In the past, higher education was a somewhat siloed affair, with admissions teams juggling numerous spreadsheets relating to different tasks and student cohorts.

Then, colleges started to follow in the footsteps of other businesses by streamlining these disparate processes using a customer relationship management (CRM) system.

CRMs are incredibly powerful tools when it comes to communication and operational management. But, perhaps surprisingly, not all colleges are reaping the benefits.

Some still rely on clunky in-house systems or spreadsheets. Others are struggling with a legacy CRM system—or one that isn’t designed with the higher education sector in mind.

Can you relate?

Why invest in a higher education CRM?

Ultimately, CRM systems equip you with the tools you need to provide your applicants, students, alumni, donors, and staff with a better user experience.

You can use it to store and manage information on individuals, configure workflows and automate a number of critical tasks. Here’s what it does:

Centralizes information

Your CRM should act as your first—and only—point of call for communicating with applicants and students digitally.

You can view information on specific candidates, have a bird’s eye view of how the admissions cycle is going, and automate personalized emails. And that’s just the start.

Creates admissions reports

Without the right software, creating reports can be time-consuming at best and frustrating at worst. With A CRM, you shouldn’t have to worry about formulas and missing information, because the technology can generate a number of reports instantly.

Boosts applications and enrollments

You can leverage the information stored in your CRM to nurture curious inquisitors into bona fide applicants, and applicants into enrolled students.

It’s well-known that consumers typically engage with a brand about seven times before they make a purchase. The same applies to higher education.

A CRM enables you to deliver a top-notch student recruitment campaign through targeted ads, quality events, and customized communications—every step of the way.

Saves time

The time that used to be spent filling out spreadsheets and searching for mislaid information can be spent on other things, such as your marketing strategy or a recruitment event.

Allows you to evolve

Ever wondered where your leads come from? With a CRM, you’ll be able to see whether an inquiry came from a specific ad campaign, an internet search, or a social post, for example.

You can share this data across departments and use it to inform next year’s strategy. Where’s the biggest return on investment? Where’s room for improvement?

How do you choose a CRM for your college?

There are lots of ways you could approach the process of choosing a CRM. To a large extent, it’ll depend on your needs and existing procurement processes. Here’s one way of doing it:

Step 1: Assemble your selection committee

Before you start researching different CRM options, you need to have conversions with your colleagues around what you want the software to achieve.

Whose input would be valuable for this?

Who you choose to join the selection committee will depend on what you’re going to use the CRM for. For instance, is it going to be used primarily for marketing and admissions? Or do you require a college-wide application to manage the entire student lifecycle?

Don’t forget to invite stakeholders from across admissions, marketing, IT, and student services. Get input from the staff who will be using the CRM and find out what they need.

Step 2: Outline your needs

In an ideal world, what would you want your CRM to do?

You’ll be pleasantly surprised at the level of functionality available today. First, figure out which tools you’re currently using to establish your workflows, such as email marketing scheduling tools and spreadsheets.

Once you start researching features, you may come across some that you didn’t even know existed. Did you know, for instance, that some CRMs integrate with your payment modules, allowing you to eliminate time-consuming fee collection processes?

Step 3: Book demos and ask questions

At this point, it’s time to create a list of potential vendors and book demos.

CRM demos will typically take you on a virtual tour through examples of screens, dashboards, and reports. But you don’t just want to know what your potential CRM looks like or how much it costs—you need to know how it works.

Here are a few initial questions you could ask:

  • How does it differ from other CRMs on the market?
  • What elements can I customize for my college?
  • Does my IT team need to build anything?
  • How long does implementation take and what would it entail?
  • Can it integrate with my existing systems?
  • What training and support will you provide and will it be ongoing?

Step 4: Establish an implementation timeline

A number of factors will affect your implementation timeline.

One of the first things to look into is your existing CRM contract, if you have one, and when you can abort it. Another consideration is your historical data: when will you need to ensure it’s loaded to your new CRM, and will you have to store it elsewhere temporarily?

After speaking with your team, you might choose to launch a handful of CRM features at the start or you might decide that the best way forward is to launch all features straightaway. Whatever your decision, be sure to set ample time aside to test your new CRM so you can resolve any issues before you launch.

What should you look for in the CRM selection process?

The answer depends on your needs, obviously, however there are a handful of things most colleges agree are non-negotiable features and benefits. Here are a few things you might want to keep in mind when searching for the right higher education CRM:

Scope for customization

Consider whether or not the CRM in question can do everything you need it to do. If you do need to customize certain elements, will this come at an additional cost?

It’s really important to have your IT team participate in these discussions, as a lot will depend on how much time they have and their expertise. One of the benefits of a CRM is that the vendor can train your in-house team on how to use it and alert you to any updates.

It’s important that you’re able to add your own branding to the student-facing elements, such as the application portal and email templates.

How pricing works

If the CRM is within your budget, find out how pricing works. Don’t forget to check if training and technical support are included in the cost and any contractual terms.

Integration capabilities

Find out if the CRM will be able to integrate with your existing technology stack. For instance, will it integrate with your payment gateways and messaging services?

CRMs tend to be very flexible when it comes to accommodating third-party programs, but don’t take it for granted; it’s best to check.

Other things to think about include:

  • Mobile compatibility
  • Security features
  • Compliance with regulations
  • Permission levels and access
  • Growth and scalability

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