newsletters, and we get the intelligence to see where our readership is going, and to continually refine our message.” That’s not only a refining to the entire alumni base, but to individuals as well. “Our alums are not getting pestered by too much information that has no appeal for them. [This system] makes us look as if we know what we’re doing and we know our people.”

Alumni coding. How many alums are in corporate, academic, or industry positions? How many are in San Francisco? New York? Murray can code them all. “I can slice and dice the data and let a dean know, for example, how many corporate media people in San Francisco might come to a speech he plans to give there.”

Targeted event promotion. The new CRM system soon will help Murray’s office plan and manage many more alumni events—one of the prime modes of engaging those who have graduated, and keeping them involved the school— than have been offered in the past. With the data provided by the new system, her office will know which types of events will draw, and which may not. “Why should we struggle to find new [event management] software when we have the system already in place to deliver this type of intelligence?” she asks.

Individualized relationships. “I have the information on each individual’s record,” Murray reports. “If an alum phones me, I can look up his record immediately, and know exactly what he might be calling me about. People can be angry when they or candidates they’ve referred are turned down, and I want to know about that situation even before I pick up the phone.” And it’s not just about her comfort in handling a particular circumstance, she maintains. It’s experience into a mutually beneficial one. “If I can explain the details of the rejection in the proper light, maybe that candidate will come back and apply again.”

Reduced Costs

For Murray, the icing on the CRM approach to alumni management is her reduced technical-support costs—all because IT didn’t have to construct a system that she could build all by herself. “IT used to spend 30 to 40 hours a year uploading, downloading, and moving data around for us; now it’s about a half hour annually.” To upload her data to any other system on campus (including other CRM systems used for admissions), Murray just sends the university an Excel spreadsheet once a year; downloading and importing data into her own system twice a year are just as simple.


Who plays in the higher ed CRM space? Check out this sampling of constituent relationship management vendors and their products: Campus Management Talisma CRM: -
Datatel Enterprise CRM: -
Intelliworks: -
Oracle PeopleSoft Enterprise CRM: -
RightNow CX: - -
StudentForce: -
SugarCRM: -
SunGard Higher Education Banner Enrollment Management Suite: -

Across the lifecycle, other costs have come down as well. Murray had predicted from the outset that the savings would offset the expense of deploying the system: “We’ve ramped up services without spending on any additional staffing. We don’t do nearly as many print brochures, and our admissions people don’t have to travel as much for recruitment.” She adds that, because it costs the school money to admit each student, the improvement in service to student prospects and to alumni recommending candidates actually saves dollars. By continually finding new uses for the system, she has even more justification for the initial outlay. “It was an easy sell, and the system continues to thrill my dean and other administrators,” she reports.

Bottom line, Murray says, is that the CRM system has dramatically improved service to alums. “They’re finally current and we’re more responsive. I’m surprised it’s taken the academic world this long to catch on to what the sales world has known for so long: It’s all about customer service.”

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