Owning the End-to-End Student Experience with Matthew Lee

Digital transformation in higher education is about more than just your tech stack. Institutions need to merge online with offline: real people and physical experiences.

In This Episode

  • Building a customer experience capability

  • Map the end-to-end student journey

  • Challenges facing current universities

  • Where the opportunities are for higher education marketers

One thing Matthew wished he knew about the customer experience and marketing automation journey before he started?

It’s not about the technology. It’s all about people and culture.

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


Michael Bird

Welcome to the Social Garden Education Marketing Leaders Podcast. I’m very pleased to have Mr. Matthew Lee here, former CMO from RMIT. Welcome, Matthew.

Matthew Lee

Thanks, Mike. Pleasure to be here. Thanks for having me.

Michael Bird

Awesome. And so tell us a little about your background and what you’ve done to date?

Matthew Lee

Okay. For the last 5 years I’ve been working in higher ed, so I’ve been the Chief Marketing Officer at RMIT and prior to that I was the Chief Marketing Officer at La Trobe University here in Melbourne.

In higher ed, I’ve been responsible for the full sales and marketing capability, which has been a lot of fun. So from analytics through to student recruitment.

And when I moved to RMIT, one of the things that we had to think about was how do we create a marketing digital transformation and a customer experience vision and map out an end to end journey.

Michael Bird

That would’ve been an exciting process.

Matthew Lee

It was a really exciting process. And one of the things that I really enjoyed was the process of engaging with council and the senior leaders and also across the university community.

So, about 3 years ago now, we presented to the council and as part of our digital strategy, we talked about what a customer experience vision might look like.

And what we took to them was the proposition that there was more value in looking at the student journey from end to end and discovering both where the pain points were and where the opportunities were.

Lots of good work had been done but it tended to be a bit piecemeal. And they came onboard with that and were very excited by that proposition.

Michael Bird

I think at the end of the day, the longer the customer journey is and the experience is with the brand, the more opportunities there are to optimise things. We love the focus of the customer experience and marketing automation piece with universities.

Because the journey is so long, it’s filled with opportunities to make mistakes but also opportunities to really make a meaningful impact in that customer’s life.

Matthew Lee

And I think one of the things that happens is when you do it in a piecemeal basis, what we found was that you understood piece A and you understood piece C, but you really didn’t have an understanding of what happened between those two parts of the journey.

Because university is a transformative experience, you’ve got to understand that whole end-to-end piece to understand what’s shifting, and what’s shifting in terms of the aspirations and the needs of your customers.

I think though that the great opportunity for universities is, as we’re starting to seriously look at lifelong journeys, to look at lifelong journey maps. So really start to flip it and to say ‘Okay, where are the pain points? Where are some of the transition points in people’s life? And how can universities work with them in that lifelong journey?’

Why shouldn’t universities help with financial literacy and digital literacy? Why shouldn’t people help with questions like how to be a credible and ethical leader? Why shouldn’t universities talk about how you prepare for retirement? Or how you think about the world of work in a different way at the end of a traditional working life?

So, that’s where I see the great opportunity in terms of matching a lifetime customer journey with a product and service that responds to each inflection point of that lifetime journey.

Michael Bird

I haven’t heard someone ever refer to it like that and I think that’s clever. As you said, people are going through their own transformation and if the university can be the rock in that period of their life when it’s changing, then you can have an ongoing relationship.

For a lot of universities, that’s what they’re looking to do: engage with the students when they’re young, take them through that process and then to help them through that process through their life with things like financial literacy. You can be the educator for life.

And so tell us a bit about the customer experience you saw and implemented at RMIT? I know you guys received a lot of praise for some of the work you did there.

Matthew Lee

We won an award which was great, from the Australian Marketing Institute, for the work that we’d done.

I think when we went to council, we laid out a three-fold agenda, three years ago. That’s to build an end-to-end customer experience vision which was grounded in data and research and all of the really good things that you need to develop a solid proposition.

You know, using design thinking, using observation, looking at all the work that had been done and integrating that into a cohesive whole.

One of the things we did that was very successful is at the very beginning we were very transparent about that. There was no secret squirrel stuff.

The School of Architecture said to us, ‘run all this in a physical space that’s shared with students.’ And we used to call it The Garage. Students would be there doing their work and we’d be doing our work and the way in which they interacted with it was incredibly satisfying.

So then we started to build out a community around that physical space. I would recommend that anybody who is about to go on this journey, create those physical artifacts and create a physical space where you can start to build capability and community.

For us, that was incredibly successful. And even though you’re talking about a customer and a digital transformation, the opportunity to touch stuff, to see stuff, to have human interaction around stuff, reminded you constantly that this is a human experience not just a digital experience.

So it really brought home to bear that these customers, these personas, were real people because they were with us all the time.

Michael Bird

It’s so easy to group people into buckets. It’s important to do that from a management level in terms of managing and delivering for each key persona.

But in terms of the types of conversations that people were having in the offline world, how did that inform what you were thinking about online?

Matthew Lee

Well I think the challenge for all of us in this space is to go back to the customers. So, to think about when do the customers need to interact with human beings? What channels are they open to?

For example, most of us in this space know that you’ll try and find stuff on the web if you can. If you can’t find it, then you’re going to jump to another channel. What’s that channel going to be? Are you going to go onto webchat? Are you going to go onto EDMs? Whatever that is.

So just thinking about the customers and what’s the right balance between online and offline channels.

Michael Bird

It’s super interesting seeing that universities are increasingly becoming commercialised in the sense that they’re thinking like they’re an organisation about what value are they bringing their customer? What are they doing to create that unique differentiation?

Even the processes and the experiences that they’re delivering their customers seem a lot more like a technology business than perhaps a university from 10 years ago. I think RMIT, as you mentioned with The Garage customer experience centre, was just a cracking example of how to really nail that.

Matthew Lee

We learnt a lot from best practice in other sectors and what they were doing. So we did the things that you would typically expect to do when you’re starting to develop a CX framework.

We developed personas, we did all the journey mapping, we started to understand what the real pain points were, how you could develop a branded experience and how you measure success in terms of a net promoter score and other sorts of measures.

We started out in terms of looking at the technology, what’s our martech stack? What’s our CRM? And we also started to build capability across the university. But one of the great things that we learnt from technology companies that almost ironically, it’s not about the technology.

A great example is I was listening to a podcast on the weekend about Netflix. Netflix are saying that even though they’re a technology company they want to become more like an entertainment company because there’s magic in an entertainment company in terms of how they create that content.

So they actually want to become more like Disney and Disney wants to become more like them. The technology companies are now saying ‘there’s something in the culture that helps us then produce better content’ for example.

Michael Bird

I think with all businesses, Social Garden included, it’s always a matter of how do you bring the art and the science?

Matthew Lee

And that’s the great opportunity I think for marketers. I call it the mixed brain stuff. So the combination of left and right brain that’s I think the great challenge for us as we start to move forward.

Michael Bird

It’s exciting, right, as well because I think for the first time the people that are involved, particularly here, in the art can start to see the numbers that sit behind the art for the first time.

For the people that work in data science or in analytics teams, they’re really seeing the value of fantastic creative. And so it builds that mutual respect as well.

Matthew Lee

And working together I think provides marketers with a great opportunity to start to work across universities to influence what the shape of those universities might be because typically we drown in data, but we’re not really using that data to translate into insight.

And somebody in that equation needs to be the voice of the customer, the voice of the market and sensemaker of all the numbers that float around in our own environment.

Michael Bird

What do you see is the future for universities in Australia?

Matthew Lee

I’m an optimist. I reckon sometimes universities get a bad rap. So if you go back to the EY report that came out in the last month or so, they talk about a range of disruptive forces that I think we’re all familiar with.

You know the world of work is changing, there’s more global competition, where does industry start and end in terms of relation to universities, how are digital behaviours changing and what does continuous learning mean?

So those were the sorts of forces that they started to talk about as really disrupting our environment. The one that I would add to that is the rise of commoditised content. You know almost everything is available for free.

Michael Bird

So what does that mean for universities in the current day?

Matthew Lee

Well, I think what that means is it’s not just about delivering degrees or the content. It’s about so much else. Universities are responding and starting to respond to the challenge of the forces that EY have talked about.

For example, most universities are starting to think about now ‘how do you unbundle degrees?’ If we’re going in and out of the university environment for short, sharp bursts of learning, what does that actually mean in terms of micro-credentialing and a whole bunch of other stuff?

Michael Bird

It makes sense because particularly in my world, in the technology and digital world, skill sets are changing so rapidly that it would be almost impossible for a university to continue to innovate fast enough.

Matthew Lee

Think about that whole customer lifetime journey. Where are the inflection points in our life, where we start to take on different responsibilities? You know I’m a technical expert, I’m a management person, I’m a career changer, I’m preparing to be an entrepreneur, I’m preparing to run a portfolio career.

The opportunity for marketers is to think about people’s lifetime journeys and to really understand their needs and their aspirations and their fears at each stage in those lifetime journeys.

I think the other thing too is we’re responding in terms of online and blended learning, so looking at how people learn digitally. And I think universities are doing that.

Look at what UTS Open is now doing in terms of free content that’s available for you online. Lots and lots of other universities are doing that. We’re rethinking work. 15 years ago, how many universities had activators, accelerators, innovation hubs? And now, universities are all looking at how we do that.

I think the Melbourne Accelerator Program is one great example and there is a great investment there at University of Melbourne on Swanston St, but there are other universities doing great things in that space.

They’re not the only ones and I think that leads to the challenge for universities and I pose it as a question, are we going fast enough? Because if we’re not going fast enough, somebody else will fill those gaps.

Michael Bird

What a great way to sum it up. Look, one last thing that I’m going to be asking everyone that comes on podcast, is what’s the one thing that you wish you knew about the customer experience and marketing automation journey before you’d got started?

Matthew Lee

It’s all about people and culture.

Michael Bird

Beautiful. Thank you very much.

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