Is Customer Relationship Management (CRM) the answer?

We love a CRM discussion in education and it was perhaps no surprise to see it ranked as one of the key topics up for discussion at this year’s UCISA CISG conference. It wasn’t all about CRM though, the discussion focused on moving away from administering our customers to placing them at the heart of what it is we do. Notice that I haven’t mentioned systems and I haven’t mentioned students! The following summarises how we approached this topic and the outcomes from each activity.

Line of preference

We started off with a little ice breaker to help everyone get to know who was in the room. So we asked people to form a line with people who had “sussed” CRM towards one end of the room and those who were perhaps just starting out on the CRM journey towards the other end of the room. It was a good way of finding out where different people were at with regards to their own CRM journey. It also served as a way for us to create a nice balance of groups, partnering people with others at different stages. One thing was clear, no one has “sussed” CRM and those closer to that end of the spectrum were quite frank about their battle scars.


We then moved onto some brainstorming to try and get people thinking around the topic using a carousel. The carousel is made up of stations and each group spends 5 minutes (or so) at each station before moving onto the next topics. We had four stations:

  1. Who are our customers?
  2. Principles of good CRM.
  3. Customer charter—interestingly took this to cover the expectations our customers might have of our organisations but also our expectations of them as customers.
  4. A graffiti wall, which was a free space for each group to add whatever they liked.

The table below provides a recording of the outputs from that session.

Who are our customers? Principles of good CRM Customer charter Graffiti wall
  • Parents
  • External examiners
  • Local schools
  • Local government
  • Guardians
  • Public/corporate donations
  • Statutory bodies
  • FE Colleges
  • Local community
  • Alumni
  • Staff and ex-staff
  • Funding bodies e.g. DELNI, HEFCE, HEFCW, SFC
  • Agents (international)
  • Business
  • Selling accommodation
  • International community
  • National government
  • Placement providers
  • Media
  • Every one
  • Research partners
  • Students
  • Prospective students
  • Partner institutions: partner staff, partner students.
  • Employers
  • Public
  • Other systems
  • NHS
  • Governance of process (10)
  • Integrate with all other systems (10)
  • Usability (8)
  • Must add value (process and interaction) (7)
  • Well defined process (6)
  • Data quality, timely and maintained (5)
  • Must balance people, processes and technology (1)
  • Responsible to external factors (1)
  • Ease of access to data (1)
  • Common data definitions (1)
  • Scalable (1)
  • Intuitive
  • Must consider full lifecycle
  • Data security
  • International support
  • Flexibility
  • Mobile focused
  • Must be regularly reviewed for value
  • Accessibility
  • Don’t let tech dictate the process
  • Targeted campaign
  • Common language
  • Relevant to customer needs and improves customer service (close to customer) (15)
  • Personalisation for relationship types: business, staff, student, research (8)
  • Consistent services, one stop shop, audience based services (7)
  • Clear definition of: our responsibility to customer; customers responsibility to us; clear expectations (4)
  • Keeping it simple (4)
  • Relevant and proactive (4)
  • Service catalogue (2)
  • Data use policy and data protection act (2)
  • Defined process, clear timeline (1)
  • Adaptive system (1)
  • Customer centric (1)
  • Wide ranging customer consultation (1)
  • Ethical use
  • Single point of contact, central comms channel
  • Gather requirements first
  • Intuitive
  • Consistent service across services
  • Personalisation, comms preferences
  • Data security and confidentiality
  • Vision and leadership (6)
  • Governance and planning (6)
  • Who’s the driver
  • Activity must be funded
  • Don’t annoy with inappropriate communications
  • Who owns it? Who is in charge of it?
  • Usability, accessibility and role definitions
  • Impact of business reorganisation and changing priorities
  • Fee payments? Awareness of ability to pay
  • Self-service, anytime anyplace
  • Can opt out
  • Expensive
  • Student records Vs CRM
  • Communication strategy, information/knowledge registry, buy-in
  • Can’t be IT driven
  • Difficult
  • Define it
  • Single CRM
  • Breaking down silos

At the end of the session we had a vote on what we thought were the most important principles of good CRM, and customer charter ideas. The top five for each are listed below.

  • Principles of good CRM: governance of process, integrate with all other systems, usability, must add value, well defined process.
  • Customer charter: relevant to customer needs and improves customer service, personalisation for relationship type, consistent services, clear understanding of responsibilities (customer and organisational perspectives)/keeping it simple/relevant and proactive

Even though we only asked for votes across to of the themes, the group felt so strongly about vision and leadership and governance and planning (which were on the graffiti wall) that they both got 6 votes each.


Once everyone had been around the carousel we broke into discussion groups focusing on the questions:

How do we move away from administering our customers, to placing them at the heart of what it is we do? Is CRM the answer?

Groups were allowed to take their discussion in any direction they wanted and even change the question if they felt the need. Key points I took away from those discussions included:

  • CRM is a catalyst for change, not a means to an end!
  • We shouldn’t get hung up about using CRM across the whole of the Student Lifecycle. Use it where relevant e.g. case management.
  • There was a feeling that CRM is not the answer, and that perhaps more emphasis should be placed on other systems where appropriate e.g. learning analytics.
  • Is CRM failing because our perception of the student lifecycle is linear? One group reimagined this in what might best be described as spoke diagram with the students at the centre.
  • Too much emphasis is placed at the start and end of the student lifecycle, and the middle is often forgotten about.
  • Customers vary from one institution to the next, we need to identify our key customers and have a clear vision as to how we will interact with them
  • How do we define CRM? I do quite like Jisc’s (I would woudln’t I?) which describes it as a management strategy.

It was a really interesting session and I can’t thank everyone enough for their contributions! As Patrick O’Reilly rightly stated:

Stop thinking of students in terms of being a piece of data, passed through live processes, to being a person.