Building a Customer First Mindset with Ty Hayes

How to build a customer first mindset podcast

Universities face unique challenges in marketing and as an organisation. There are legacy systems, silos between different departments and an endowment effect; if you only do what you’ve always done, how can you do it differently?

In this episode Ty Hayes, CMO of Curtin University, 2016 Australian Marketing Institute Award Winner, talks how he is bringing the entire university on the journey to become customer centric.

In This Episode

  • How to adopt a customer first model

  • Slow-and-steady vs test-and-learn planning

  • The role of marketing in end-to-end student engagement

  • Unlock personalisation through marketing automation

As media consumption changes, marketers can tap into meaningful, 1:1 conversations on digital platforms, the kind of personalisation that TV or radio just can’t give you.

Listen to the full episode in Spotify or iTunes. Or if you prefer to read along, stay right here.


Michael Bird

Hello, this is Mike Bird, CEO at Social Garden, here with the Education Marketing Leaders podcast. I’m very happy and privileged to have the wonderful Ty Hayes here today, the CMO at Curtin University. Welcome, Ty.

Ty Hayes

Thanks, Mike. Good to be here.

Michael Bird

We’ll just dive straight into it. Tell us a bit about your time at Curtin so far. I know you guys are pretty well known for the customer first model that you’ve been implementing since you’ve been in the CMO chair.

How long have you been at Curtin? When did you switch that model and how’s it all going?

Ty Hayes

Sure, I’ve been at Curtin for about seven years and in the CMO chair for four years, in a number of different roles before then. But in the CMO role, I’ve got responsibility for global brand positioning and student acquisition across online and offline channels.

We enrol about 50,000 students and in some ways, I guess, for the customer centric or customer first model, some areas of the team have been customer centric for a while.

Within the team, I’ve got a future students outreach team that go out to high schools, they do 300 or 400 events and they’re engaging one-to-one or one-to-many everyday.

I’ve got an inbound contact centre that is handling over 30,000 enquiries. So they’ve always had a customer first mindset and always tailoring their presentations, their advice, to meet the needs of the customers and then feeding that back to the team.

But from a marketing communications perspective, that’s where we’ve really needed to focus, and that’s been the journey over the past three years.

Michael Bird

Sounds like the customer first piece was mostly the offline piece. So has that kind of been the focus? To transition that view into-?

Ty Hayes

Yeah, into online and across all different channels really.

Michael Bird

Cool, and so what are some of the changes you’ve made so far to move towards that model?

Ty Hayes

Yeah, the starting point was getting a deeper understanding of our customers. So we did some traditional journey mapping and research about three years ago and came up with our personas: 9 different personas for undergrad and postgrad, on the domestic front.

So that gave the whole team a richer understanding of what the motivations were and what the differences were, and how those personas applied to different faculties and products.

Michael Bird

What was the process around the research?

Ty Hayes

So we engaged a research agency that did a number of interviews, so deep-dive one to one interviews and then they carrel that into the customer journey mapping of the pains and gains and what the experience was like from enquiry up to enrolment. Working out the moments that matter and the motivations of the different students.

So that was really useful. We ended up with different personas around science buffs or parent pleasers or career changers. I’m sure many universities have many similar personas but it was a good starting point.

We then started building them into our briefs, so to make sure our advertising agencies were aware of them. And then started honing and refining our messaging in the advertising to our different audiences.

And that was, I guess, the first shift. But it was also about setting a vision in the team. You know, we had to set the vision on ‘what does customer centric mean?’ to our marketing team.

Some of that was about making sure the whole team was getting in front of customers and helping out at open day, being involved in tiers, attending different information sessions, speaking to customers and getting a better understanding.

We also changed our advertising mix, so once we got the briefs we stopped doing TV about 18 months ago.

Michael Bird

Some would say that’s a big call but you know, when you look at the way that media consumption is changing and the type of way you can have an actual meaningful conversation with a person is very different to the opportunities that existed 20 years ago.

Where you know we see particularly across all kind of key segments, but particularly the undergrad market where you know their hands appear to be glued to their phones and a huge amount of their time is being spent on social.

And as you say each kind of different prospective student has a different perspective on what’s important to them and why they are sitting in particular.

So being able to segment out those different audiences and making sure that you’re kind of communicating about what’s important to them. While that opportunity didn’t exist 20, 30 years ago, because the media consumption wasn’t there, it clearly does today.

Ty Hayes

So far it has worked well. The other thing we did is started looking at our tech stack. So you know we shifted the advertising, then it was how do we nurture those future students throughout their journey?

So a big part of that was implementing a marketing automation system about 18 months ago and that’s that’s been all about delivering more personalised communications improving the customer journey and increasing our conversion rates through that more relevant, targeted brand and course messaging throughout that journey.

It’s really been transformational in what we’ve done.

Michael Bird

Yeah, we’ve enjoyed, I mean we’ve worked with you guys on that piece and like as far as client relationships I feel like you guys have done an incredible job at agency stakeholder management.

And like when you guys won the marketing team of the year and then sent us through that certificate I can assure you that there was just a little bit of pride on everyone who works on our marketing automation team’s face.

Ty Hayes

Probably the mindset we always take is that our agency is a part of our team. You know we wouldn’t have won that award with you guys and I think the training and the expertise that you provided helped us get out of the blocks so much quicker than we could have on our own and it’s fast tracked us immensely to where we are today. So, that was fundamental.

Michael Bird

And so, slow and steady planning or more of a test-and-learn approach?

Ty Hayes

It’s actually been a combination of the two I’d say. We set the vision three years ago to become more customer centric but then we’ve been focusing on different elements and kind of have different sprints at a different cadence to execute those.

So you know the briefing in the advertising was one layer and then we’ve looked at the personalised communications and marketing automation was the next tranche or the next sprint. But then we focused on the bigger picture, so what’s at the heart of universities is our products and how do we bring more customer centricity into our product mix?

So more recently just last year we ran a course called The Future Hackathon and that brought in current students, alumni, industry participants, as well as academics, professional staff, our agency partners. And that was a day and a half with some introduction to design thinking, we had a lean course canvas, we had some overviews from academics on different pedagogies or ways to stack courses together.

But then the teams had to form and come up with new courses that would meet the future skills and future needs of students in the future, and that was fantastic.

We had nine different ideas coming out of that from masters in emerging tech to different first year courses that give students a taste of different career paths, a range of different ideas. And the winning idea was actually an idea around infographics or informatics and that is something that’s been taken up, so we had results from that which is excellent.

So we try and bring the university on along the journey to be customer centric, not just marketing and that was a good starting point for some rich conversations in that space.

Michael Bird

It’s an interesting idea because the marketing function a lot of the time is that first touchpoint a lot of people have with the brand. Being able to translate that through the rest of the organisation is awesome. Particularly when courses- have you found that that’s also helped you from a recruitment and employer or brand piece?

I would’ve thought, just even being in your office at the moment, it feels like an office, a bit like a tech company. And talking about agile and on that sprint methodology and hackathons, have you found that that’s helped you find and retain good talent?

Ty Hayes

Absolutely. Our turnover is really low, surprisingly low, but at the same time whenever we do advertise highly competent capable individuals and I think it is around setting the culture and the vision for the team to be agile, to be innovative, to be customer centric, to be best practice or next practice marketing, and we started a hackathon three years ago and we’ve done one every year.

We’ve had amazing results from each of them. We started agile marketing about 18 months ago and we’ve seen phenomenal results from that and we’ve just restructured the team and got some exciting new teams and roles from account based marketing growth and UX.

So we’re really now looking at what does the future hold and how do we implement next practice and take Curtin on that journey to the future.

Michael Bird

Yeah, it’s exciting. It’s an exciting time. We obviously do a lot in the university sector, and the reason I like it is because it’s got kind of unusual challenges that typically you don’t see other markets, where universities often have a tonne of brand awareness, heaps of data, heaps of challenges in terms of kind of accessing and activating it, sometimes there’s legacy thinking that can slow things down.

But I think if you can get the right combination of people and technology and just get it as you said before, getting the right vision in place so that people get enthusiastic about the journey everyone’s going on. But then biting it off into those measurable steps. It’s a great market to work in generally.

And so what do you see as the role of marketing from an end to end student engagement perspective?

Ty Hayes

Yeah, we’re playing more in that space I think originally, our remit was to drive first preferences so all the people that put in Curtin as number one in their TISC choice and we’ve been successful at that. We’ve got a 50 percent market share in the domestic market.

But as competition intensifies, universities aren’t just interested in who chooses but who then enrols and who retains and who stays at university.

So through the implementation of the tech stack and marketing automation and the executive seeing the power of that in terms of the personalised communications through collaboration in other areas in student services and admissions and building partnerships and relationships with them, we’ve now got this opportunity to stretch our role further into the customer journey.

So we’ve been working on nurture and different communications that move beyond first preference into application into enrolment and up until first semester to make sure that we retain those students, so working in partnership with other areas like Curtin International and Admissions to streamline and you know continue that personalised communication, not just let it stop at first preference.

Michael Bird

Yeah, totally. I think a lot of people when they think of marketing automation they really think of email marketing and really a lot of the value that gets extracted from these platforms is being able to sync up the audience data and the personas you mentioned prior and push those as custom audiences back into platforms like Facebook and Instagram.

And now even Snapchat has just come out with their own kind of custom audience feature and I’m sure that will be on while you can do it manually from platforms like Salesforce Marketing Cloud and Marketo, we’re expecting that to be able to be pushed in real time. And obviously that can help even when you’re looking from a retention perspective, being able to control some of the conversation or distribute the right content for recently recruited students, so they make sure that at the end of semester one they’re proud to be a Curtin University student.

And you’re reminding them for their segment or whatever it might be, what was the reason that they enrolled in the first place? And you can have that sponsored content, but keeping it fresh and interesting and most importantly, personalised.

So what do you think are kind of the key challenges that universities are facing at the moment as far as getting this customer first mindset in place?

Ty Hayes

Yeah, I think you touched on some of them before. So many of them are internal.

So there are organisational silos between different departments, there’s legacy systems, there’s this endowment effect where we’ve been so successful always doing what we’ve always done, that how can we do things dramatically different?

It’s not always as an intense focus as it is in startups. You know typical disruption when they look at pain points and how to enter a market in a different way or a more agile, more customer first way, is difficult for universities.

Michael Bird

What we’re seeing I think is as you kind of have touched on is that universities have been such a staple part of society as a whole.

And I think they will continue to be that but I think things do need to change and they do need to become more customer centric to focus on those kind of key outcomes.

And what I’ve noticed more recently is a new sort of influx of… kind of a new wave, of marketing leaders in the university sector more broadly and the Australian market, and so that’s been quite interesting to see how they’ve kind of come and gone.

Have you found out there’s been a bit of a mix in the types of people or is it the same kind?

Ty Hayes

Yeah I think there is a mix. You know you’re seeing people come out of financial services or media and not always a traditional university background, even FMCG.

So I think universities are looking for a different flavour of thinking and different way to approach things, but it’s also challenging for some of those individuals to come into an institution like a university where there’s so many legacy systems, the cultural differences between academic and professional, the ability to influence and make change.

Yeah it can be challenging, but I think for universities to compete into the future, they do need a different way of thinking, a different way of tackling marketing, so I can see why some universities are taking onboard different executives to lead that charge.

Michael Bird

Because Social Garden are even kind of in the same boat, in the sense that we’re really focused on the education market, but we kind of draw from, actually surprisingly to some people, the property market.

At face value they seem completely different but when you kind of look under the hood and both the business to consumer, both of them are high value products, both of them are a considered purchase over a period of time. Both of them have very distinct segments, so investor, first home buyer versus postgrad, undergrad etc. and both have the challenge of the non-linear customer journey where people enter the consideration process they drop out and they come back in.

And how do you kind of manage that conversation through the process and particularly when the conversation can often need to be quite different based on the segment. So yeah it’s interesting trying to continue to be fresh, thinking and innovating and drawing on those other markets as well.

Ty Hayes

And when your product is both face to face and digital, the digital platforms are becoming increasingly important. Many universities are partnering or building up their online capacities, so you need a leader that definitely has some tech capability but also you know that draws from other startups or tech companies or SaaS companies that are focused on lead generation and conversion and truly understand what that experience and UX and journey is like, and can help move the organisation in that direction.

Michael Bird

There are so many moving parts in these organisations, the call centres and services and digital and offline. How have you got everyone on the same page with that?

Ty Hayes

I think strong internal working relationships are critical and I try to build those within the university but also my own directors are fundamental in building those relationships.

So I’ve been fortunate to recruit internal directors that have worked in other departments so they’ve already got strong foundations and relationships which is critical. And the team’s always had that collaborative mindset ‘how do we work together’ to do this customer centric culture.

So the vision and culture is critical and having that from the top. One example I guess where the university has come together around customer centricity is we launched a project last year called Curtin Connect.

Now this was driven from properties and students services areas, so it wasn’t a project that I led, but we were definitely involved with it, and the goal and vision behind it was to bring one central place for students to go and get the services they need.

So it sounds obvious, but in universities it doesn’t always happen and universities need to bounce between 10 or 12 different face-to-face channels or offices to get information on ‘How do I switch courses’ or ‘How do I enrol’ or you know ‘What are my fees?’ ‘What’s a career advice I need?’

So a big project and undertaking but essentially what we turned what was a theatre into Curtin Connect which is along the lines of an Apple store but it’s a place where students can come in and get all the advice and service they need.

So, it’s where future students now go and there’s a concierge at the front, and they check in and then they see the relevant specialists who are all within that building or very close by to give them that more personalised service. So that was one great example and it had a vision, it had the working parties and everyone working together on that.

Michael Bird

One of the cool things about that as well is you start seeing, as these people are coming through, what are the services that are most commonly popping up? What are the kind of common challenges that the students are facing?

And by having that kind of interface in a centralised place, you can get like for like data in terms of what those kind of customer concerns are.

So it’s a cool way to kind of get a good centralised view, centralise some of that information and then be able to provide really good insight.

With that in mind, with the data piece, how are you using that data and not necessarily just with Curtin Connect but more broadly? To continue the push towards the customer centric approach?

Ty Hayes

Yeah, I guess from an acquisition perspective we’re constantly trying to learn more about our future students through all of their interactions with us, so that we can provide the most relevant information to help them with the job they need to get done.

Which is, you know, ‘What’s the right course to get me into the career that I want?’ ‘How do I get advice on that?’ ‘How do I apply?’ ‘How do I enrol?’ So we’re constantly looking at whether they’re coming to an information session, whether they’re visiting our website or they’re clicking on our ads and building that profile around who they are and how engaged they are, based on their interactions with us.

We’ve got online profiling tools, and are actually asking a series of questions to understand what persona they are. Are they a parent pleaser or a science buff. What are they most interested in?

And then we give a value exchange for that. We might then link them up with a current student ambassador in a similar interest in similar courses that can then provide even more personalised service to that individual. So they are some ways from a prospecting or a future student point of view.

Michael Bird

I’m going to be doing this with every education leader that we are interviewing for this series. What would be kind of your one piece of advice generally or one key thing that you’ve learned?

Ty Hayes

I guess relating to this topic I’d give you two. Firstly, start with a vision and focus on the culture with your team first. So make sure that your marketing team understands what customer first is and they’re living and breathing it.

Then set your roadmap of what you’re going to focus on to make the shift towards being customer centric. Do you need to fix your call centre first or your digital experience or your events experiences or your marketing comms or your product mix?

Identify either where are the greatest opportunities or where you’re going to get the greatest bang for your buck.

Michael Bird

Totally. Well, delighted to have you on the podcast and appreciate you taking the time to catch up with us. Always good to chat. Thanks so much.

Ty Hayes

Great. Thanks, Mike.

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