Graduate Management News

May 2014

The Newsletter of the Graduate Management Admission Council

Four Things to Know About Using and Moving CRM Forward in Your Program

The last five years have seen an explosion of interest in constituent relationship management (CRM) software by colleges, universities, and graduate programs around the world. Here are some steps to get you started.

CRM Review

The last five years have seen an explosion of interest in constituent relationship management (CRM) software by colleges, universities, and graduate programs around the world. Driven by vendor claims of “managing the student lifecycle” or “facilitating purposeful connections,” what higher education administrator wouldn’t be interested in software magic, given an era of increasing competition for qualified students, a need for alumni engagement, and a demand for doing more with less. Unfortunately, CRM has become code for “send more emails.” 

While relatively new in higher education, “CRM” has a well-marked path of global business successes and failures over the past twenty plus years. How do you avoid the mistakes of the past whether you have invested – or you are thinking about investing – in CRM software? In our research and experience, we have identified some common pitfalls that trip up most CRM projects. 

I’ve distilled them here into four things you need to know about CRM followed by the steps you need to take to move forward: 

1. CRM is a paradigm shift, not a software. Most CRM initiatives jump the rails when the focus is on software alone. In fact, software is only 25 percent of the CRM success equation. Your planning, business practices, and people make up the other 75 percent.

CRM has been defined as a philosophy and strategy, supported by people and processes and enabled by software to improve the student or constituent experience in a way that is effective and efficient. As an example, one higher education professional reported on their institution’s experience:

We weren’t prepared for the level of change required to align various enrollment units. They all had their own ways of doing things. From a 50,000 foot view, their functions are very similar — to the departments, they were all unique.”

The underlying purpose of CRM software is to commoditize marketing, and sales-related and service practices. These are processes that many institutions have failed to rationalize over time. CRM begins with a paradigm shift, not a software purchase.

2. Most struggle with the “why.” Ask most institutions why they are interested in CRM and you will hear “to build stronger relationships,” “to gain a 360 degree view of our students and constituents,” or to “increase enrollments.” When you get past the vendor selling propositions, what does stronger relationships mean, what would you do with a 360 degree view, and how will software functions help you increase enrollments, really? Too often, CRM software capabilities are limited to the automation of email messages.

3. The functionality most want is the weakest part of CRM software. Ironically, the functionality that most want – marketing automation – has historically been the weakest part of CRM software. The evidence is found in the more than $5 billion that CRM vendors have spent on marketing automation companies in the last two years.

Many institutions of higher education are moving away from software platforms specific to their industry because the companies that produce them have failed to keep pace with the corporate market. In October 2013, Ellucian one of the largest software companies in higher education announced that it was abandoning its development of its own CRM platform and instead moving to Microsoft Dynamics CRM software. I have worked with a number of clients – particularly those institutions interested in recruiting and retaining students – who have moved to commercial software platforms. 

4. Understand what will be new and different for your students. In my work, I start by asking clients, “If you could change the enrollment experience for your students, removing any internal or external barriers, or process inefficiencies, what would that look like for students?” Regardless of the department – from back offices such as the Bursar to front-facing admission units – the responses are remarkably similar. Higher education professionals at institutions of all shapes and sizes report similar things, such as “less complicated,” “timely,” “convenient,” “user friendly,” or “streamlined.”

Implementing CRM should be an opportunity to address institutional processes that have proliferated unchecked over time. Rather than organizing around institutional functions, CRM is your opportunity to align your business practices around your students.

The Way Forward 

If a CRM software investment is part of your budget, or if you have recently purchased CRM software, but are struggling to deploy it in a way that drives your enrollment objectives, how do you move forward? Regardless of your current position on the CRM map, take the following three steps to move forward. 

1. Help students make decisions. Move beyond the marketing puffery of stronger relationships and 360 degree views to the following question: What can you do to help students make better decisions about your programs? Too often we see institutions invest in the “how” (software) and fail to consider the “what”?

Helping students make decisions involves the development of conversation plans, defined as a systematic approach to exchanging information and ideas with students across institutional departments and communication touch points that help them make decisions, while driving desired behaviors and maximizing enrollment results.

A conversation plan begins with a visual diagram that outlines the communication triggers, information filters, and response actions to be taken to engage a student in the recruitment process. For most, this level of planning is an afterthought but is the most important element before software matters.

2. Tie “CRM” to outcomes. CRM software fails when the investment is made on lofty expectations. First define what CRM means for your organization and then pinpoint the specific capabilities regarding planning, people, processes, and technology that you must strengthen. Where are the “relationship” pain points that impact enrollment acquisition, conversion, yield, and persistence? What data are required to anticipate student action/inaction and to incent positive behaviors such as re-enrollment and academic engagement? Do you have the right organization and culture? What systems must a staff member access to serve students? What actions must students take to complete common enrollment transactions?

True CRM puts your students at the center, rather than departmental policies and legacy processes – processes that are borne out by the student experience. I often start a CRM services engagement by “secret shopping” the institution. From the institutional or departmental website, we use the web forms, email addresses and phone numbers offered to students and see what happens. The results range from no follow-up to redirecting students back to the websites where they start. Secret shopping results can help build a platform for much needed organizational change.

3. Pay attention to data quality management and pay attention early. Our clients often face obstacles with the migration, acquisition, cleanup and normalization of data. Consider the potential data sources that may exist today in a graduate business office – the student information system, non-credit registration systems, email marketing platforms, Excel spreadsheets, and Access databases, to name a few. Shadow data systems appear when current software does not support business requirements, or when employees decide not to use software for what it is capable of.

Progressive institutions are moving away from efforts focused on technology and after-the-fact student and constituent data cleansing and are starting to manage and use data more proactively. An important step in this process is ensuring that data is consistent across varied sources. Establishing data governance rules early on in the project helps build a data framework for marketing and recruitment actions in the future. Defining your data universe of what is available and captured today versus what you would like to capture in the future clarifies business requirements for a software investment.


Creating a value-based CRM plan begins by identifying clear enrollment or other business goals and supporting objectives. From these goals and objectives, it should be possible to drill down to a set of performance indicators and specific initiatives, which can be prioritized into a phased implementation plan encompassing all of the planning, people, process, and technology enablers to support the strategy. 

Institutions seeking a CRM competitive advantage will pinpoint relationship pain points, identify requisite data needs, and define clear goals and business requirements before the first vendor steps on campus. 

About the Author 

Tim Copeland is the CEO of DemandEngine. He researches and writes extensively on the topics of enrollment marketing and CRM and the effective use of technology in higher education. Read his Enrollment Marketing blog. 

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