Holly Palmer is one of the leading figures in the world of alumni, donor and volunteer research. Her mission is to bring these audiences closer to education institutions through two-way dialog and excellent supporter care. Since founding Holly Palmer Consulting in 2016, she has presented at industry conferences on topics including creating a relationship fundraising culture, how to improve donor retention and how to design a meaningful alumni research study.

In this blog, she looks at how donors can take lessons from the CX world and apply them to their own college programs.

Customer experience describes the sum total of someone’s interactions with a brand – from the moment they become aware of the company, to purchasing a product, to post-purchase service. Today, most large organizations are hiring people with CX in their job title, and some have whole teams dedicated to it. Some even have Chief Experience Officers, like Mastercard.

And it’s from these companies that alumni and donor engagement teams can learn a lot. Here are just 8 lessons and key actions:

1.   Think of an alumnus’ journey after they leave your school 

CX professionals talk about ‘customer journeys’ – in other words, the path a customer takes during an interaction with a brand.

Every alumnus goes on a journey from the moment they graduate to their later life. And at each point in that journey, they’ll want to engage with their former school for different reasons. It’s important therefore to map that journey out and understand the key moments – for example, first jobs, career development, starting a family.

You’ll also want to create different alumnus profiles, so you can segment your approach for different kinds of alumni. For example, some alumni will get a great job right out of university; others may not start their career in the next decade.

Key action: Map out alumnus journeys & create user personas

2.   Gather feedback at every point in the alumni journey

How do you know how you’re doing if you don’t ask? You should ask for feedback on everything you’re currently doing to engage alumni, and ask what else you could be doing.

This enables you to see your current strengths and weaknesses, and also where there might be gaps in your approach.

And don’t be tricked into thinking all experience data (X-data) comes from surveys. You can also gather crucial insights from things like online reviews, social media, alumni gatherings, or just anecdotes shared at events. Plug it all back into one platform to conduct smarter analysis.

Key action: Ask for feedback at every touchpoint; don’t just rely on surveys

3.   Focus on the moments that matter most to alumni

To paraphrase a famous saying, “You can’t please all of the students, all of the time”. You have a limited budget and only a certain amount of time to get things done – so it’s all about prioritizing those things that your alumni really want and that have the biggest impact on their engagement.

For example, if running an alumni event costs a lot, but doesn’t deliver ROI, then maybe it’s not worth it. Especially if you see that personalized email newsletters, with content sourced from departments around the university, has much higher engagement and drives more donations.

Key action: Prioritize 2-3 things that will have the biggest impact on engagement

4.   Connect experience data to operational data

Many organizations have an abundance of operational data, which tells you the “what”. It includes things like sales and customer numbers, or where sales are highest. Experience data tells you why things are happening – why certain customers shop with you, and why sales might be higher in some places.

In alumni engagement, it means looking at alumni numbers and donation levels, alongside people’s views on their former school and why they either do or don’t donate. This gives you a much better idea of why things are happening and what you need to do to improve.

Key action: Look at all of your data sets alongside each other

5.   Make alumni engagement everyone’s responsibility

The companies winning at CX make customer-centricity a priority for absolutely everyone in their organization – from finance to front-line staff. A company can’t make CX the sole responsibility of a central team, as that team won’t be standing in front of a customer at a checkout counter, or invoicing them for work.

Applying this lesson to higher education, you need champions for good alumni engagement around your university. For example, you need your faculty on board so that they give you great content for alumni engagement activities. You need your digital team onside for any plans you might have for intranets or other online portals. And they all need to see the value of alumni engagement for them.

Key action: Run trainings and workshops with all key stakeholders

6.   Make sure you turn insights into actions

The best way of winning over stakeholders is showing results. You do that by collecting feedback, analyzing it, taking action, then measuring the effects – at which point the cycle restarts and you need to review what you’re doing again.

It’s important to set up a process for getting data in and then turning it into real actions.

Key action: Create a team responsible for implementing new ideas

7.   Survey your alumni regularly (and don’t be afraid to do so)

A lot of companies aren’t comfortable surveying their customers too often, but research we conducted into how often employees would like to be surveyed suggested every 3 months was the most popular frequency, which is a benchmark you could look to.

Also interesting is that in CX, you might survey customers once every year or 6 months to gauge their overall satisfaction, but supplement that with in-the-moment surveys following other types of interaction. For example, you might ask people what they thought of an alumni event the day after, or what they think of an alumni newsletter after its first month of emails.

Key action: Survey alumni at least every year – it could be as often as every 3-6 months

8.   Close the loop with dissatisfied alumni

When a brand ‘closes the loop’, it means they’ve contacted an unhappy customer to find out how they can turn the situation around. With real-time data, this can happen while the issue is still ongoing, or soon after. This is commonly referred to as closed-loop customer experience management.

For higher education institutes, think about how you close the loop with a) alumni who are dissatisfied with their university, and b) those who have given bad feedback on some aspect of the alumni experience. Perhaps look at creating a distinct alumnus persona for the former.

Key action: Identify where there are opportunities to turn your detractors into promoters

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