HE Roundtable

The Future of CRM in Higher Education: Roundtable Reflections

A write up from a Pythagoras and Microsoft roundtable hosted at The Emirates Old Trafford on Thursday 25th October.

Pythagoras and Microsoft recently gathered a group of university leaders who are influential in defining their university’s CRM strategy to discuss the changing role of CRM systems in higher education. The aim of the session was to provide a forum for attendees to share experience, challenges and advice with those still defining their digital student relationship management strategy.

We were joined by representatives from nine UK universities, each at different stages of their journey with CRM. This article discusses some of the key findings from the day.

Key discussion points

The future of Student Record Systems

“The line between the student record system and a university’s CRM system is changing. A university’s student record system isn’t necessarily the heart of the university anymore, and it’s only a matter of time before the line shifts further.”

This comment from a particular university was supported by every attendee in the room. A Student Record System (SRS) used to be the central hub of intelligence for a university, largely thanks to integration with UCAS. While it still provides essential factual data about each student, questions are arising about the viability of maintaining both an SRS and a CRM system in the long term. As CRM systems become increasingly intelligent, universities are starting to question where they should be focusing their investment, and are asking whether it is wasteful to develop both their CRM and SRS.

The roundtable wasn’t the first time we have heard this from a university- some have even discussed with us the concept of building an SRS within Dynamics 365. That way, the university could build and maintain a single platform that uses the same roadmap, same investment, and one which could enable a higher quality of actionable insights.

While our audience appreciated the benefits of a single system which would encapsulate both CRM and SRS functionality, the room was in agreement that most universities are a still some way away from making the leap to switch off their SRS. How then can universities balance the fact that they aren’t ready to move completely away from their SRS, with a desire to avoid investing in a platform that may not have a future at the university?

Using CRM to provide the ‘human’ element

The approach some universities in the room are taking is to ‘overlay something’ in the short term, by introducing CRM in pockets of the university to provide the enhanced functionality and reporting flexibility that is required for student insight.

An interesting comment was that a CRM system provides the ‘human’ element that is lacking in an SRS, by providing tools to track enhanced behavioural insight that can be used to proactively support students, (for example in pastoral care). Capturing and collating emotional insight, such as concerning social media posts or a lack of attendance across the campus, can enhance a university’s chance of identifying and retaining a potentially at-risk student. With mental health at universities occupying headlines across the UK, it has never been more important for universities to provide mechanisms to identify and step in when a student is in trouble.

By integrating CRM with their SRS, universities can use their SRS as a data feed and carry out their reporting and relationship management in CRM. Then, despite having two systems with a student record, universities can be confident that their data remains accurate.

CRM: Implemented strategically or by stealth?

‘We know that we need a CRM platform, but how can we prove the business, monetary or efficiency benefits of implementing a CRM strategy?’

We discussed how the focus for CRM has shifted from traditional relationship management into a tool that can deliver excellence in student engagement, ultimately driving brand loyalty, trust, improved retention and success. However, despite a general understanding of the benefits a CRM system can bring, our attendees noted that it is difficult to find hard evidence to back up these benefits. This can sometimes lead to challenges when building a business case for a strategic CRM platform.

When discussing why this is, many noted that project teams often have a high turnover, and project stakeholders may no longer in the role by the end of a strategic project. Measuring tangible outcomes is made even more difficult as universities often don’t have the time or reporting capability to provide metrics on conversions, online interaction etc. before their projects. Lastly, the benefits of a CRM system are often difficult to quantify, for example improving the general service of students and increasing productivity in admissions teams.

Some universities in the room that have struggled to achieve buy-in for a strategic CRM roll out admitted venturing down the “CRM by stealth” route, by tactically implementing pieces of functionality for a certain department or process, and then expanding into further departments once the benefits have been delivered, or a new need arises. As one attendee noted, ‘delivering CRM can still be strategic without a big bang approach. To achieve this successfully, you build out from a proven base: you have to think of your CRM tool like a box of Lego bricks”.

The importance of having a scalable solution like Dynamics 365 is fundamental to the decision to implement a strategic, phased CRM roll out. Both functionality and licensing costs are geared up to this approach, enabling universities to light up areas of the system as and when they are required, or once they achieve the necessary funding and support from within the university.

Bots: Enabling efficiency in student services

As bots become more and more familiar in our web interactions across the private sector, it is becoming increasingly apparent that universities need to provide bot functionality to provide students with this accessible communication channel. As well as helping universities keep up with student expectations, bots can provide an incredibly valuable mechanism to revolutionise how student engagement teams operate by giving a consistent, 24/7 service function.

At least 3 of the universities in the room admitted to tinkering with bots with other examples of those leading by example with digital strategies also discussed.

The conversation about bots centred around efficiency gains, which were brought into focus with a showcase of a bot which can hand the conversation to an agent (for example when sensitive issues are discussed) and where a conversation with a human can be passed to a bot (for example if the conversation is generic). It’s these small examples that, paired with a digital strategy, show how universities can truly revolutionise their engagement and deliver consistent support and information whenever a student needs it. Most importantly, this can be achieved without requiring an increase in staff headcount.

Bots can trigger service cases and route these to the right people, even starting the process of the case. They can also hand to a human (or vice versa) if the conversation is sensitive or requires a deeper level of response. This level of interaction is allowing previously desk bound support staff to be redeployed into roles that have tangible touchpoints with students, providing the level of care vital as part of a retention strategy.

Want to join the conversation?

If you’re reading this from a university, we’d love to have you part of our next discussion. Contact our team via info@pythagoras.co.uk for more information or to register your interest in joining our next event.

Pythagoras has been the trusted Microsoft partner for over 30% of universities across the UK. Our dedicated team of higher education specialists assist universities with their CRM / cloud strategies as well as deploying and supporting Dynamics 365, SharePoint, Office 365 and Azure.

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