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.


Supporting Independent Specialist Colleges

I was lucky enough to be invited to an event recently focusing on UK Independent Specialist Colleges (ISCs). I haven’t worked with any ISCs in the past and so I saw this as a real opportunity to learn more about them and their use of technology. Listening to a number of the talks and talking to individuals during the breaks I got a sense that the issues weren’t that much different to FE/HE, discussed in greater detail below.

Joined-Up Systems

There is a major issue with regard to joined up systems. I recently wrote about this in a report I did for another college. Unfortunately there is no easy answer and it’s been something the sector has been dealing with for many years, well before I started with infoNet 10 years ago. HE and some FE institutions have been investigating Enterprise Architecture (EA) as a strategic tool. It can provide an organisational view of business processes, applications and technology. In some cases it can include data but it’s typically complex enough. Most projects are investigating EA as part of a complex project they might be running e.g. those involved with Jisc’s Course Data programme. I’d thoroughly recommend @gillferrell and @hanettehillock’s paper which covers the topic very eloquently.

Discussions around Enterprise Architecture (EA) also focus on how we get systems to talk more effectively with one another, if at all. The answer, although again something very difficult to achieve is a Service Oriented Approach (SOA). One of the difficulties with this is working with suppliers to ensure they develop systems and services that work in this way.

Business Intelligence – decision-making

One of the shorter sessions focused on “data management” although I’d argue it was more about Business Intelligence which is a real hot topic at the moment. Indeed Maria alluded to the idea of having a dashboard in her talk. Business Intelligence is all about bringing together lots of disparate data sets to provide meaningful information to Senior Managers, often in the shape of a dashboard. Rather than reinvent the wheel I’d recommend taking a look at Jisc’s guidance in this area which provides a maturity model, guidance, case studies and a gallery of data visualisations. Also worth mentioning a talk I heard from University of Liverpool. Many people think the main issue is one of data cleansing, they found the work and effort actually went into defining data definitions.

Continuing Professional Development

There seems to be a real issue associated with Continuing Professional Development (CPD). People just don’t seem to be able to keep up. Whether it’s e-safety, policies and procedures, the newest gadgets or whatever. I don’t really have an answer to this but I am wondering, where relevant, if we could carry out a training needs analysis at a regional level. The RSCs could then liaise with relevant parts of Jisc to deliver that training. Capacity will be an issue but online delivery mechanisms might help to get around this. I’m aware Jisc Netskills are developing a Jisc Online Training platform which will provide a catalogue of Jisc’s offer, and associated learning objectives. I’m also wondering whether or not badges have a role to play here.

Bring Your Own Device (BYOD)

I’m not going to bother putting my own spin on this. Jisc Legal provide a range of advice around BYOD. It might be worth reviewing some of their material and investigating how the colleges might take it forward.

Moving to the Cloud

There was an interesting discussion around cloud based provision. It was off the back of a presentation from one college that has recently moved to Google Apps for Education. Interestingly Janet are working with Google to resolve issues around data protection. For an annual fee of £500 they will ensure contracts are updated and help to ensure data is stored in the EU in the long-term. This service is already available for Microsoft 365. Janet were present at the event and recommended anyone moving everything into the cloud should ensure they have two lines ensuring they have some form of resilience if the main Janet connection went down.

Living on the edge

It was a very interesting day. I was very taken by Maria Chambers, Beaumont College’s Principal, who mentioned that she encourages staff to “live on the edge” which she believes gives them a real competitive advantage allowing them to flourish. She has also adopted a distributed leadership team which links to something I’ve recently been banging on about with regards to Leadership Everywhere.

Another comment I found very interesting from the day, in relation to blocking access to certain sites, came from Dawn Green, Principal at Landmarks College.

We don’t stop our learners from crossing the road because it’s dangerous, why block websites.

The idea here being that it’s not a case of closing things down. That’s not the answer, it is about encouraging everyone to think about the consequences of their behaviour online and taking more responsibility for their actions.