Episode 36: Software, stewardship, and the student experience

Thought Feeder
Thought Feeder
Episode 36: Software, stewardship, and the student experience
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Eric Stoller discusses the higher ed tech landscape and provides helpful advice for colleges and universities evaluating digital tools.

Episode Transcript

Eric Stoller: My rider says I need to be thanked at least three times 

Joel Goodman: Exactly. And you will be, so at least, at least three times.

Jon-Stephen Stansel: A jar full of green m&ms.

Eric Stoller: Exactly. A stage that’s at least 50 feet across, but only like five feet deep. 

Joel Goodman: Welcome to the Thought Feeder podcast. My name is Joel Goodman with me as always is the somewhat technically challenged today for once in his life, Jon-Stephen Stansel.

Jon-Stephen Stansel: Coming live from a the bottom of the well.

Joel Goodman: Bottom of the, well, exactly. And we are so excited to have Eric Stoller with us today on the show. Eric, I didn’t get your title to say exactly what you are, so I’m just gonna let you introduce yourself and, and what you’re doing now after you know, your years and years and years in the higher education industry.

 Eric Stoller: Yeah, no, thanks, Joel. And Jon. Thanks for having me on the show and yeah, my new title at Element451 is VP of Product Strategy. I just started this past March, so a fairly new to the company and the team and off to the races, doing all kinds of cool stuff when it comes to, as you could imagine with my title, with product and with strategy, but a lot as well with marketing and just sort of overall leadership stuff. 

Joel Goodman: That’s awesome. I’ve always kind of considered you kind of on the  front lines of, of higher ed digital strategy and marketing and engagement and all of that stuff. And, and definitely more in the software space in the last couple of years  How’s it going like how’s your new gig? What are you excited about in the industry? And also like, we wanna, we want to get into some topics about the challenges that you’ve seen over the years, and where where you’re pointing yourself in your career, trying to help the higher education sector get better in what they do.

Eric Stoller: Yeah, like this is definitely a higher ed podcast, cause that was like a 37 point. Multi-part question. Yeah. Yeah. I mean, exactly. I mean, I. I’m trying to like write it all down and I’m thinking, what is he wanting to even know? What are we talking about? 

No, I mean, I think that, well, first of all, thank you, so much, for that sort of nod that I’ve sort of been plugged into all this stuff. I do my best to try to just always be learning about all things digital and, you know, EdTech and, and everything related to as much of the student experience  plus digital as I can. And over the years that’s including everything from just various social media channels to  a variety of technology platforms to getting into sort of the organizational culture that is in higher education.

Because as you know, higher education is sometimes a little bit slower to adopt new technologies. Um, for a lot of reasons. Sometimes, budget sometimes just sort of, you know, motivation and incentives to change.  And so I think that, you know,  my new role is really exciting because it’s the first time I’ve ever worked for a higher ed CRM provider.

And, and, you know, we’re, we’re doing some really neat things with marketing and automation, and with AI and predictive analytics and, and sort of like the more I learn on a daily basis, the more excited I get, because, you know, I, I’m playing a part in sort of all the technologies that we have in play with our clients.

And so you know, my sort of previous history as a Student Affairs person, as someone who’s really focused on digital engagement, and even someone who was really interested in things like chatbots and higher ed all kind of really plays well into my current role because as we start to sort of figure out how we can take the data that we’re collecting from a variety of different touch points with students, how can we then sort of feed that into a variety of reports and analytics and actions for institutions? And do it in a way that, that, you know, is modern and current and fits the current context of higher ed. 

Because there’s a lot going on after, you know, a full year plus of being in a pandemic and where, you know, institutions went test-optional or a lot of them did and, you know, list buying and all that sort of stuff kind of, you know, changed tremendously. And, and people stayed home. So, you know, it’s, it’s been definitely a year unlike any other. And I think that it’s going to be really interesting to see how, you know, the, the various technologies that play in higher education kind of come out of all of this.

 And I think in, in ways that continue to help serve and support institutions.

Joel Goodman: Earlier in this podcast, we had a chat with our friend, Mike Richwalksy, who was – he had a son that was a rising, a rising freshman, I guess like a son that was going through the whole admissions process. And so he was kind of seeing right, right next to him along, you know, along looking at, the different software platforms that were being used, the types of mailings that were going out, emailings that were going out, the different ways that the colleges and universities that he was applying to were trying to connect and get, get him to, to choose them, right?  And, we got a really interesting kind of look into what that’s like from the parents side of things.

 And he talked a lot about, about the, the kind of customer experience, student experience side of it. And, and the ways that these institutions were either doing a great job of trying to, shepherd his son into this position of,  getting ready to deposit or to, or to even like, accept that school. And I wanted to kind of focus this conversation with you around, that idea of the student experience, because I think the information that institutions have about the students that are applying is what really makes that experience special.

It’s being able to tailor the communication to who the student is, where they’re coming from, what they want out of the college or university that they’re going to go to.  And CRMs are a big part of that behind the scenes, the tools that allow your admissions professionals to know who they’re talking to. And I’m wondering if we could talk a little bit about what the landscape looks like in higher ed. 

So there are tons of tons of CRM platforms out there. All these different tech companies are trying to kind of carve out their little, their little niche within, the product that they’re developing.

 What do you, what do you view the landscape as? How are you approaching it as you, go into kind of the, product mentality, the, marketing mentality of it?

Eric Stoller: Yeah. I mean, the CRM space is definitely interesting. There’s, you know, a handful of providers who are just essentially trying to use sort of generic CRMs that have been used in a variety of industries and sort of, smash it into higher ed and make it work. 

Joel Goodman: Like those mammoth ones that everyone’s heard of, right. That

Eric Stoller: You know, and, and, and, there’s ones that, you know, are maybe more effective than others. I think, in, in the sense of like, for example, you know, with Element451, it was completely built from the ground up, almost from the sort of marketing and recruitment side of things.  And as well as with enrollment.

And so, you know, you look at a lot of the components that are in our platform and, and it makes sense because it’s all sort of bespoke to the higher ed environment. I think that the CRMs that are kind of trying to be, I don’t know, like square peg, round hole, it’s just a, it’s a, it’s a bit more challenging. Or, you know, it’s just, maybe the interface is a bit more clunky in that way. And I think that it’s important to even recognize things like, you know, how does the experience, especially for students, how does it translate to the small screen? You know, when you start getting into mobile applications and literally, you know, applying for an institution on a small device. 

Because you look at some of these providers and, and, and some of the stuff that they’re putting out there  looks like it was, made for a day when Commodore64s roamed the earth. And I think that, you know, and if you don’t even get that reference that’s probably a good thing. It means you’re you haven’t been in higher ed as long as I have. 

But I think that, when you’ve got a lot of admissions, enrollment, and recruitment folks who are on a desktop on a daily basis, or maybe they’re out and about, on mobile devices, one, you’ve got to have a platform that works well for staff, so that when staff are on there, they can access the information they need in order to reach out, connect with students or family members or parents. As well as when a student’s on there, a prospective student, they’re able to do what they need to be able to do. And it looks, you know, from a, from a, user experience, you know, the aesthetic is, is, is fresh and clean and, accessible. 

I think there’s a lot of different things that a modern CRM has to have, and I think accessibility is a big part of that nowadays as well. And I, I think that the, the spaces that, you know, everybody’s kind of racing towards maybe sort of a more unified technology where everyone’s kind of saying, okay, the, student experience isn’t a siloed experience. So what does it look like when you’re collecting data at the CRM standpoint? And how could you possibly use that data in other ways? 

And so I think that’s something that we’re, we’re obviously exploring, because again when you’ve got that student data, it’s important to sort of figure out how can you utilize it in ways that are beneficial, one for students and two for the institution?

And I think that you know, Joel, you mentioned the, sort of the, the automated messaging, the emails and things that are going out, and all of us get messages from a variety of different channels in our lives. You know, email or SMS for this or that. And, you know, the, the ones that are memorable, the ones that actually stand out are the ones that have a lot of sort of thought behind them, you know, the designs are very appealing, and there’s, you know, like I said, the messaging is intentional. 

And I think that, you know, in the CRM space, it’s really, in some ways it’s really easy for people to just sort of set messages, send them out and think it’s going to be sort of like waving a magic wand. And there has to be sort of a lot of craft as well, that goes into that. 

You know, I saw the other day that there was something like 500,000 messages sent out of an institution’s CRM. It wasn’t our CRM, by the way,  and it was something like, for a program that only, I think they only accepted something like, fewer than 50 students. And so it was, it was a kind of a massive debacle and kind of an example of, just because you’ve got the technology that can do something  doesn’t mean you should, or you definitely have to know how it works. And I think that’s where the customer success standpoint, the onboarding that goes on for these technologies is, is just as important because if you don’t have onboarding, if you don’t have support it doesn’t matter how many bells and whistles you’ve got.

You know, for example, at Element we’ve got loads of functionality, but you have to understand how it all works or at least take it sort of bits and pieces. I, being new to the company, I’m, I’m still taking a lot of it in bits and pieces. And I basically discover and learn new things on a daily basis.

Which again, if I was a user or a client, I would sort of be on this similar path of kind of an upward trajectory of learning new things, figuring out how stuff works and having multiple aha moments throughout the day.

Jon-Stephen Stansel: Yeah, those aha moments are great when you’ve got them and you’re you’re playing with a new tool and kind of going on that learning approach of figuring something out, you know?  A lot of the tools I use for social media, the same way where,  you know, it’s got, so much functionality.  There’s the things that I need on a daily basis. And then all of these other great things that it’s just going to, it takes time to, and, and process learn, learn to do, and getting that onboarding is so vital. But that continuous onboarding, right as those new features come out, learning how to use them being introduced to them properly.  

I know, you know, for example, you know, personally, I, for a lot of social media stuff, I use HootSuite and it has more than I can ever imagine in some ways, and not having that onboarding would be really difficult to, you know, make the most out of it. 

So, continuing on that sort of question, you mentioned something about higher ed being so far behind other sectors in general. And I think we can all agree that, with that too, to some extent. That it feels that you know, where at least five to 10 years behind and in certain areas and tools, especially. So why do you think higher ed is, is so often, far behind than the consumer sector? 

 Eric Stoller: Well, I think it’s because higher ed is expected to compete in the same exact ways in which the consumer sector handles itself. But with, constraints with regards to budget,  regional politics, statewide stuff, you know, federal level things. I think that that’s where you know, the other aspect is you know, if you work for a company, and the company isn’t doing well, when it comes to its marketing, its communications, its technology,  there will be ramifications towards either the,  overall company or towards those individuals who are working for it. And I think in higher ed institutions can struggle sort of quietly for a long time.

 And the other thing is, as I’ve found working with institutions as a consultant, especially for, you know, the better part of a decade, you can stay at an institution for quite a while and, and not necessarily be doing as good of a job as maybe you should be.

 And that’s the, the most subtle way I can say that having lived in England where subtlety is an art. 

Jon-Stephen Stansel: It is an art that I have not learned.

Joel Goodman: So so I wonder as  just from your experience in consulting, but then I think also being on that vendor side of things, when an institution is going about thinking about how to replace tools. So maybe they need a new CRM.  Maybe they’re thinking about putting a chat bot in place.  Maybe they need a new website. Maybe they need to, you know, fix the software that’s running their housing internally. 

 How do you recommend that admins at a university go about thinking about that? Cause I think a lot of times what happens in this industry is you, don’t know what you don’t know. And so you’re trying your best on the inside because you’re not a tech person or, you know, we’re talking about features within the software. There are certain things you want to use, but then there’s a whole kind of depth of other stuff that you either need really good onboarding to kind of lead you through and help you fit into place.  

What’s your advice to, to folks at an institution that are looking to upgrade, change? Like what do you think is the best way to go about that kind of software procurement process?

Eric Stoller: Yeah. Well, I think transparency, you know, it’s sort of like full transparency into the process. I think that those institutions that kind of display the roadmap of, of what it’s going to look like, who’s on the committee, who’s, you know, who are the key stakeholders? And they’re actually putting out updates so that people within the institution can take a look at what’s going on. I think that really matters, and that gets, it’s a good way of doing it. 

 I think when it comes to technologies, though, in higher ed, that sometimes people choose them because of, there’s like a cult of personality around it with their peers at other institutions. Regardless of the functionality or, the technological capability or, you know, and, and I think that can be sometimes very problematic. Because in a way they’re, they’re choosing sort of that, click or that, thing that other people are using, even though maybe other people are using it, just because they’re locked into a long-term contract and they paid a lot of money to, you know, get locked into that contract.

And it’s almost embarrassing, right? To sort of say, we made a mistake, we we’ve invested six figures in something and it didn’t work out. But if we say that, is my job at risk. If I’m in an institution? You know, it’s almost better to sort of like put your head down and push along. And then other people say, what are you using? And then it’s like that word of mouth continues. And then you get stuck with these technologies that maybe aren’t the best technologies.  

And I think, especially in the CRM world where,  it’s an investment, because there’s a lot of time, and like you said, onboarding and, and learning new things and all the data that has to be collected, and integrations that have to be set up. And I think that’s where it can be really challenging, but I think the transparency piece is really important. 

I think in, in higher ed that the more transparent institutions can be with the process of onboarding new technologies, bringing in key stakeholders, for example, I used to be an academic advisor and I think that, a lot of technologies that academic advisors use uh, it was kind of put on to them by way of maybe IT departments or other committees, rather than bringing advisors to the table, maybe bringing students to the table as well. 

Because at the end of the day, a lot of the technologies in use at institutions, students are using them. And, and it’s, it’s, you have to ask them, are you using this? Are you using that? What’s working? What’s not? And go through that process. And even if it’s not as easy as, Oh, we’ve got a five person committee we’ll fast track something, you’ve got to bring in all the key stakeholders. 

 Joel Goodman: It’s very similar to the ways that websites often get redesigned or rebuilt in higher ed, where you know, there’s the cult of personality part, right. Where it’s like, Oh yeah, everyone has everyone uses this agency, so we’re going to try to do this agency. 

And then there’s the side of oftentimes a lot of voices saying, this is what we want our website to be, but they’re not looking at the research aspect. They’re not listening to the students or the prospective students or the people that the website’s actually supposed to serve. And it’s a, it’s very much the same with the tools and software products that we want to bring in. Whether those are things for your admin staff to use, or they are things that your students are going to be interfacing with, if the tools they’re using don’t help them do their job better, then they’re only a detriment to what kind of efficient output you could possibly get from, from those offices.

Eric Stoller: Yeah, definitely. I mean, it’s kind of like art, right? Sometimes it’s very subjective.  And people, especially in the web development space, you know, people like different things. And  Joel, you obviously are in the, in the web dev arena. And, you know, at the end of the day, it’s about, you know, certain things. And yet at the same time,  the website for an institution, especially the homepage, can kind of become like the junk drawer in your kitchen, where there’s just dozens of different tools and implements that you don’t necessarily need on a daily basis.

Jon-Stephen Stansel: Right. And I think that’s a very astute observation about that sort of cult of personality around things and looking at what other schools are doing and not really seeing the back end and knowing, Oh, Hey, they’re doing this, but, it’s not successful. We just see the website with, 20 logos on it and think, oh, it must be good.

And it goes for a lot of things, you know, in the social media space or our marketing space, we say, okay, we want this giant billboard, or we want, we need a TikTok account because X school is having it. And not really looking at the results. Are we doing it because, university down the street is doing it or are we doing it because it actually makes sense for us? And is it actually working for that other university? 

I think we have to, as higher ed, we have to look more internally than externally sometimes and say, you know, what is the best for our purpose rather than the name we recognize?

Eric Stoller: Yeah, well, I mean, we’re anybody works in higher ed, at the end of the day, you are stewards of other people’s finances, right? So you think about the financial aid, and all the student debt that, that is out there right now.  You know, you have to be really careful around those considerations, because if your institution is paying a hundred thousand dollars a year for a certain technology, and it’s more about your staff so that they can then attend fancy parties once a year, you know, what does that say about the students who are just trying to apply and issues around access and equity?

I mean, I think that’s where, when you get into sort of the, the pricing of it, when it comes to technologies in higher ed, it does matter because there are actual consequences to this. Because if your institution is having to pay a fortune for certain technologies that maybe don’t do the job that you need them to do at the end of the day, then, the people who are going to suffer, the consequences are going to be students because without students, you don’t have institutions.

Joel Goodman: Yeah, I mean,

Eric Stoller: I’ll drop the mic. 

Joel Goodman: Yeah, mic drop, but we’re a little bit early in the show. So just, keep those coming, I guess. 

No, I think that’s so true. It’s, I’ve had this conversation with other people. I don’t know that we’ve talked about this necessarily on, the podcast yet, but this idea of institutions being stewards of other people’s money is, is so I think so important because it, underscores the responsibility that we have to really serve the students that are coming in. And I think part of that, part of the service, part of just respecting  those students that are coming in is making sure that they’re having a good experience.

I think, I think that’s part of what Student Success, Student Experience, the campus experience, all this stuff is about. It’s really about respecting those people coming in and you, you respect them because you’re using their money, but you also just respect them because,  because they are people. They are valuable people that are putting their trust and their education and a good chunk of their life in your hands.

Eric Stoller: Yeah, I mean we’re not, higher education is, you know, it’s not Apple that can create like a, like a cube computer, and if it fails and it’s more of an experiment and, you know, people accidentally drop their beverage of choice into the device and it fries it. You know, Apple is still going to be Apple, but institutions, I’ve seen institutions, sink loads of cash into sort of, you know, technological boondoggles, and, and they get sort of obsessed with maybe the, the bright, shiny, and new. And then the bright, shiny, and new sits on the shelf, just like those, hard copies of the, of The Chronicle that are still in their plastic sleeves. No offense to The Chronicle, it’s a great online read, but the print version  I, I have a feeling it’s probably on its way out. 

And I think that if, if you’re in higher education and you, you see a technology  that you hope can support and serve students in meaningful ways either at a show or through an ad, or what have you,  through your own research  it’s really important to, to sort of drill down and figure out how it’s actually going to  enhance the student experience  and bring about actual effective change. 

Joel Goodman: Hmm.

You know, if we want to kind of draw some lines between what you’ve been practicing for the last few years and this idea of respect and care and stewardship as part of our mandate, basically, in higher education. Let’s think bigger about what you think good software maybe a good CRM, because that’s where you’re at now, but it could be anything.

What do you think these good digital experiences can do to help the missions of our institutions?

Eric Stoller: Well, I think one is actually doing what they say, that the, you know, what that’s on sort of on the carton, you know? That actually, it says like this is what it should do.  And the other is, you know, getting things up and running far faster. I think that the time-to-value piece for a lot of technologies in higher ed it just takes far too long.

And, you know, you see institutions taking a year or two just to sort of figure, figure out how something works, how they can implement it into  their sort of overall set of processes rather than, you know, I’ll I’ll toot our horn, right? Like getting our CRM up and running, It’s a question of months  not years.

And so your, your time-to-value is far faster.  One of my favorite things to do is to just use like, you know, Google Advanced Search and go and look at like the .edu domain right? Specifically. And you can look and see sort of what people are proposing when it comes to new technologies. And you can literally see verbiage from university administrators saying we’re choosing X software platform because it’s A, the most popular and the most popular, what is this high school? And they’re saying things like, we won’t know until after that three years, whether or not this was a success or not. And that’s ludicrous, right? 

They’re spending, 

Joel Goodman: It’s mindblowing 

Eric Stoller: like close to half a million dollars when you factor in like the actual cost of the technology, the cost of the staff salaries involved, the onboarding and the time on an experiment, right? Without actually being able to prove the value and the actual that it’s working.

It is literally one of those things where I think it’s, it’s getting close to being shameful. Let’s just be honest. 

Joel Goodman: An experiment like that shouldn’t take that long, especially again, the stewardship piece, but I think even just with all of the pressures on institutions now, I guess, renewed pressures. I think a lot of the pressures that have been underscored by the COVID pandemic were things that have existed for a decade-plus, we know they’ve at least existed since the last recession in the U.S.  But all of these additional pressures of the coming enrollment crunch and probably, some enrollment issues happening in the next, even couple of years, instead of in five years.

 Eventually you, you have to realize that the world moves way faster than a three-year long experiment or even a one-year long experiment. If you’re going to do something, you’ve got to be thinking in terms of the next few months.  Or even quicker, if it’s possible, depending on what you’re doing, right? 

Eric Stoller: Well, you might not even have three years. I mean, some, some institutions, you know, are on the precipice you know, in terms of their, financial status. And so, they can’t wait around. And I think that, it’s one of those things where, in my consulting life, I would often talk about sort of the contrast between higher ed technologies and the technologies that people use sort of in their own personal lives on a regular basis. You know, tools from Google or, or even social media, like Twitter or Facebook or whatever and how or YouTube, you know, how easy it is to you use those platforms. And I think that that’s where higher ed sort of has dealt with the pain for a long time. 

And like right now it’s 2021, your, your software, your technology, it doesn’t have to feel old school. It doesn’t have to feel clunky.  It’s like websites, right? Websites should load rapidly. They should work well on all devices, all screens. The content should be accessible for all people, all users.  And I think that there’s just no excuse, you know, in, in sort of the modern era.

And I think that’s where, you know, when you asked me sort of, where should higher ed tech be right now? I think that’s where things should be. People shouldn’t be settling for old tech. And I think that’s where one, if the price shouldn’t be the barrier to entry, I think that that’s where. You know, pricing should be at a level where it’s it’s it makes sense for an institution to bring in a tech provider. 

Because I’ve looked at institutions, I I’m kind of a nerd, right, so if I read a story and Inside Higher Ed, and it’s about an institution, maybe I’ve never heard of before, I’ll go and I’ll take a look at their, Admissions website, I’ll look at their Apply Now section,  and I’ll see like their forms. And these forms, I mean, good grief. It looks like QuickBooks 1987.

I mean, I would rather fax in some of that stuff and, and I think that it doesn’t have to be that way. and oftentimes, you know, it’s the institutions that don’t have access to resources. It’s the institutions that, that are more financially challenged. And I think that’s where, you know, it is important for tech providers to sort of say, okay, how do we level the playing field so that all institutions can have access to at least baseline technologies that will enhance the mission of the institution? 

Joel Goodman: I’ve kind of been seeing this lately with some community slash two year schools that I’ve been, that I’ve been working with over the last year. And there are tech offerings that kind of tend to, to dominate certain sectors of our, of our industry. Right? 

So like there’s, there’s a CRM provider that owns a whole lot of that community college, two year college kind of market. There are other ones that are owning specific sections of the more four-year institution side. But it’s the sort of thing where we, we want to do basic things as a company that’s been around for a long time. I mean, I’ve known about them for at least at least eight years, I’m sure longer. And you can’t do simple things like have your own form that posts to their CRM, or even embed their forms inside your website. You have to create a landing page with a form, get someone out of your conversion rate optimization path, and then potentially just have them drop off. 

And maybe I’m wrong and it shouldn’t be obvious that those are things that should happen. But the real issue is like been around long enough, your competitors offer this thing already, what have you been doing for the last eight years with your customers money? Like, are the tech companies being good stewards with the money that the universities aren’t being good stewards of? 

I think there’s a, there’s a good faith, bad faith or a good faith, bad faith argument, or there’s really just a – and maybe I’m mean, but like you’re just bad at business. Like if you’re not, if you’re not paying attention to what your users actually need.

Eric Stoller: Yeah.

well, I think it also speaks to, you know, how these, these companies were set up at the get-go. And, you know, and, and things like rampant tech debt.  If the code base is a mess and that’s really all that, that they’re sort of always bogged down with that rather than sort of trying to come out with features that their, their users or their clients want and need. You know, that can be part of it. 

I think there’s, there’s oftentimes just so much context and history there.  And yeah, I think that’s why you see some of these, you know, higher ed tech vendors. You know, I grew up in Iowa,  so I’m going to go, I’m going to go country a little bit here. As much as I can after, you know, being removed from my uh, Midwestern roots for a little while, but I think that, you know, so much of this is it’s, you know, lipstick on a pig. It’s it’s a new coat of paint on the same kind of rundown barely working tech, but with slick marketing. 

And I think that that really scares me. It kind of really upsets me, because I think it’s really easy for folks in higher ed who are trying to do the work of three or four different people, oftentimes,  and they’re not being compensated for it, and they see some slick marketing that’s delivered, you know, their way and they think, Oh, Hey, this is, this is what I need. Right? This is the solution I’ve been looking for. And then all of a sudden, you know, they’re,  down the road, they got the contract signed, it’s too late and they realize, Oh, this is just something that you know, five years ago they were selling the same thing. It’s just a different logo. It’s just, it’s just a different, you know, color scheme and that that’s really troubling. 

And I think you know, I’m trying to get my, my CEO to do a kind of a rant podcast every now and again, because he’s got loads of opinions about that because you know, he, as a, as a founder and as a, as a creator of a CRM company he has seen this type of activity for quite a while.

And I think that’s the thing about, when I’m in our tech, when I’m on our platform, it feels modern. I don’t feel like I’m trying to use something old school. I don’t feel like I’m going back in time.  And that matters. I mean, and even some of the product enhancements in terms of like UI and UX, we’re, we’re kind of in progress right now, they just feel fresh, they feel modern, they feel relevant to kind of the user experience of all the different sort of tools that you use on a daily basis. And I think higher ed needs to have that expectation that that’s, what’s going to be delivered to them. Like they need to ask for those things, right? They can’t just settle. 

Joel Goodman: Yeah. It’s like all those content management systems that basically looked like a Windows Explorer file system for a bunch of years, or like, the LMS landscape as it was several years ago. Blackboard like dominated higher ed for a very long time. And I think it was very much that it was legacy code, it was a ton of technical debt for them. They were huge. They weren’t doing just higher ed. 

Eric Stoller: Blackboard acquired loads of different companies, right? They acquire acquired Angel. I think they were

Joel Goodman: They did. I was, 

Eric Stoller: Web CT. 

Joel Goodman: I was, in the middle of an Angel implementation at, at one of my last institutional jobs. And we had switched from Blackboard to Angel and as we were rolling Angel out, Blackboard acquired it and we’re like, ah great.

Eric Stoller: Was it Ray Henry Ray Henderson from Angel, I think was always sort of widely regarded as someone who kind of saved Blackboard because Angel, without Angel, Blackboard never would have stayed kind of where they were for as long as they were.  And then of course, Instructure and Canvas came out and said, listen, our whole proposition is we’re not Blackboard. We’re nimble, we’re fast, we’re modern. And we’re going to provide stuff that faculty want. 

Joel Goodman: Yeah. and you see kind of the sea change that happened within the industry and within the landscape on the LMS front, because Canvas has a huge market share within higher education now. And they also forced Blackboard to finally ditch their, they basically turned their strategy into a support strategy, right?

So they had acquired all these different LMSs so they could have the revenue stream, but mostly it was a stave off having to rebuild their platform.  But eventually because Canvas was encroaching, they, they were kind of forced into, figuring out, okay, how do we actually build something that isn’t, you know, 15 disparate products that are, you know, and try to patch them together on demand.

And I wonder if that’s happening in higher ed in the CRM landscape too, because there are a lot of providers and there are people that are, I mean, there are even newer providers that already have acquired a ton of technical debt.

Eric Stoller: Well, life at the top of the CRM food chain, you know, is not easy because unless you are innovating and unless you are coming out with a modern, relevant interface, that brings functionalities that that people need  eventually you will be unseated. You know, maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but that, that’s how it will go.

That’s, we’ve seen that example play out time and time again, because unless you  work, unless you’re willing to sort of put in the work and the time and not just rest on your laurels. Yeah, you know, you have to put out a quality platform, a quality experience, and listen to your clients on a daily basis, and give them exactly what they need simultaneously, thinking ahead about things that maybe they don’t even know yet that they might need. 

Jon-Stephen Stansel: We’ve talked kind of about the negatives of CRMs and some of the things that are, are not so great right now, and that universities need to jump on board and change. So let’s, let’s kind of, let’s switch a little bit and talk about some of the positives, right? What can a great CRM do for an Enrollment or Admissions office?

Eric Stoller: Oh, I think a great CRM, now, can handle sort of the swirling  nature of the student experience. You know, that the funnel is no longer this just straight linear progression of graduate from high school and make your way it is, it is up, down, back and forth, you know, micro-credentials. It is non-traditional degree pathways. It is, taking a course here or there you know, just because you’re interested or because your employer has said, this is something that’s important to us.  

I think that the, the modern, relevant CRM now has to look at that whole progression of the variety of opportunities in which people make their way into some aspect of higher education and then provide those institution ways in which they can recruit and retain those students. 

Joel Goodman: So ideal world, in higher ed. Taking, you know, the last few years that you’ve had in kind of the tech space and, and your consulting experience, where do you want higher ed to go in regards to the software it buys? Like, what do you, think is the ideal best outcome for higher ed as they’re kind of piecing together all these different digital tools that support different functions of what they’re doing?  And how. If you could reset, I guess, if you could reset how higher ed thinks about this stuff, what do you, what would you recommend to, to leadership and to administrators as they’re choosing the right, software, the right tools for, the work that they’re trying to do?

Eric Stoller: Yeah, that’s a, that’s a really good question. it makes me think about you know, my wife used to work for  a rather large corporate education, I don’t know, Fortune 500 or whatever. They, I can’t remember exactly which uh, level they were in, but you know, they were constantly going through reorganizations. And constantly sort of trying to figure out as a company  you know, w what they’re going to look like structurally and I think that, you know, higher ed has been sort of structurally the same way for a long time. You know, if you look at the area that I come out of from Student Affairs, Student Services, Student Success, those functional areas have largely remained the same, at least for the brick and mortar entities, for quite some time.

 And I think that it’s important to look at those structures and sort of see, sort of ask the question, are they relevant for today’s learner? Are they relevant for today’s student? In the context of employability, in the context of, higher ed for the greater good. 

 For a long time, for example, I was advocating for some technology competencies within the student affairs profession.  That was something I was writing when I was writing for Inside Higher Ed. I was writing about that over and over and over again.  Because repetition as a teaching mechanism or as an advocacy uh, mechanism can be really important. And, eventually.  NASPA and ACPA, the two  sort of leading Student Affairs associations, kind of got together.

And the technology competency was formed, was created with sort of different levels, sort of, you know, entry uh, intermediate, and advanced levels of competency. Whilst it’s not enforced, it was at least a progression towards the recognition that the technology competency is a skill, is an attribute that’s necessary for today’s higher education administrator.

 And so I think not only reorganizing maybe some of those functional areas, but looking at hiring practices  in terms of what people bring to the table is also very important. 

Jon-Stephen Stansel: Just opened up a whole can right there. Like, we’re getting to 

Eric Stoller: Sounds about, right. That sounds about 

Jon-Stephen Stansel: Getting to the tail end of the show and just like a, a giant rabbit hole that, that we can, can jump down. But  talking about hiring practices. Can we just touch on that?

Eric Stoller: Planting the seed. I’m planting the seed for part two. 

Jon-Stephen Stansel: I’ll just say, say, can you briefly expand upon that? Because I think that’s a, that’s something that we really do need to think about. 

Eric Stoller: Well, you know, it’s as, as obviously as important as it is for people to put MS office skills on their resume, perhaps there are other things that that could be looked at. Again, I’ll go back to my own experience as a Student Affairs person. 

There’s kind of an arms race right now in Student Affairs where everyone, it’s like a credentials arms race, everyone is getting their master’s degree and getting their PhD. And you’ve kind of got at this, this glut really of people who have their doctorates, but they don’t have a lot of experience at the institutional level.  And so, it’s all theoretical. It’s, it’s all within the classroom experience rather than actually working with students on campus or, or even in a, in a, in a virtual environment.

 And so I think that hiring a higher ed is oftentimes looked at as you hire a candidate and with the, this idea that they’re going to be at the institution forever. And if you look at the sort of the corporate world, you hire the best person at the best time, knowing that they’re probably going to go elsewhere eventually because they’ll get excited about some other opportunity down the road and that’s just kinda the way it is.

 And I, and I think that higher ed needs to look at the way they hire candidates, the way they bring people in. The whole interview process of higher ed, you know, like a day long, almost like hazing ritual is just ludicrous. You know, how many presentations to how many different committees do you need to, to put on?

 And it’s, it’s really performance, right? It’s it’s it’s performance. It’s not about necessarily the, the attributes of the candidate.

Joel Goodman: The entire institution needs to sign off on you? Why can’t, the person that’s going to be managing you or the VP over that department?

Eric Stoller: Exactly. Exactly. 

Jon-Stephen Stansel: Yeah, we may have to make that part two.

Joel Goodman: Yeah, no doubt. No doubt. Eric, thanks so much for being on the show. We really appreciate you coming on and having this conversation with us.

Eric Stoller: Yeah. Thanks a lot, guys. It’s been a lot of fun. 

Jon-Stephen Stansel: Before, before we let you go, do you have anything you want to plug? Where can people find you?  I know you’re very active on Twitter as we’ve had a few conversations there before.  Plug your plugs.

Eric Stoller: Yeah, sure. Well, I say first and foremost, of course I work for the most advanced higher ed CRM out there. And that’s Element451. So you can find us at element451.com and check us out. Book a demo. Would love to have a conversation with you. Because again, like I’ve said throughout this podcast our belief is about putting out quality technology with a with a quality customer experience day in and day out. And that’s what you’re going to get.

Joel Goodman: Thanks so much for listening to the Thought Feeder podcast. If you like our show, please subscribe at Apple Podcasts or Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts. Also, you can visit thoughtfeederpod.com to listen to all of our back episodes and find transcripts of every single episode there on the site. We would also appreciate a follow on Twitter, @ThoughtFeedPod.

You can send us ideas for new show episodes or, you know, just complain to JS about how much he hates Canva and how much do you like it or something like that.  Again, we want to thank Eric Stoller for being on the show today and having this important conversation with us. Eric thanks again for coming on. 

Eric Stoller: Thanks a lot guys!