July 21, 2017

Conflicted on Relationship Management | From the Bell Tower

Steven BellAs higher education explores new approaches to student success, academic librarians are more interested in personalizing the library experience. Can we implement relationship management software and balance our privacy concerns?

Student success is one of higher education’s top priorities. Failure to persist to graduation hits students from lower income households the hardest, and accumulated student debt has profound impacts on their long-term prospects for success. To save students money and increase their life opportunities we must do everything possible to keep them enrolled and graduated in four years. Even a fifth year, let alone the sixth that is common for many students, will add thousands in debt. That should encourage academic librarians to do all they can to support that mission. Where we hesitate is in using student data to identify those who are at-risk and in need of librarian intervention. Can we balance those concerns with our commitment to student success?

What Helps Students Succeed

A key contributing factor to student success is the presence of relationships. When students feel isolated and disconnected from the college community they are at much greater risk of failure. As Kuh’s and Tinto’s research on success and retention demonstrate, we know that students are more likely to persist when connected to other students, faculty, and staff. This is further supported by the recent Gallup-Purdue Survey on student success: Graduates who were “emotionally supported”—who strongly agreed they received support from professors who cared about them as a person and made them excited about learning, and from a mentor who encouraged their goals and dreams—were twice as likely to be engaged in their work and almost twice as likely to be thriving in their well-being later in life.

Academic librarians build relationships with students through library employment, repeat consultations, and sometimes through instruction exposure. How can we make these connections more systematic and scalable when there are thousands of students and too few librarians to serve them? One possible solution is customer relationship management (CRM) software, a technology in which academic librarians have demonstrated a growing interest.

Success Through Relationships

CRM was designed for sales professionals to keep track of customers and leads, as well as inform product development and marketing. Businesses use CRM to achieve a strategic and competitive advantage using data to improve customer service. Whether owing to its cost or complexity, or its business nature, few libraries could even consider adopting CRM. But then some of our institutions acquired Salesforce, leading CRM software. It is used in financial services, advising, and other offices to improve the quality of customer service by developing profiles for students, personalizing their interactions, and maintaining better connections with them. No one thought to make it available to the library. What we hear from our colleagues in those other offices is that CRM can benefit higher education. In his LJ column about CRM, Andy Spackman advocates for it as a tool that liaisons could use to manage relationships with faculty and measure the impact of their work. That’s a perfect application for CRM, but let’s extend that thought to students.

Where It’s Happening

The other reason our institutions see value in CRM is the growing significance of personalized learning. Whether giving students the opportunity to custom tailor an academic program to their needs, progress through it at their own pace, or simplify processes like advising or registration, CRM is a favored technology for delivering an excellent customer service experience. That’s evidenced by the University of Texas’s recent decision to partner with Salesforce to develop a personalized learning platform. As more colleges and universities get desired results with CRM they will look to Salesforce and other providers for even more tools. Salesforce recently announced Advisor Link, a service that will allow students to get advising on a mobile device. As higher education institutions build more CRM capacity, it may increase opportunities for librarians to take advantage of it.

Looking at The Options

Springshare, developer of LibGuides, is already promoting its entry into this market, LibCRM. Librarians may be looking to leverage CRM to which their institution already subscribes—or something similar that is already used by the tutoring or writing center. We want to provide better customer service, and building relationships with community members is one way to do that through more personalized service. Notifying faculty when their students consult with a librarian (something students have told us they want) could contribute to that student’s course success. Regular, ongoing contact with students after a consultation could lead to the connection that provides the “emotional support” students desire.

What Do We Want?

CRM is still a market in its infancy when it comes to higher ed. Librarians will find little that meets all their needs. That’s why we need to be asking questions about CRM and those features we most want it to deliver. What outreach tools will work best to build the relationship? Software that interfaces with existing systems such as the ILS or college enterprise resource planning (ERP) is highly desirable. CRM produced for other industries or higher ed applications is unlikely to meet library needs. If academic librarians believe in the power of CRM, perhaps we first need to work together to identify what we want it to do and figure out how to make that happen, rather than satisficing for vendor offerings or adapting CRM used elsewhere in our institutions. There are other questions about CRM we need to be asking.

What Will We Allow

Other academic librarians will question why we even need CRM. Why should we invest in tools designed for salespeople and marketers? If we want to build relationships with students and faculty, what’s wrong with more traditional strategies, like getting out of the library and talking to community members, showing up at their events, and making a difference one person at a time? That might work in a small, close-knit academic community, but scaling that level of personalization in a larger one could be daunting, if not entirely impossible. Then there are concerns about how CRM software will collect and store student data. Privacy concerns are a legitimate factor when we consider any new system or software that might put student data at risk of exposure or misuse.

A Conflicted Mind

How will we ensure students’ privacy on sensitive matters related to their academic performance, research topics, and what is discussed in a private consultation? An encouraging development that may help all higher ed institutions with student data privacy issues is a new initiative from Stanford University, Responsible Use of Student Data in Higher Education. It brings together multiple institutions to develop sensible policies for the ethical use of student data.

CRM software is certainly deserving of attention from academic librarians. With so much on the line when it comes to supporting student success, and the opportunities we have to contribute to the institutional mission, we need to consider every option—even those like CRM that may leave us conflicted about our priorities and core values. We should do what’s best for students. Starting a conversation with them around CRM and data privacy may be a good way to make sure we get it right.

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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Comments

  1. Very topical, we happened to be having this discussion right now and were comparing salesforce, sugar, and a few others. You are correct, no one has gotten anywhere close to getting their product palatable for the edu market.

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