High-Touch, High-Tech: How UW–Madison Online Is Using a CRM to Support Learners


All across the Badger state—from Beloit to Bayfield—approximately 600,000 Wisconsin residents have completed some college coursework, and then stopped for a variety of reasons without earning a degree.

Increasingly, the pathway to a college degree doesn’t always follow the “traditional” route—in which a teenager graduates from high school and goes directly to live on a college campus, pursuing an undergraduate degree over the next four consecutive years, give or take.

To increase opportunities for students who can’t attend in person and want to balance work, family or other obligations, the new UW–Madison Online: Undergraduate Degrees initiative offers another pathway to an undergraduate degree from the University of Wisconsin–Madison. The program’s first fully online undergraduate degree in personal finance launched this fall when classes started September 2; more online bachelor’s degree options will follow in the coming years.

Described as “a degree program for wherever you are in life,” the flexible online format allows them to accommodate busy work and family schedules. To promote students’ success and help them overcome barriers, enrollment and academic and career coaches with UW–Madison Online: Undergraduate Degrees offer personalized, “high-touch” support for both prospective and enrolled students.

High-touch support, high-tech methods

And in order to achieve that human-touch level of individualized support, that’s perhaps surprisingly where the high-tech comes in.

With potentially more barriers that might stand in the way of degree completion when compared to a traditional student, a one-to-one support experience for students is a critical foundation of the initiative, explains Diana Allen, technical lead for UW–Madison Online: Undergraduate Degrees’ implementation of the Salesforce CRM (constituent relationship management).

“We need our coaches to be really connected with these people, to have a really strong relationship,” Allen says. And that’s particularly important to support the working adult students who’ve already overcome obstacles to get to UW–Madison Online: Undergraduate Degrees.

As Allen explains, the nature of the enrollment, and academic and career coach support is in building a relationship with the student that encompasses deeper information about the student’s history and current life status than what’s normally tracked for on-premise undergraduate applicants.

“For whatever reason, ‘life happened’—and because of that, these students previously weren’t able to finish their degree,” Allen explains. “And now they’re at a place where they can think about completing their degree. When we bring these students in, we don’t want them to have to stop again—you want them to be able to go all the way. So our academic and career coaches are by their side, all the way through.”

Using a CRM, enrollment coaches, who accompany prospects through their application and acceptance, as well as the academic and career coaches who support students throughout their degree, can leverage technology to both personalize and streamline communication with their prospects and students.

Without a system like a CRM, the coaches would have to manually track every interaction with a prospective student (think lots of Post-Its, Outlook folders, Excel spreadsheets and endless mental notes). But with a CRM, coaches, admissions, and other staff are all equipped with the technology to help them tailor their support based on knowledge about the learner gained through multiple interactions. The CRM also helps enrollment coaches cover for each other’s vacation and leave time, as well as staff turnover—data isn’t simply lost in a file folder, a personal inbox, or in someone’s head when they leave.

“With the right ecosystem, we can create powerful, customized engagement with every learner at every step of their educational journey,” explains Kyla Farroll, enterprise CRM program owner for the university’s OneBadger initiative.

What is a CRM?

A CRM is a type of technology platform designed to initiate, track and support interactions and communications between an organization and its “constituents”—in UW–Madison’s case, that means our students. Users of a CRM—like enrollment coaches and academic and career coaches with UW–Madison Online: Undergraduate Degrees—can then use the CRM to see a wide variety of data points, from demographic information to email exchanges to personal preferences.

And that data is all collected and displayed in a way that enables users to leverage that information—bolstering their ability to have personalized, more meaningful and customized interactions with students.

The central use of a CRM can allow departments across the university to break down silos of information and data about our students, so that faculty and staff can quickly collaborate across departments in order to better support and engage learners.

For instance, a student may require assistance across university departments, from academics to student affairs. Without a CRM that connects data in a single platform, it’s hard to get a big-picture view of that student’s needs; and as a result, students often find themselves having to repeat themselves over and over.

“We coined a phrase that what this really means is, there’s a 360-degree circle of support for our learners—so they feel like they belong, and they feel like we know them,” Farroll explains. “They don’t have to tell the same story over and over again to different departments across the university.”

At UW–Madison, a product called Salesforce was selected to be the university’s enterprise CRM. Founded in 1999 as a cloud-based Software as a Service (SaaS), it is ranked No. 1 worldwide among CRMs and has evolved to provide specialized products and support for different industries, including higher education.

“OneBadger” is the term used to describe UW–Madison’s vision for using the Salesforce CRM at the university, which will ultimately be an enterprise-wide vision.

How UW–Madison Online implemented Salesforce

When Allen came onboard about a year ago, the Office of Admissions and Recruitment and the Division of Continuing Studies had already collaborated to launch the university’s first recruiting instance of Salesforce in July 2018. While in the same Salesforce instance, there are distinct differences in the implemented functionality for OAR compared with DCS.

After the initial launch, Allen’s job was then to build some additional pieces on top of this new framework, to help bolster the recruitment efforts and student experience for UW–Madison Online, as the program prepared to launch the university’s first fully online undergraduate degree program.

Driven by tight deadlines, Allen and her team completed the initial Salesforce launch in early March 2020. This work involved gathering requirements and expanding on the recruiting functions previously implemented to add functionality to support the student inquiries that began to come in after UW–Madison Online: Undergraduate Degrees launched its marketing and opened applications for the personal finance degree program.

“Given the short timeframe, we didn’t have a lot of time to do fancy development,” Allen said.

Subsequent development phases built the technical framework for the academic and career coaches to begin following and supporting students after matriculation.

“We were building on the shoulders of what the Office of Admissions and Recruiting and the Division of Continuing Studies already had in place, essentially cloning what they had developed in terms of being able to track phone calls, emails, texts and all that kind of activity,” Allen explained.

In the development work for UW–Madison Online: Undergraduate Degrees, some additional connections needed to be made and different information needed to be collected because their students are pursuing online degrees, as opposed to on-premise undergraduates or students enrolling in a non-degree Continuing Studies program or course.

Helping students feel “heard and seen”

Before having a CRM, enrollment coaches would have to find a way to keep track of when they talk to students and about what and what they learned. Now, having a robust CRM like Salesforce allows for more relevant, personalized and well-timed communication, Allen says.

“Before a CRM, a coach might say, ‘Oh, I haven’t talked to that student for a week. Maybe I should check in,’” Allen explains. “But now, all of that is part of Salesforce. The central difference there is that level of integrity the coach is able to maintain. The CRM and additional tools help the student feel really heard and seen.”

Eventually, a student profile will be built into OneBadger, part of the enterprise CRM vision to build a single place where learners, staff, faculty, and community partners across the university can interact with each other using accurate, reliable, and timely information.

Meanwhile, another big piece of the UW–Madison Online: Undergraduate Degrees Salesforce implementation included building a ticketing system called “cases.” One benefit to having cases built out is tracking email inquiries that come in, so they don’t get lost in the volume of an individual person’s inbox.

As an early adopter of Salesforce on campus, Allen says she’s excited to see how the OneBadger initiative is poised to build an enterprise CRM strategy across the university, empowering CRM users to translate data, insights and efficiency into actionable activities that will support learner success.

A common CRM could “create solid data sharing and data consumption in a consistent way,” Allen says. “That’s a key word, that ‘consistency’ piece. How do we all get connected and find the right commonalities? For as big and siloed as we can be at UW–Madison, that’s both the biggest challenge and the biggest opportunity.”

Learn more about OneBadger

The best way to know if your group can benefit from using the OneBadger CRM is to talk with Enterprise CRM Program Owner Kyla Farroll, who can evaluate your circumstances and let you know if and how your team fits into the OneBadger CRM vision. Learn more at https://crm.it.wisc.edu/.