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Trailhead Trailblazers: At UMass Lowell, Students Prepare For Careers With Salesforce CRM Curriculum


See how UMass Lowell prepares students for careers with a curriculum that teaches Salesforce CRM skills.

When classes resumed for the 2018-2019 academic year at University of Massachusetts Lowell in September, more than 350 students in its Manning School of Business embarked on an educational journey unlike any other.

For the second year, UMass Lowell, a public institution located 30 miles northwest of Boston, integrated Trailhead into its curriculum to teach undergraduate and graduate students Salesforce CRM skills across several courses:

  • Sales and Customer Relations
  • Sales Management
  • Customer and Market Analysis
  • Digital Marketing
  • Professional Communication
  • Management Information Systems

Curriculum grew out of school’s own success with Salesforce

One of the main drivers of the initiative is that, as an institution, UMass Lowell had been using CRM to create a connected campus. Its IT department launched Salesforce in 2014 to streamline admissions, recruiting and career services and has since seen retention and graduation rates increase significantly. Today, there are nearly 300 Salesforce users in a dozen departments across the campus.

Plenty of schools across the U.S. use Salesforce to manage internal operations, but none has gone so far as to integrate CRM learning so deeply into its curriculum. The goal, according to Tony Gao, Associate Professor of Marketing and a faculty champion for the initiative, is to provide students with practical, in-demand skills that will make them imminently more marketable and (hopefully) more successful long-term in their careers.

“The fact that our university has successfully implemented Salesforce in many functional departments and proven its tremendous value has made our job easier in introducing it to the students,” says Gao, who also credits Manning School Dean Sandra Richtermeyer’s vision and leadership for integrating Trailhead into the classroom and for building corporate relationships with industry partners.

“We’re enabling student success,” says Gao. “My goal in class is teach relevant, rigorous, and cutting-edge knowledge and skills. Salesforce CRM is widely used in professional work settings today and many modern-day business decisions are made in a CRM environment, so we know what we are teaching them is very beneficial.”

Indeed, a 2017 Salesforce-commissioned study by IDC reported that Salesforce and its ecosystem would enable the creation of more than three million jobs and $859 billion in new revenue worldwide by 2022. Further, Burning Glass Technologies, an analytics company that tracks the labor market, said that, since 2012, job postings calling for Salesforce skills have grown 1.3 times faster than overall job postings, and that demand for Salesforce-specific jobs have quadrupled.

Badges, badges and more badges

Trailhead, as hundreds of thousands of lifelong learners are already aware, is the fun way to learn Salesforce; a library of free learning paths that run the gamut of Salesforce capabilities and levels of expertise. Learners receive a badge for every completed module, and a trail consists of multiple modules organized around a common theme.

In its inaugural semester last Fall, Gao made badges optional; those who completed eight modules received one extra credit. It was such an immediate success that in the second semester, students were required to complete 12 modules for 12 badges. By the midpoint of the Spring semester, 23 of his 80 students had earned more than 50 badges! Now, in the Fall 2018 semester, he requires all of his students to complete 25 modules and encourages them to complete another 25. Currently, four of his MBA students have already earned more than 100 Salesforce badges, which will surely draw the attention of prospective corporate recruiters.  

“I wanted to increase the scale, and make sure the attained badges had great value and would be transferable to functional job skills. The students are trying to one-up each other with badges, which is the dynamic you want to develop. I’d require 100 badges if I could.”

UMass Lowell’s own IT department hired a Salesforce student ambassador from the Manning School as an intern to work on Salesforce projects as part of a co-op learning program. “The supervisor was so impressed with his knowledge,” says Gao, “that they anticipated needing more of such students.”

What students say

During the 2017-2018 academic year (the program’s inaugural year) Gao surveyed the students to gauge their reaction to the innovative curriculum. Here’s a small sampling:

“I found these badges to be incredibly beneficial and have already had an employer specifically point them out in an interview.”

“This tool is very relevant in today’s business world. I have the advantage of being exposed to this prior to my entry into the real world, which is something few business school graduates are able to say.”

“Having just gone through Salesforce training with my company in an intense week-long learning collective, I can say without a doubt that I was massively more prepared than my colleagues and actually earned some kudos from the Accenture team (Salesforce Implementation Company) for having Salesforce badges.”  

The unique program has been such a model for learning that in March 2018, more than 100 Manning School students participated via webcam in the TrailheadDX Developer Conference, which drew more than 10,000 attendees. The school is also a featured Trailblazer among Salesforce Student Groups on, and was highlighted by Sarah Franklin, Executive Vice President and General Manager of Trailhead as a model of learning innovations at Salesforce World Tour Boston.

“Trailhead is free and it’s fun, but it’s also a very serious and practical learning tool,” says Gao. One example: in a Sales Cloud exercise, students are given 100 hypothetical leads to convert, leveraging knowledge gleaned from the Sales Cloud Trail. “I’m so thankful that Salesforce has this resource, because we’re helping prepare students for the job market.”  

To that end, one of the school’s measures of success is connecting students with employers. The interest from students and faculty in terms of adding more Salesforce-related content to the curriculum is growing, and plans to integrate Salesforce into entrepreneurship and management courses are on the horizon. The Manning School of Business has also hosted a variety of speakers from industries to talk about the Salesforce ecosystem and discuss how knowledge of the Salesforce platform can lead to career opportunities. The Manning School is also getting some inquiries from employers about students with Salesforce skills, according to Gao.  

The other indicator of success is engaging with and training more faculty members on Trailhead so they can integrate it into their curriculum.

“One fairly common perception among the faculty is that CRM is just about marketing and management information systems, but everyone across disciplines can benefit, including accounting and finance, and even non-business programs such as nursing and education. As long as a company has customers — and all companies do — there is a possibility of using CRM to gather, share, and react to customer data to improve the customer’s experience.”

“Salesforce’s philosophy of innovation aligns with my teaching philosophy. At the end of the day, this is a great technology product that, when united with the hard-working students at UMass Lowell, results in a class of young professionals who are much better prepared for today’s professional work environment.”

Gao himself is in a constant state of learning. Check out his Trailhead training profile — he has acquired more than 260 Salesforce badges and more than 125,000 points, and has also completed a rigorous Trailhead training program set forth by the Trailhead for Students program at Salesforce, and has earned the Salesforce Fundamentals Educator status.

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