Cambridgeshire County Council is using customer relationship management (CRM) software to help it deal with student loan applications more effectively, writes Karl Cushing.
The key aims of the pilot project are to reduce the length of time it takes to process loan applications and to keep track of individual applications better. The CRM system keeps a record of each interaction the students have with the council - whether by e-mail, phone or face-to-face - and should help its staff to manage the workflow more effectively.
Ian Laughton, the project's manager, explains that there are "great peaks and troughs" throughout the year in the number of applications the council receives, and managing that workflow effectively has proved difficult.
"Using this system, you can see exactly what is in everyone's in-box," he says. And applications from students with special circumstances, such as physical disabilities, can be sent to staff qualified to deal with them.
One of the main problems with the council's paper-based system was the lack of visibility. Every academic year the council deals with about 12,000 loan applications and, until now, it created a paper folder for each one.
Keeping track of each folder as it moved through the various stages in the application process proved difficult and it was hard for staff to provide accurate information when fielding calls from applicants wanting updates on their progress. "The feeling from the applicants' point of view was that they had submitted a form and then there was a long silence," says Laughton.
The pilot project uses the CRM modules from Oracle's E-Business Suite, which were implemented by ICL in an extension of its five-year contract with the council. Laughton estimates the cost of the initiative to be about £150,000.
Laughton describes the pilot as a fact-finding project to look at the amount of resources, cultural shift and business process engineering needed to make CRM projects work effectively.
The council is currently inviting tenders for a new contact centre to handle its front-end services, which it plans to open in 2003. It will also take part in a national, Government-backed student loans pilot next year.
In the future, the council hopes students will be able to send and track completed forms electronically via the Internet. This should lead to a reduction in the number of phone calls fielded by council staff.
The application forms are available online but, as the Student Loans Company requires a signature, they have to be downloaded and sent by post.
"This system is much slicker but we would like it to be much slicker yet," says Laughton. "One thing we would like to do is get rid of more paper."