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How to Prepare for a Successful CRM Implementation

Allegheny College's associate director of IT offers six lessons learned from a recent constituent relationship management rollout.

There was a time in the not-so-distant past when the Allegheny College Admissions Department had codes in our student information system (SIS) to indicate whose office an admissions folder was in. We would run a report to find the folder. At the time, it was a good idea; knowing exactly who had a file saved time during the review process, when multiple people needed access.

However, there comes a time when you can no longer squeeze any more efficiency out of legacy systems, making workarounds like this obsolete.

We previously relied on an SIS to manage interactions with students, but friction between the SIS and 21st-century technologies increased every year that went by. Admissions needed a constituent relationship management (CRM) system to more seamlessly engage with a wide range of students in terms they are more likely to understand and appreciate; track and manage that engagement; and use it to better shape the class. 

Already a Google Apps campus, we often look to cloud-based solutions that can provide an intuitive user experience and allow us to easily scale and adapt. For CRM, we implemented Enrollment Rx, which is built on's enterprise cloud platform.

But successful CRM is not simply about implementing a solution. An effective CRM system must complement the people and processes connected with it — a task that is both challenging and rewarding. "Local expertise" within your organization is essential to taking full advantage of the power and flexibility of a modern CRM system, and will be strengthened by any challenges you encounter.

Following are six lessons that we've learned on the path to our own successful CRM implementation.

1) Eliminate Assumptions
Eliminating assumptions can be a daunting task, but when business processes aren't future-proof, it's time to get out of your comfort zone. We started our CRM implementation with the motto of "Let's Assume Nothing," breaking down the typical model of having to do things a certain way. For example, we "unpacked" all of the steps we relied on for building a student application, stripping away unnecessary steps that only existed because of our previous structure.

Don't wait until the actual implementation to evaluate business processes. Put vendors' feet to the fire during the evaluation phase, making sure they have the expertise in higher ed to support you in critically evaluating existing business processes and project goals.

2) Take Only What You Need to Survive!
Getting everything right — processing, reporting, integration, application reading, communication – the first go-around can be a tall order. Don't attempt too much with your first CRM implementation. Instead, make it okay for everyone involved to prioritize on their own terms, even if that means ignoring for the time being a few things that seem important. As any Spaceballs fan would tell you: Take only what you need to survive!

Early on in the process, assess exactly what information you need captured in the CRM and what data you need from the SIS or other systems. There's a good chance that Admissions (and everyone else) may clutter the SIS with data points that, without context, are not relevant to the rest of the institution. Blindly creating shadow databases will drive IT crazy. Instead, make a commitment to scalable systems that truly support each department's data needs by choosing wisely what "core" data you need to share.

3) Allow for Staff Development
Be prepared to use the CRM implementation as a staff development opportunity, by giving staff members the chance to learn about technology, embrace methods of change previously unavailable and apply skill sets to new areas. The reward of more fulfilling work can help mitigate burnout during the implementation phase, so include staff in discussions to find out what makes their work fulfilling.

4) Be a Team
At Allegheny, a strong partnership between IT and Admissions was critical to our success in evaluating and implementing the CRM. The Admissions team didn't ask for the moon, but was realistic and focused; and the IT team didn't rely solely on the vendor to make it all work. With a cross-functional approach to managing the student lifecycle, we achieved a more thoughtful integration.

5) Provide a Spark for Innovation
It's important to choose a CRM system that allows you to "bring your own preferences" and that is accessible enough to support any enterprising staff member's "what if" scenario. That level of flexibility can be daunting; some folks would still rather have the processes handed to them. However, the spark we ignited among the staff simply by offering the opportunity to improve how they do their job has added five years of improvement work into the pipeline. Instead of being frustrated, a wider portion of the staff is now thinking about continuous improvement. A good CRM implementation needs to be prepared to support this spark, as you grow into a future you may still be defining.

6) Understand Your Data
Understanding the data is critical to the well being of the institution. At Allegheny, we previously lacked integration between our SIS and Admissions processes, and were therefore always making choices about whether to devote staff time to record and modify data points in the SIS. We used parallel paper and electronic processes to double-check information, but paper files were often the culprit for problems.

The CRM cleared the slate for us, exposing weaknesses and overlap in our existing systems and forcing us to review a 20-year old data model. By "owning" our data and trusting in the automated system from beginning to end, we've eliminated extraneous processes and unlocked meaningful information. For example, a single action both assigns a particular student tour guide and allows us to track which prospects on the tour end up as applicants.

By making implementation choices that simultaneously simplify processing and reporting, we've enjoyed the payback of reallocation of human resources and enhanced personal attention to constituents. But keep in mind: The implementation of a CRM system should be both a process and an end goal. Deciding to implement a CRM will be most successful only if the process embraces the organizational change and reflection required to take full advantage of the power of the system being implemented.

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