Transforming student services with Salesforce at the University of Michigan-Dearborn

Profile picture for user ddpreez By Derek du Preez January 6, 2021 Audio mode
Prior to using Salesforce as a CRM platform, students at the University of Michigan-Dearborn had a challenging time getting the information that they needed.

An image of an A-level student behind a pile of bookts
(Image by Wokandapix from Pixabay )

Starting college or university is a stressful and demanding time for a new student. Not only are you typically settling into a new environment and making new friends, but you're also often having to navigate a maze of higher education bureaucracy. From getting registered with the institution, to settling student finances and finding accommodation, it can be a daunting first step into adulthood. 

This is made even more challenging if the education institution itself is relying on manual processes and outdated systems to process student requests. That's the situation the University of Michigan-Dearborn found itself in, prior to rolling out Salesforce CRM this year to consolidate its view of the ‘student' and get a better understanding of student interactions. 

Founded in 1959, University of Michigan-Dearborn was created after a gift of just over 200 acres was given from the Ford Motor Company. Since then, it has grown as a comprehensive, top-ranked, regional public university - with close to 10,000 students. 

Carrie Shumaker, Chief Information Officer at the University, was talking at the recent virtual Salesforce DreamTX event, where she explained how Michigan-Dearborn is using Salesforce CRM to assist with both its digital and cultural transformation, where staff are working differently as they see and collect new information about students. 

The University began rolling out Salesforce case management in June last year, and followed it up with financial aid and admissions in the summer months. It is now getting ready to go live with student accounts and is preparing to launch a 24/7 chatbot. The aim is that every phone call, email, walk in visit, or chat creates a case that puts the student at the center and that issues are resolved in a much more rapid timeframe. Shumaker said: 

CRM places the learner at the centre. CRM is a data and a workflow platform - you may think of it as an interaction platform, but it also has a lot of opportunities for data and workflow. So you can build a single view of your customer, the student, from common data sources and then make that view available for interaction and analysis for student service workers across your institution. 

And at all times it places the student at the centre, where we see how the student is interacting with the institution. 

Navigating complexity

Shumaker said that she and her team began by identifying what jobs needed to be done across the University, which helped to figure out where to start with the transformation project. This helped Michigan-Dearborn shift from a tool focused strategy, where it had a basket of different tools, to a customer/student focused strategy where the student journey is the focus. She explained:

Taking a student from matriculation to graduation, making that easier for the student, which helps the students succeed, is our top level goal as an institution. I think it's important when we're trying to figure out how to help a student to remember first that we are interacting with a human being. 

Humans are very smart, in many ways, but humans are not so smart when we need to navigate through decisions that are new to us, or that are complex, or when we cannot immediately see the effects or reap the benefits of making a decision or a next step.  And that describes higher education perfectly. We know what we want to attain but we don't always take the right steps and it's not always clear or easy to us how to do that. It's even harder for us when the channel is hard to use or confusing.

Simply put, Michigan-Dearborn saw Salesforce as an opportunity to create more channels for students, simpler channels, that enable a personalised experience. The aim for the CRM is that it will know for each student what they need to do next and how to communicate with them, remembering each step that has been taken so far and recording that journey. 

When you think about student services - for example registration, financial aid, student accounts - there are many jobs involved and these jobs are critical. Students are going to have questions and problems and Shumaker recognises that every touch point with a student is either an opportunity to "frustrate them or delight them". She added: 

And certainly one way to delight students is reduce obstacles or what I think of as friction in their university business transactions. 

So the CRM can help by providing multiple channel opportunities to ask questions - so a phone, an email, a webform, a chat, as well as a walk up. And in the future a chat bot. This means we can ensure that we're giving them high quality accurate information. And we can also analyse the types of questions and see what's being asked and how we can make that process less confusing - so, a feedback loop. Is there a better way that we need to be giving students information? Is there more information we need to put on the website? Or in a different format to hand out to them?

Prior to this, the University had no record of these interactions with students, apart from maybe email, so the opportunity to change the experience for the student and the ways of working for University staff is significant. Shumaker said: 

We had no recollection of their visit or what we had told them. So if a student called one day about a scholarship, then called back the next day, there would be no record of that contact and there was no follow up to ensure that issues that needed further research were eventually resolved. So we really had no idea of how many students were having issues. 

What's next? 

The University is now looking to bring advisors into the platform, as well as create a portal for better student communication and better organised information. It hopes that all this data will improve communication with students. Shumaker said:

In the future we'll be able to analyse the volume continually and assess what's generating more questions and answer those before they even start. So after enabling this too, we also activated Salesforce live chat as another channel for people to talk with graduate and undergraduate admissions and ask questions. 

Live Chat gives students instant synchronous answers without picking up a phone. Live Chat really builds on case management. We needed case management as a foundation layer because we wanted to log conversations as cases and link them up to a student, and we also needed a way to record cases via a web form after hours when the chat operator is not available. Or if the chat operator obviously can't answer the question, we need to log it and send it off to someone who can. 

That live chat tool is now also being used as a way to develop the University's future chatbot, which Shumaker hopes will provide a 24-hour first line of enquiry and will be able to answer student questions, record them into cases, all without a human operator necessarily talking to the student.