Customer relationship management systems have become a standard marketing and sales tool in all industries, including higher education. Colleges and universities are investing in CRM systems to streamline their recruitment processes and communications with current students and alumni, keeping track of campus visits and student records, logging calls or emails and providing recruiters with access to more information about prospective students.

TargetX, a Conshohocken, PA-based higher education CRM provider founded in 1998, helps more than 400 colleges and universities with their recruitment efforts. Marketing News caught up with Brian Niles, CEO of TargetX, to discuss CRM’s role in higher ed recruiting, as well as CRM best practices. What follow are excerpts from the interview. To access the full Q&A, check out the May 2013 issue of Marketing News at MarketingPower.com/marketingnews.

Q: How does the customer relationship management process differ in higher ed recruiting versus other B-to-C industries?

A: Probably the biggest difference is the timeline. Before, it was pretty straightforward. Students in high school looked at colleges starting their junior year, when they took the ACT or SAT. Five years ago, it started in the prep school market where students would start looking at colleges their sophomore year and now some students, as soon as they start high school, they start talking about college and visiting colleges. The lifecycle of the recruiting cycle has actually expanded from an 18-month process to a three- to four-year process, so maintaining that relationship with the student over a longer period of time is important.

[Higher ed] is not as clear-cut as with other industries, where there’s a sales process, and a closing. In higher ed, the sales cycle can be years of cultivating that student. Then there’s the difference of geographic reach. For some schools, it’s a 100- to 200-mile radius and for other schools, it can be the whole globe, so it’s a matter of maintaining that relationship on a global [scale].

CRM is still a relatively new set of letters together [in higher ed]. Calling students ‘customers’ and talking marketing and sales, is still very new in this industry, even to the point that many institutions are opposed to those words. If you uttered the word ‘customer,’ you’d be chastised on some campuses. When you look at it from a CRM point of view, you are truly managing that customer relationship and while no one outside the admissions office may want to talk about it that way, everybody within admissions should be.

Q: How does CRM software help colleges and universities connect with not just recruits, but also current students, alumni and potential donors?

A: The biggest thing that’s happening right now is getting rid of different vendors and solutions that they need to do their job. We track some of our clients to find out how many solutions and vendors and tools they use to recruit their students, and [some] institutions use 20 different vendors. They’ve got an e-mail vendor, a print vendor, an online application vendor, a Web vendor, a live help or FAQ Web vendor, all of these different vendors, and the challenge they have is moving data from one of those to another regularly.

I always ask [our clients] what their pain points are. One vice president for enrollment said, ‘It seems like all my staff does is move data from one vendor to another.’ That was a light-bulb moment for us. Colleges … all have more and more vendors, and have to do more with less money and resources, and all they’re doing is moving data. Then there are the security concerns of moving data from one vendor to another. CRM allows us to bring it all to one place. To do an e-mail campaign, we don’t have to move data. We can use the e-mail tools in the CRM [system]. If we want to do a print campaign, we have an integrated online form and we can let the system move the data and let the people get back to the job of recruiting students. It’s all about becoming a much more efficient operation.

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