Making the Grade

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The University of California (UC) state school system seemed to have a happy circumstance with its Fall 2009 freshman admissions. Approximately 127,000 students applied, a 5 percent rise over Fall 2008. Consequently, the admission rate dropped to 72.5 percent, the lowest in a decade, according to UC’s statistics. You’d think this was good news, enabling UC to pick the best of the best, the crème de la crème.

A closer look, though, finds the UC system facing some innate problems. With the recession hitting California particularly hard, the UC board of regents decided in January 2009 to reduce freshman enrollment by 2,300 students, or 6 percent. Combine that with UC’s policy of guaranteed acceptance for California-resident students achieving a particular mix of test scores and grade point average, and you have a recipe for potential disaster. According to information provided by UC, the school system will still offer admission to every qualified California student—but not necessarily at each student’s particular campus of choice. This will be the case for approximately 10,000 students.

With the sheer number of applicants and the juggling required this year, UC admissions officers may be feeling a bit like Bluto from Animal House. But Tim Copeland, a practice manager with the strategic services group at Wayne, Pa.–based higher education CRM solution provider SunGard, contends that these are precisely the situations CRM was designed for. “CRM fits this perfectly,” he says. “How do we better target, understand, and respond to the people who matter most? The technology is the enabler, understanding what our strategy is to answer that question.”

Welcome to the new age of CRM in education. While many programs are still targeting the same old issues—the 360-degree view of each student, for example—the collision of economic recession and advanced technologies may provide an opportunity for CRM to tackle problems that require more nuance. Nicole Engelbert, lead analyst for vertical technologies at Datamonitor, says these problems will continue to evolve in 2010, thanks to the start of a demographic shift that will see a decade-long decline in the size of the college-age cohort. “Institutions are going to have to be much, much smarter and targeted in their admissions process,” she says. “They’ll have to be more proactive in retention efforts.”

The essential message? Optimize and streamline processes. Sound familiar? Good, Copeland says: “People don’t realize that higher education is a business. Our colleges and universities, in terms of financial resources, are quite large companies. From an outsider’s point of view, they don’t always understand the pull of how to invest resources…[but] it has to be run like a business.”

Some schools are already at the head of the class, having studied up on CRM and made it their own. The challenges may differ, but the end goal is the same: improving business processes so that the customers—in this case, students—get the best these institutions of learning have to offer.

Engelbert says that, despite the recession,  all indications point to higher education spending more over the short term in CRM and related technology investments. “It will be an increasingly important solution [for this segment],” she says.

Engelbert projects information technology revenue from CRM solutions in the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, France, and Australia will grow from $184.9 million in 2007 to $324.5 million in 2012—but she says she wouldn’t be surprised if that forecast became even rosier. “I anticipate the number will only go up,” she predicts. “Of all the things institutions are likely to cut or scale back on [in terms of] investments, CRM is unlikely to be one.”

While the market need is still there, the rationale for the purchases may not be. In our Market Focus coverage of this space last year (“Making CRM Mandatory for University Administration,” August 2008) we noted a trend among many institutions to take a more organizationwide view of students—recruiting, retention, and development. Engelbert sees a slowdown in that approach due to a looming fire that may yet torch the admissions office. “Right now, the superhot spot is recruitment,” she says.

In the immediate term, this is happening in different ways for public and private institutions. Many public colleges and universities are seeing a massive uptick in applications because of their more-attractive price point—something that puts many parents’ minds at ease, but can cause a logistical headache for the schools. Engelbert says some community colleges, which have extremely open standards for admission, are holding 6 a.m. classes to accommodate the influx of students.

But every institution will have to figure out how to deal with and sort through an increased number of applications, identifying the right students to make up the incoming class, “and doing so in the most equitable way possible without compromising on service in an environment where many institutions are being told to do more with less,” Engelbert says. “This nexus of pain points screams out for a CRM solution to ensure they are still conducting good relationship management with students, and putting together automated workflows to ensure they are being as productive as possible. This means using analytics to put together the right class of students.”

Private colleges and universities are suffering from an entirely different recession-related problem. With significantly higher price tags and unpredictable levels of financial aid, private schools “are wandering in the dark in terms of understanding who is likely to actually enroll on campus,” Engelbert says. Parents worried about job stability may be more reluctant to send a child off to a private school they may not be able to afford a couple of months down the road. “These institutions are looking for data, insight, indicators, and triggers to understand how likely a student is to put down a deposit and ultimately show up in the fall,” she says. “In this trying environment, how can they communicate a value message that sets [themselves] apart from their public counterparts?”

The sum total of these problems calls for CRM in the admissions office, and Engelbert says she sees early indications of a shift away from enterprisewide—or student life cycle—approaches. Schools, she says, “need to put the fire out first in the admissions office.”

In the short term, that may be a good idea, but SunGard’s Copeland warns that it can create even more work once a school’s incoming class is confirmed. “As we talk with our customers, they are just as hot on what we’re able to do to help them with retention issues as much as the front-end acquisition of students,” he insists. “There are some out there who have prospective students fill out admissions forms that have to be keyed into another system. If that’s standalone, maybe they can build a good relationship…but then when that student enters the institution, the chasm starts all over again as a new system takes over. From a technological standpoint, if you have the data [entered] once then work with it for the entire life cycle—step out of the strategic and into the tactical.”

University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication is a small yet highly regarded graduate school in the field of communications. According to Joanne Murray, the program’s assistant dean for graduate studies, the school only accepts 5 percent to 8 percent of those who apply each year—a nice problem to have. “We’re lucky to have more interest than the ability to admit people,” she says. “It’s the opposite of what other schools are trying to do right now. My job is to keep us there.”

The only way to do that, in her eyes, was to revamp the way Annenberg handled recruitment and admissions. Murray explains that while the school is well known within its field, the program is actually an extremely interdisciplinary one. “It’s harder for people to find,” she says. “We used to do graduate recruitment fairs and such, but for an English major in a rural area…there was no way to get to that person. From my perspective, CRM leveled the playing field for us, and gave us the ability to conduct a more even-handed outreach.”

Beyond outreach, the prior dean of the school used to travel a great deal, and respond to email and phone inquiries about the school. Afterward, though, those conversations were deleted. From a customer service point of view, Murray says that needed to be rectified. “We wanted to have the ability to track who we send the information to, what we sent, and any questions they wanted to have answered so we could follow up,” she says. “The only way to do that is through good customer service. Just because we have heavy interest doesn’t mean we get to be rude.”

When Murray began her search for a CRM solution, the first stop was the vendor powering University of Pennsylvania’s enterprisewide solution. She declines to name the vendor, but says she quickly decided that her tiny school needed its own system. “My goal was to give the best customer service possible,” she says. “I wanted to use a system, but didn’t want the end user to feel he was being processed by a machine. The university package didn’t give us the flexibility to tailor communications and have multiple communication tracks to make it feel like a one-on-one conversation.”

Looking for a right-sized CRM solution, Murray decided on Intelliworks, a Rockville, Md.–based on-demand vendor focusing on the higher education sector. According to Todd Gibby, Intelliworks’ chief executive officer and president, more programs within universities are choosing to forgo enterprisewide systems in favor of one that suits specific needs. (Check out “All Schools Are Not Created Equal,” page 27, for more.)

What attracted Murray most to Intelliworks’ offering was its ease of use—she freely admits she’s not trained in information technology—as well as the flexibility of the system to allow her to build out pieces one at a time. “I didn’t have to implement the entire solution at once,” she says. “We started out with inquiry management when we needed it most, then admissions, then the student piece and, after that, alumni relations. I could keep doing my day job while I was building this system.”

The results speak for themselves. Since turning to Intelliworks to bolster Annenberg’s efforts, the school has realized a 95 percent increase in prospects and a 125 percent increase in inquiries. While that alone proves the system’s worth, Murray says what she’s most satisfied with is the fact that in the first year, the number of completed applications jumped 29 percent—from 288 in 2007 to 364 in 2008. Not only that, Murray can now send out surveys to applicants to determine why an application hasn’t been completed yet—anything from technical glitches to simple life events. “That’s my customer service indicator,” she stresses. “The goal wasn’t just to make us more selective…. It has always been to get people who start the application to finish it and make sure that information only goes out to people who stand a chance of being accepted. No false hopes.”

Christopher Akin, associate director of IT for the University of South Florida (USF), says his CRM epiphany was a forced one. The vendor his university had been using for incident management was exiting the business—leaving USF in the lurch. A new vendor, one Akin declines to name for legal reasons, had been chosen to deliver incident management and CRM needs—with little success. “We spent significant dollars on the solution and, honestly, the software just didn’t work,” he recalls. “We weren’t getting a lot of help from this large vendor, so we had to get lawyers involved to get the money back…[and] exit the contract.”

While it was a legal victory, what still remained was the fact that his school needed a solution—and fast. “We found RightNow Technologies, and its solution appealed to us at the time because it was simple enough to deploy quickly, but also had enough room for growth,” he says. “Also, a big draw was that it was 100 percent Web-based.”

Because the original software was literally breaking down, Akin says the fact that RightNow could deploy in less than a week’s time—albeit with basic functionality at first—was exactly what the doctor ordered. At that time, his first focus was on streamlining the help desk’s online knowledge base (KB), a self-help forum for those with technical issues at the university, including email, data networking, desktop software, even telecommunications. Ironically, the initial focus on phone and email channels actually inflated the backlog at first.

“Before RightNow, we were receiving questions via email and phone, but it was falling through the cracks because we couldn’t track them well,” Akin says. “So, when the customer didn’t hear back, they would put in another request and it would keep growing. This all but disappeared in the first six months…. We cleaned it all out and got caught up.”

Alleviating the backlog allowed Akin to eliminate two full-time help-desk positions even though the student population had increased by 10 percent. The KB was also expanded, growing to more than 100 answers, while the volume of emails and phone calls to the help desk dropped 20 percent. The success led Akin to solicit RightNow to help create Ask USF, which answers a wide range of questions about registration, finances, and student life. In the past three years, Ask USF has provided 450,000 answers to students, saving USF approximately $500,000.

Not surprisingly, that result has spurred what Akin calls a “chain reaction” among other departments. “Being a very large metropolitan university, it has spread like wildfire,” he says. “We’ve put all of the university’s internal business processes on it, and there’s another installation for faculty and staff.” Next on the horizon is using RightNow’s higher education offering to help the university’s graduate business program better market and recruit students.

It’s a far cry from what Akin’s internal group was first faced with. “In a large company environment like ours, we used to have to pass a piece of paper around to get something done,” he recalls. “Now we can automate, save money, be more efficient…and not have as many people having to touch the process.”

Despite the current economic environment and admissions blitz underpinning many schools’ short-term thinking, there is a push among many in higher ed to take advantage of social networking technologies to better target—and market to—prospective and current students. “Typically higher education is years behind the corporate sector [in terms of CRM],” Datamonitor’s Engelbert says. “But this segment is [integrating] social networking…as a new arrow in [its] multichannel quiver, which is great news. Institutions are recognizing that Facebook and Twitter are communication channels that should be leveraged.”

Murray already has plans to dip Annenberg’s toe into the Facebook pool, with the help of an Intelliworks integration still in beta. “I’m building an Annenberg School fan page, and we’ll have the application from Intelliworks built into it so when people ask questions on the page, it’ll go back into my CRM system,” she says. “It’s more of a two-way street as opposed to me sending out one-way emails…. There can be more interaction.”

Intelliworks’ Gibby explains that the goal is to be platform-agnostic in terms of social media. “A large percentage of students have accounts in one or many social networks, and there is a natural story to be played out in which it is extraordinarily important for relationship management solution providers connected to higher education to have a strategy combining the best of CRM with the strengths of social media,” he says. “The two systems should inform one another, and must be opened up, connected, and integrated in a tight way.”

Copeland admits that social networks are already having an impact on university strategy, but he insists a tool is just a tool. “We need to understand how it supports our goals first,” he says. “How will it connect to our strategies, and, from a technical standpoint, are we invested in providing an institutional platform that can adapt and grow as different innovations occur?”

If these sound eerily reminiscent of the corporate-sector issues outlined in CRM’s June 2009 issue on Social CRM—well, you just earned an A. That’s exactly the point, because, as the University of California administrators can attest, running a university these days is no toga party. “When people get a degree, they are in the moment and don’t view it as a large organization that has to be run like a business,” Copeland says. “They don’t realize how complex an organization it can be.”

SIDEBAR: Avoid Implementation Probation
Don Reece, information technology director for Winnipeg, Manitoba–based Pembina Trails School District, and Christopher Akin, associate director of IT for the University of South Florida, may not share the same student population—or country—but they both have tips for colleagues looking to implement CRM solutions for their own schools.

  • Process before product. “Software tools are great and you certainly need a good one in your back pocket, but they are only as good as the processes, procedures, and upfront planning put into it,” Akin says.
  • Get upper-level buy-in. “If you try to implement a CRM solution where you don’t have backing or everyone isn’t on board with it, it won’t work as well,” he warns. “It will be a struggle.”
  • Read between the lines. “Take a close look at licensing costs included,” Reece stresses. “Are you going to be charged extra for voicemail and [session-initiated protocol] paging? Will you be able to control your [phone] extensions?”
  • Solutions supersede compatibility. “Make sure the solution available is as hardware-agnostic as possible so you don’t have to buy new servers [or] switches and [you] end up purchasing a product because it is compatible with what you have…not the greatest product overall,” Reece says.
  • Push back against the class bullies. “Don’t be afraid of the Ciscos, Nortels, and Mitels out there,” he suggests. “They tried to scare me. Cisco [representatives] told me I didn’t want to be the guy that broke the phone system because we bought Dell servers and they claimed Voice over Internet Protocol would never work. It was scary, but looking back now, I’m glad we took the risk because of our strong technical team here. We spent 10 percent of what we would with a Cisco solution and have a better product [from Objectworld Communications].”

SIDEBAR: UC Helps Teachers with ABCs
While much is written about the effect that CRM solutions can have in the halls of higher education, there are plenty of primary and secondary schools also utilizing CRM to help streamline and improve operations, argues David Schenkel, chief technology officer of unified communications (UC) vendor Objectworld Communications.

“A lot of school boards want this unified messaging capability,” Schenkel stresses. “We’re finding that, on average, 25 to 30 percent of all employees are part-time or contractors of some kind.”

The problem with that, he argues, is when parents must contact those part-time employees, there is no formal extension or identification in a phone system to look them up as there would be for full-time teachers and workers. He insists that solutions similar to the ones his company offers can eliminate the concern. “We offer a user-centric solution that can enter them in like a regular user so you can dial by name or number,” he says. “It saves a huge amount of time and energy in the school.”

At the core, schools just want to have the same capabilities other businesses take for granted—including communication-enabled processes. “If you can automate processes in schools and leverage data in your back-end database system, you can make emergency calls, provide information when people call in, [and]…simple information so they don’t have to speak to a secretary during school hours,” Schenkel says.

This also means looking at teachers just like any other workers wanting to have mobile connections to their place of employment. “Just allowing when people call in…standard features like dial by name, find-me/follow-me capability, and allowing the teacher to control whether calls [are] forwarded to their home phone, cell, or both…it makes life a lot easier,” he says. “A teacher is the same as any modern business user; allowing them to get the same features and functionality is important.”

Contact Assistant Editor Christopher Musico at cmusico@destinationCRM.com.

Every month, CRM magazine covers the customer relationship management industry and beyond. To subscribe, please visit http://www.destinationcrm.com/subscribe/.

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