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How A CRM Can Optimize Your College Admissions Funnel

How A CRM Can Optimize Your College Admissions Funnel

By Petia Whitmore

Let’s be honest about this about one truth upfront: the enrollment management function in higher education is what the sales function is in most businesses.

True, the product you “sell” is very complex and the “transaction” often lasts a lifetime but thinking about enrollment management as a sales function can help you optimize your resources and have larger control over achieving your enrollment targets.

Customer relationship management (CRM) systems have long been a critically important tool for sales organizations of all kinds. Higher education institutions are often slower in adopting them. There’s a good explanation for this – a state of the art CRM system requires both a hefty financial investment and substantial IT resources, not to mention the toll on often already very stretched enrollment teams.

Nonetheless, a well-built CRM system can allow you to manage your enrollment funnel in a way that can optimize your resources and redesign your prospective student experience for maximum impact.

Why You Should Consider Getting a CRM

Quite simply, a CRM system will let you gather, access and use data in multiple powerful ways.

  • A well-designed CRM will help you streamline your work. Schools often use multiple legacy systems – one that links to the application and houses candidate data, another for reporting, and yet another for managing recruiting and admissions events. A CRM allows you to manage all these functions in one system, saving you time and minimizing errors and duplication of effort.
  • It will give you a full, real-time view of your prospective student pipeline and all its dynamics.
  • It will provide insight into candidate behaviors and preferences that will allow you to engage them in a tailored, meaningful way – and improve your conversion and yield.
  • It will let you detect challenges with your enrollment goals early on and you will be able to experiment with ways to tackle them and identify the most effective counter-measures.
  • It will give you an opportunity to automate processes and functions that don’t require a human touch and focus your staff on activities where they add the most value.

All Set? You’ll Need Help Implementing Your CRM

  • Find the right partner. More often than not, you will need an expert who already has a solid track record in CRM customization and implementation. Ideally, their experience includes higher education. Choosing the right implementation partner is in a way much more critical than choosing a specific CRM system. The right expertise will ensure your system is tailored to your needs, adjusted to your processes and fits with your other business systems.
  • Designate the right project manager and use a professional project management tool. A CRM implementation is a serious, time and money consuming effort. Approaching it with the right project management tools will maximize your ROI.
  • Spend time understanding your needs and goals. Engage in meaningful soul-searching – and dig deep! Involve as many relevant constants as you can. The decision to implement a CRM system should not simply be a mandate for new technology. You need to define what specific needs the system will serve, and how.
  • Analyze your business processes. Spending a substantial amount of time mapping out each and every business process – as painful and complicated as this may be – is absolutely critical for the success of any CRM implementation. Once you have examined and documented your existing processes, create an ideal new state for each of them. What would the process look like if there were no technological limitations? Construct a detailed diagram of each process. The collection of these diagrams will serve as your roadmap for designing the new system.
  • Place the candidate front and center. In a world of fierce competition and stealth applicants with fleeting attention, your only bet is to design a system that supports a deliberately created candidate experience. One simple way to do this? Every time you build a feature or create a process, ask yourself – what would this look and feel like to a prospective student?
  • Make sure your system is able to evolve. Your admissions requirements will change. Your school will launch new programs. Make sure your system is capable of accommodating all these changes fairly easily. A truly great CRM system should accommodate your needs for years to come. You shouldn’t have to bend your processes to make things work.

How will your CRM help the enrollment funnel?

One of the most talked-about topics for anyone involved in admissions or enrollment management is the enrollment funnel. It helps to understand what it is and how to leverage it to optimize your resource allocation for successfully engaging your prospective students.

An enrollment funnel is a tool that helps visualize and quantify your prospective students as they move through the stages of the enrollment process. While different schools may segment it slightly differently, there are generally several different stages. It usually goes like this:

  • Inquiries
  • Application Starts
  • Application Submits
  • Application Complete
  • Admits
  • Enrolls

Your CRM system should be able to segment prospective students into each category based on an action or set of actions the student has taken. For example, your inquiry form can be as simple as providing first name and email address only.

In fact, that’s what I would advocate for – keeping it simple and basic. Then find ways to engage your prospective students and entice them to continue to provide information about themselves that moves them along the admissions process.

Here’s how you can track and manage each stage of the enrollment funnel, powered by your CRM system.

Inquiries: Ideally, your CRM system should create a record in real-time when a prospective student fills out your inquiry form. It should allow you to track the source of the lead – this is very useful when you evaluate your various marketing channels. A best practice for the creating of an inquiry form is to require minimum information – a name and email address should be sufficient.

While a more complex form allows you to collect more information, it is a barrier and can adversely affect the top of your enrollment funnel. The system should have a way of detecting and dealing with duplicates. And it should enable you to deliver an automated and customized communication plan to your inquiries for each specific program. You should also be able to track open rates and unsubscribes as a way to determine the efficiency of your inquiry plan.

Application Starts: Typically, moving a candidate from an inquiry to an application start record requires a certain action, related to providing more information – about their educational and professional background as well as demographic data. This information will allow you to communicate with the applicant in a more meaningful and tailored way. It generally signifies a higher level of interest, compared to an inquiry.

Application Submits: A submitted application is a truly hot lead. If an applicant has gone through your entire application process, that means they are truly interested in you. While the application process’s primary purpose is to allow you to collect enough information to evaluate the candidate, it should also be smooth, intuitive and should keep the candidate interested all along. For example, the system should allow you to provide a real-time checklist that allows your applicant to track his or her progress through the process. It should also enable you to keep them updated on the status of their application once submitted.

Application Complete: An application complete is a truly critical status – it means that the applicant has not simply filled out the application form but has also provided all required supplemental materials such as recommendations, educational credentials, and test scores. As a result, you are able to make a decision about the desirability of the candidate for your program and render an admissions decision – and begin the process of yielding the admitted candidates.

Admits: The pool of admitted candidates represents one of the most critical parts of the enrollment process. These are the candidates you want for your school. And they are often sought after by many other programs.

A good CRM system will allow you to keep them engaged – through a communication plan, a set of yield events and other targeted activities. The system should also allow you to track for “red flags” – indications that a candidate is disengaged – and hopefully interfere and reengage them. It is critical that at this stage, you create a deliberate experience that keeps the candidate excited and involved.

Enrolls: While the enrolled stage – reaching the point when the candidates who are admitted commit to your program and begin their studies – is often the end of their work with the enrollment department, a well-designed CRM system should be able to allow a flow of their record into the systems of the respective departments who work with enrolled students – academic services, registrar, financial services, and eventually alumni.

Bringing It All Together

You’ll want your CRM to collect data, preferably in real-time, and allow you to store and access it in a variety of ways. It is also critical that your system can “speak” with the rest of the systems used on campus – it’s still very rare that an entire institution implements an organization-wide CRM system so it is imperative that information can flow in and out between partnering offices – registrar, academic services, alumni, development.

These tools should be in your CRM and it will help you navigate the enrollment funnel.

Dashboards: A well-designed set of dashboards will allow you to get regular, preferably real-time snapshots of the state of your business. Most often this means a snapshot of where you currently stand in achieving your enrollment goals.

Reports: Your CRM system should be able to provide both automated and ad-hoc reports. Hopefully, this won’t require coding, otherwise, your staff will find it challenging to create their own reports and this will hinder their work. While the creation of more complex reports can justifiably require the involvement of an IT expert, more basic reports should be easy to create by someone with limited technical skills.

Events management: Events are a critical activity for any enrollment department. They occur in all stages of the enrollment funnel and serve the purpose of keeping your candidates engaged and excited about your programs. A CRM system should allow you to post events, have candidates register for them and receive communication about them. It should also enable you to track registration and all events logistics.

Live chat: Some may argue that live chat is an extra. I would advocate that it should be a standard feature of any modern CRM system. Generally, you can use live chat in two major ways – as a means to provide superior customer service and capture the attention of your candidates as they browse your web site or as an inquiry generation tool. The way your live chat will be set up differs somewhat based on which purpose you decide it will serve.

The Evolution of Your Higher-Ed CRM

As your system evolves – and a contemporary CRM system should evolve continually – don’t forget to continue to place the candidate in the center. Before all else, a CRM system should allow the enrollment staff to provide a fast, efficient, resource-optimized and highly customized service to all candidates, regardless of where in the admission process they are. Higher education is very much a buyers market and providing top-notch customer service can be a point of differentiation just as much as your cutting edge curriculum.

Petia Whitmore is a former Dean of Graduate Admissions of the F.W. Olin Graduate School of Business at Babson College. As part of her role, she oversaw a successful CRM implementation for their enrollment and admissions funnel.