Students As Customers? Salesforce Tailors CRM Tools for Schools

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What does customer relationship management have to do with improving learning outcomes?

Salesforce, the San Francisco software juggernaut renowned for its CRM tools and lavish parties, is betting schools can achieve greater student success with its customer relationship management system.

The publicly traded company believes the same CRM systems that businesses use to track customer data and interactions can also help schools recruit, develop relationships with students and improve graduation rates.

At its annual Dreamforce conference last week, Salesforce.org, the company's foundation, announced some features to its CRM built specifically for education purposes, as well as a new mobile tool for advisors slated for 2017. Students will be able to use the Advisor Link tool on their mobile devices to connect with advisors, make appointments and track their steps to graduation.

Earlier this year, Salesforce.org released Higher Education Data Architecture, its open data architecture that lets schools set up Salesforce out of the box configured for higher education. Products like HEDA are part of the software company’s suite of recruiting, analytics and engagement tools for education.

Looking for the right CRM

Salesforce isn’t the only player in the game. Other colleges also use software and platforms like Ellucian and Marketo to manage marketing automation and track student success.

Higher-ed institutions are not the only ones turning to CRM and marketing software. Boston Day and Evening Academy, a Horace Mann charter high school in Boston serving students transferring from the traditional system, started looking for a database that could support its competency-based grading system around 2014.

The academy of about 400 students and 40 staff focuses on a unique student population — many transferring from the traditional system, coming from low-income families or unable to find success in their previous schools because of social and emotional factors.

According to Arpi Karapetyan, the academy’s accountability and communications manager, the school started with a custom-made database first, as well as other options like Haiku, a learning management system. But it finally decided to work with 501Partners to develop a system on Salesforce’s CRM system to ensure convenience and flexibility.

Incoming students sit down with an advisor and are placed in different modules based on their Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System scores. Students will usually attend four classes a day and an advising session three times a week.

In order to complete a module, or class, students have to complete all the required benchmarks, and most graduate on average in about two and a half years, Karapetyan says. Some have been there for six years, while others graduate in about a year.

Tracking data with a purpose

BDEA uses the tool to track everything from attendance interventions and course completion to behavior interventions and family and home issues. If an advisor or teacher learns that a student becomes homeless, for instance, he or she can add it to the student’s record so the school is aware.

“We’re tracking everything we can think of,” Karapetyan says.

“We’re tracking how long it’s taking them to complete classes, so that’s been really useful in helping us restructure some of our modules,” she adds. “We notice a lot of our students are getting stuck in the earlier classes, and so we’re thinking about how to change those classes so that doesn’t happen.”

Students can use the system themselves, too, to update their educators and request services. If a student adds an update saying he or she needs help with housing, the staff at school in charge of that would get an email alert.

Staff will also report and look out for other indicators like depression and anxiety, parenting and recent death in the family. Based on those indicators, the school can provide counseling and connect them to the right people, and the academy is considering offering parenting classes, Karapetyan says.

“That informed conversation really helps changes the way the student views the school, and it helps them build a relationship that connects them to the school in a way that doesn’t happen as much.”

Asked whether privacy concerns over data collection have come up in the school or community, Karapetyan says “people see only the information they need to see to support students.” The system keeps logs confidential, and only creators and student support staff can see the information.

BDEA doesn’t yet have the capacity to get parents on the accounts, but the school does home visits and asks students to share the student’s login when parent meetings happen, according to Karapetyan.

The academy has been working with a few other area schools, like Dorchester Academy, to implement a model like its own. Karapetyan recommends schools develop a mission-driven approach to data, rather than collecting data for the sake of collecting it.

“Make sure things that you are collecting have a purpose. Uniformity is so important in doing any later analysis,” she says.

Karapetyan says her goal for the next year is to be able to use all the data they are collecting to develop some predictive analytics, such as identifying the high-risk students and their barriers to graduation. In an ideal situation, educators would use that information as context to provide support for students when they walk in the door, Karapetyan says.

“That’s kind of the vision of what we’re going to be doing with all this of data, and this is why we collect a lot of historical data in addition to what’s happening while they’re with us,” she says.

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