A guest post by Lawrence Levy.

My friend Lawrence Levy originally wrote this note (below) in response to a good discussion about CRM that’s being going on for a few weeks in the Linked In group, “Higher Education Management”. However, he discovered upon trying to add it to the discussion that he had gone far past the allowable number of characters. I offered to post it here, instead.

CRM for Higher Education is an exploding vertical, as more schools increasingly adopt the technology for various stages of the student life-cycle.  The most common CRM need for Higher Ed (as evidenced by this discussion) is often centered on Enrollment Management and typically includes such departments as Marketing, Recruitment, and Admission.  However, it is important to keep in mind that CRM can be applied to almost any area of the Higher Ed enterprise, including Student Services, Retention, Career Services, Alumni Relations, Community Relations, and beyond.  A wise choice of CRM vendor will be the one that provides robust Enrollment Management functionality, but that also allows for the product to scale to other departments in future phases/iterations.

In the case of Enrollment Management, I am convinced that effective Enrollment Management must include a CRM.  Band-aid efforts to “get by” within the existing SIS might work for a little while, but at the end of the day, the limitations within the products remain, and it is truly unwise to continue to suffer through the pain when great CRM solutions are available that demonstrate phenomenal return-on-investment.

If one looks around the Higher Ed community it is apparent that most schools are currently employing one of three tactics to handle their internal enrollment operations:

1)      Rogue and legacy systems – Typically a “free for all” where each staff member is utilizing their own methodology (spreadsheets, email inboxes, paper records) to maintain their daily activities and interactions.  Some legacy software systems may also exist which act as data repositories, but they are usually extremely limited in functionality.

2)     Student Information System (SIS) – By far the most common system in place at most schools, however as many can attest, the leading SIS products on the market were not developed as “relationship management” tools and are therefore sorely lacking in their ability to provide CRM-type functionality.  Admissions personnel find it challenging to quickly segment their constituency based on various filters, communicate efficiently on a mass or individual basis, and see real-time data within the Enrollment Funnel.  Admissions SIS users often have difficulty getting the reports they need (without appealing to an already overburdened IT staff), and usually can’t easily customize the product to accommodate their enrollment requirements.  Some of the more common SIS complaints seem to focus on the limited ability to create automation and workflow, limited communication and activity history, and even the significant expense associated with something as simple as adding a new data field to the system.  While the SIS companies have made efforts to improve their CRM-type functionality, for the most part, the new modules require expensive and time-consuming deployment projects, with the final deliverables still lacking in robust CRM features.  Furthermore, the integration between the modules is often overstated during the sales pitch, and clients only learn the truth after committing significant capital and time into lengthy deployment projects.  By that time, it is too late to switch.  In short, a mature CRM system is an Enrollment Management necessity that is best left to those companies that specialize in the space.

3)     CRM – The third way in which schools are managing recruitment/admissions/enrollment is, of course, through some type of CRM.  There are certainly many choices on the market and they are not all created equal.  Major factors to consider include integration options (integration with the SIS is usually vital), Total Cost of Ownership, deployment timeline, Higher Ed specificity, and of course cost!

I would suggest that Higher Ed institutions also consider the following decisive factor when selecting a CRM vendor:  Select a “CRM in the Cloud”!

The term “cloud computing” is the dominating discussion point in the tech space nowadays, although it is often misused and/or misunderstood.  It may be easiest to define the term by first explaining what it is not….

Cloud computing does not require on-premise servers.  Schools do not need to invest in infrastructure, hardware, software, IT support, real-estate etc. in order to operate.  In the cloud, upgrades are seamless and new technology is readily supported (such as smartphone/mobile access, social networking integration).  Workflow and automation can be easily created and modified to accommodate various business procedures.  The concept is called “clicks, not code”….it is the idea that you do not need to be a Computer Science Engineer in order to add fields, create reports, control security access etc.  With a true cloud-computing platform, regular folks can be trained to be system administrators and can learn to control much of the functionality that previously fell on the IT departments’ shoulders.  It sounds unreal, and many are skeptical.  Furthermore not all cloud-platforms are created equal, which casts even more doubt on the reality of the cloud-computing promise.  Suffice it to say, however, that Cloud Computing is very real.  The common concerns and roadblocks such as security and reliability have been put to rest.  In fact, it is borderline-irresponsible of a decision maker to ignore credible cloud-computing options on the basis of security policies/excuses alone.  Much information can be found on the success of cloud-computing CRM platforms across many industries, including healthcare, banking, government, and indeed Higher Education.

However, buyer beware…warning – don’t be fooled by the “false cloud”.  Marc Benioff (Chairman and CEO of Salesforce.com) cautions us that cloud-computing is not simply defined as software that is “accessible over the web”.  Many software vendors nowadays claim to offer “cloud” solutions, when in reality, they have simply taken their existing technology and hosted it remotely, accessible via the internet.  This is NOT cloud computing.  Just because the product is being hosted remotely does not solve the typical pain-points, such as limited flexibility and limited end-user empowerment (can’t create your own reports, can’t create automation, can’t control data access and governance etc.).  The “false cloud” is the mistaken idea that one can simply host traditional software remotely, and thereby solve the same problems that were inherent in the product when it was installed on-premise at the client’s location.  Since these products were not architected as cloud applications that live within multitenant environments, they continue to be plagued by their own shortcomings, even when hosted remotely.  Furthermore, the total cost of ownership can be as costly as their on-premise counterparts because they still essentially require the same level of resources to support them.

It is important to understand that true cloud computing contains the following characteristics (the cloud-computing litmus test):

1)      Efficiency – Cloud computing leverages a multitenant environment.  To put it plainly, think of a server as a home.  Cloud computing platforms can be compared to condominium buildings.  Everyone has their own unique unit, with their own key and secure front door; however there are still tremendous efficiencies in terms of sharing one roof, one basement, one building etc.  Traditional software is more akin to a single-family housing development; multiple roofs, multiple basements, multiple buildings.  Just because a vendor is hosting a product remotely does not mean that it is able to operate within a multitenant environment.  They still cannot offer seamless upgrades, agile development, and maintenance-free living.

2)     Economical – Is the product affordable?  What is the Total Cost of Ownership?  Common wisdom dictates that true cloud computing is deployed, upgraded, and customized at a rate of “5 times faster and half the cost” of traditional software products (source:  Salesforce.com).  Anyone who has been through an 18 to 24 month enterprise software project can appreciate the tremendous savings intrinsic in cloud computing systems.  With cloud-computing, product customization and configuration occurs on the fly.  You do not spend 6 months gathering requirements before hard-coding the product.  Instead, the Subject Matter Experts at the school can participate in a Business Process Review project that includes an almost real-time creation of their vision.  If something is incorrect, it can usually be remedied with a few mouse-clicks.  If it sounds like magic…..well it almost is…but I promise you that we do it every day.

3)     Democratic – can the product be used by large and small institutions alike?  Can some schools only have 5 users of the system, while other schools have hundreds or thousands of users?  False-cloud products might be available over the web, but they are still exclusionists towards small schools that cannot afford their hefty price-tags.  True cloud-computing products work equally well for very small teams, but can scale upwards to essentially limitless users, without the slightest impact on operational effectiveness.

If you are talking about CRM, then in my opinion, Salesforce.com is by far the industry leader (their stock symbol is “CRM” for goodness sake; NYSE: CRM).  No other CRM product is as mature, with the largest user-base, as well as a marketplace of custom “apps” built specifically for the platform.  However, like any technology, if poorly deployed, even Salesforce can be difficult to handle.  That is why our company, Enrollment Rx, is dedicated to developing solutions specifically for Higher Education on Salesforce.com.  We transform Salesforce into a Higher Ed product that draws upon all of Salesforce’s CRM features, while infusing the unique functionality needed for academic institutions.  In addition to Enrollment Rx (Enrollment Management in the Cloud), we also offer Placement Rx (Career Services in the Cloud), Alumni Rx (Alumni Management in the Cloud) and recently launched STUTRAX (SIS in the Cloud).  We are always happy to demo our solutions online.  Please feel free to contact me for assistance in connecting with our staff.  I can be reached at levy@enrollmentrx.com or www.enrollmentrx.com


  1. Lawrence, this is an invaluable post. I do have some comments and differing perspectives to offer. Note, I am a “Vendor,” so take what I say with a brick of salt as you wish.

    CRM has indeed “crossed the chasm” as we software people like to say. It is in what is called the Early Majority of adoption in our market. Think of a bell curve; the higher ed market is a climber on the bell, more than halfway to the top of its peak.

    My company, which sells Talisma CRM and also a SIS having CRM features inside of it, often encounter institutions where CRM is entirely new. But almost as often, we called in by an institution that is ready to “get real” and move away from an enrollment-only CRM system that simply can’t dance across the SIS, LMS, donor apps and answer other department’s requirements.

    As you point out, the long-view will require institutions to have a cradle to endowment perspective on who and what mission a CRM is meant to serve. Indiana University gets it, and they are rolling out CRM enterprise-wide, which encompasses academics, student services, foundation and alumni — not just recruiting and marketing activities. [Full disclosure: We are IU’s vendor in this project, and now integrating our advancement/donor application into the CRM — because we foresee that this market will eventually require a truly end-to-end CRM and donor management system. We intend to be the first mover.]

    What’s at play here is the dynamic nature of your consituencies.
    Your student is your teaching assistant is your employee is your payroll deduction donor is your future board member is your workforce ally is your supplier, etc., on and on. That is higher ed…and it is more complex and intertwined that business-to-buiness services, manufacturing and other verticals.

    That said, I will go further to state that my experience in both education and in B2B verticals like healthcare and automative tells me that commercial providers of CRM, while well intended and ambitious to serve all comers to CRM, well, they just don’t know a FERPA from a FAFSA. Education and all the associated academics through alumni lifecycles is really a complex business, not as warm and fuzzy as some would like to project upon it. It is not widget sales or travel services or call center operations. It involves all of those kinds of complexities, but also intimate knowledge and sensitivities to issues of personal preference vs. institutional policy, aid and billing interrelated to academics, hard and fast privacy but in tandem to the right degrees of access and transparency — all depending upon your role and responsibility.

    With respect to the concept of a cloud application as something configurable vs. custom-coded, that is indeed very attractive. Few of us hunger for an ERP-like implementation cycle to get CRM up and running. But also keep in mind some software applications in our education space do in fact operate on a tenet of configurability, vs. customizing modules that are brittle to change, all while offering more liberal options to either license, outsource for managed hosting or elect Software as a Service (SaaS is one of the more clinical terms for cloud computing, which salesforce prefers to marketize as its cloud…).

    So, IMHO, a cloud app doesn’t hold patent rights to perfection, flexibility or ease of use — and in fact, making cloud-ism the overriding determinant in a CRM selection may result in sacrifices on levels you (and you business officer) may never tolerate if you saw them coming.

    For example, over time, licensed products can tend to have a lower total cost of ownership than cloud apps. With a cloud, you’re more or less renting the software. Depending upon your scenario with respect to your IT group and your staff’s technical savvy, it may in fact be quite easy and more affordable long-term to buy a license and run the app on a server on your own. Choosing a vendor that offers cloud-only…well, you’re choosing to ride one horse for the life of your program. That has its own unique risks, rewards, liberations and limitations. Buyer beware is all anyone can say. My company sells all three versions — there’s simply not one right answer for this marketplace.

    Managed hosting means you buy the license and a vendor hosts and even manages the backend technical side of things. The costs long-term tend to ride between on-premise, do-it-yourself and full cloud or “SaaS” types of contracts. The latter roll everything into one price per user, for example, but that cost per user carries forward interminably…and increases over time when the vendor exercises rights to price increases.

    Managed hosting, on the other hand, lets you retire the costs of acquiring the software, and then partition care and feeding of the app and its hardware on a separate contract. Now, you can elect what you will do inhouse for service levels, vs. outsource; you can survive if you no longer like the vendor by switching the app you DO like to another hosting center; and so on… Greater flexibility, and delegation of technical management on a more competitive basis in the market.

    I will stop here, but I do love these kinds of discussions. CRM is an exciting and vital category to higher ed right now, because it can eventually impact your recruiting competitiveness, retention best practices, student service expecatations, donor relations, and so forth. Could this possibly be more a vital enterprise application than your ERP? I’d say, yes, that a time will come on the near horizon where the ERP devolves into more and more of a data repository, while the CRM expands to do all the workflow and communication, the real-time reporting and analysis, calculations to help forecast success or intercept trouble, and so on.

    Institutions face some pretty complicated political and philosophical decisions when selecting CRMs, too:

    >> Is CRM just for admissions at our university?

    >> If it is just for one department now, but not forever, how do we adjust our thinking as to funcational requirements, deployment method and overall vendor selection?

    >> How well does it integrate with our SIS? Do we bank on our ERP provider’s CRM or look closely at best-in-class CRMs and how they integrate to a SIS?

    >> Do we need real-time integration to SIS, portals, LMS, etc., and to what extent in terms of field level and record level data…?

    >> Who will ultimately own this application? Even if alumni department is buying this now, we can all see IT will likely “own” it operationally? How will this affect alumni office in the future when there are demands from mulitple departments and even multiple campus sites upon IT for changes, upgrades, integration, etc.?

    I look forward to watching this thread, Lawerence! Thanks,



  2. I agree with much of Lawrence’s posting. I would only add schools must factor in their admissions workflow when seeking out an admissions management system. For example, if your school is a private sector school, you may have a requirement for a system that enforces a quick speed-to-contact, may need an integrated dialer for the admissions counselors, may want to distribute prospects in real-time to ACs, may want to centrally prioritize each AC’s inquiries, etc. These feature requirements are often quite different than those of a traditional school.


  3. Thanks Tim and Martin for your feedback. I agree whole-heartedly with Martin’s comment that different institutions will have differing requirements based on their particular business model. That is why our firm chooses to deliver cloud-based solutions, as we can accommodate the variations within each client’s needs, while still providing the CRM functionality that is standard across any type of Higher Ed institution. In our case, we have clients that run the gamut of public, private, non-profit, and for-profit institutions. Each one values a different element of CRM more highly, and they are able to fit the product to their needs. Whether it is speed to contact that is the emphasis, or simply being able to generate a better picture of each applicant from a predictive modeling perspective, all Higher Ed schools should be employing a good CRM for Enrollment Management.
    Tim, while our companies have somewhat different approaches when it comes to technology, I know that there are many ways to skin a cat. I just want to clarify one point in particular….in the case of our chosen cloud-computing platform (Salesforce.com), we are certainly able to write code where appropriate, and indeed have done so in considerable amounts. However, the “clicks not code” concept is a tremendous time-saver when dealing with the more simple and straightforward parts of the deployment, such as field creation, basic workflow, reports and dashboard development, and even new module development that does not require hard coded functionality. I should emphasize that cloud-computing does not eliminate all code (nor should it), but it significantly reduces the project timeline and increases client control. We find that the Salesforce cloud provides the best blend of clicks while maintaining the ability to create code as needed. Thanks again for the great discussion.


  4. May I know what you mean by CRM?


  5. Sure. It refers to Customer Relationship Management. Here’s some background on the subject:


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