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Open Lines

You’ve got students calling in with urgent financial questions, parents already on hold, and messages of your own to get out. To unclog communications, consider a call center.

By Anna Jackson

Five years ago, for example, the administrative offices at Sinclair Community College, Dayton, Ohio, were swamped with inquiries—as many as 14,000 calls in one week during peak periods, such as registration. The sheer volume of calls translated into a slow response time. Overwhelmed staff along with students quick to complain about the college’s level of service prompted Sinclair to open a dedicated call center in August 2002.

Initially, the call center set out to serve four departments: administration, bursar, registration, and financial aid. Over the years, it has blossomed into a far-reaching communication center that is a point of contact for general inquiries as well. The center now receives between 18,000 and 45,000 calls per month, all routed through one central phone number.

“Our goal is to help students, no matter how long it takes,” says Tabitha Shuey, who supervises Sinclair’s call center. She says the ideal staff size is 15 to 18 representatives, primarily part-time employees. They answer the majority of inquiries directly; for more complicated questions, particularly about student financial aid, representatives may redirect the caller to the appropriate department.

Making Quicker Connections

Similarly, the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, which has operated its Student Financial Information Center since 1988, is opening a new center staffed with university employees. The financial information center has served as the point of contact for questions regarding student billing, financial aid, and loan applications, routing all other calls to the counseling center. By the late 1990s, with call volumes rising and counselors assisting more people with more complex issues, callers increasingly encountered busy signals. That’s when the call-in portion of Penn’s counseling center began to morph into a general communication center for handling all student inquiries.

First, the university enhanced the counseling center’s telephone menu with options for routing calls to the appropriate staff, depending upon the inquiry, and expanded callers’ opportunities to speak immediately with a live person. Then it ensured that all staff within the counseling center had the same knowledge; this training often eliminated the need to transfer callers and reduced the number of follow-up inquiries and walk-in visits.

Penn recently restructured its communication center, which is now staffed by one supervisor and three full-time staff, with temporary staff added when necessary to handle routine calls generated by cyclical events. Any questions that do not have easy answers are referred to 18 assistant directors within the counseling center, which has the ultimate responsibility for handling all student inquiries.

Although the volume of calls and the number of walk-in visits have decreased in recent years, the drops cannot be attributed to the communication center alone, says Jackie Smith, senior director of student registration and student services operations at Penn. She notes that students have more options to manage their accounts online and therefore have less need to speak with someone in person.

Still, Smith adds, “We have new products or issues that come up, and these may generate a lot of calls.” In the past year, for example, Smith noticed a spike in calls related to loan consolidation.

Stepping Outside

The University of Pennsylvania and Sinclair Community College both staff and manage their call centers internally. For other institutions, outsourcing has increased the effectiveness in assisting students.

Ten years ago, the University of Miami, Coral Gables, Florida, relied on several staff members to handle inquiries. The high volume of calls and walk-in inquiries taxed those employees, who were not always able to provide timely responses or track the types of questions being asked. The university then hired work-study students—typically juniors, seniors, or graduate students—to answer the phones. But whenever students became busy with their coursework, full-time staff ended up answering the phones anyway.

At the same time, university management was interested in the metrics, such as the total number of calls coming in, the average response time per call, and the percentage of dropped calls. Hiram Sem, senior director of student account services at the University of Miami, addressed the staffing and customer service concerns by contracting with Xact Telecommunications in 2002.

The company’s representatives answer all incoming calls, which means no busy signals for students and parents. If those representatives are unable to answer the question, they refer the call to Sem’s department for immediate follow-up. For example, Sem estimates that Xact employees answer 30 percent of incoming calls relating to student billing issues. The remaining queries are answered by university employees; freed from handling the routine calls, they now have more time to address complex questions and walk-in requests.

Thanks to online capabilities related to this system, Xact personnel can mark certain calls “urgent” when referring them to the university staff. In addition, the online system enables Sem to track, in real-time, the outsourced services provided to callers. He has immediate access to statistics such as total calls, abandoned calls, and average longest wait time per call.

Sem, who currently serves as president of Florida’s Bursars and Student Accounting Administrators Association, likes not only having access to those numbers but also what they indicate. In fiscal year 2002, the percentage of abandoned calls—in which a caller, placed on hold, hung up before speaking with a representative—was 4.86 percent. In fiscal year 2006, abandoned calls dropped to 2.34 percent.  

Making the Call    

Ready to revise the way your institution responds to student inquiries? Administrators who have already grappled with the call center issue offer these suggestions.

Analyze current systems. Hiram Sem, senior director of student account services at the University of Miami, emphasizes the importance of knowing the reasons for incoming inquiries. The complexity and nature of students’ questions will help you determine whether an external call center might be able to alleviate the burden on staff.

Before deciding whether to outsource or to develop internal capabilities, review the student service processes already in place and identify any inefficiencies, recommends Paula Gill, associate dean of enrollment services at Belmont University. Also clarify your institution’s goals for responding to inquiries, as well as expected customer service levels. All of this information will be needed to evaluate the services of different providers.

Hire wisely. Of course, strong customer service skills are a must for those on the front lines of communicating with students and parents. Consequently, rather than hire college students, Tabitha Shuey, who supervises the call center at Sinclair Community College, looks for seasoned employees and individuals who truly want a customer-service-oriented job. 

If you decide to outsource, pay a visit to the actual facility, recommends Joey Saxon, the University of North Texas’s director of student accounting and university cashiering services and ID systems. An on-site visit lets you observe how the call center works and listen to actual calls. That will give you an idea of the level of customer service that would be provided to your students.  

Don’t skimp on training. Students and parents must receive a consistent message, whether they speak with the call center or campus employees, says Melissa Englund, executive director of the student resource center and financial aid at Drexel University. That consistency comes only from extensive and ongoing training.

Sinclair Community College requires its call center employees to participate in a 4- to 6-week training program. The curriculum acquaints them with the departments the center serves, in addition to general college procedures.

For outsourced operations, schedule periodic meetings with call center personnel to provide updated information. Both Belmont University and the University of North Texas hold weekly meetings with Campus Assist representatives to discuss weekly reports and to address areas of high call volume.

Multiplying Sources of Service

Similar to Miami’s experience, the University of North Texas (UNT), Denton, initially tried to develop an internal call center to address the influx of student financial inquiries. It was unrealistic, however, for staff to answer up to 10,000 calls in one month, observes Joey Saxon, director of student accounting and university cashiering services and ID systems. Plus, with his department’s resources pulled in many directions, Saxon noticed inconsistencies in responses to callers.

In June 2005, UNT outsourced student financial service inquiries to Sallie Mae’s Campus Assist program. “Their technical equipment allows the company to manage resources and scheduling so that they can staff up according to peak hours,” explains Saxon. The setup enables him to easily monitor call center statistics, such as the number of calls received and the average hold time.

Sallie Mae also answers calls for UNT’s Financial Aid Office. That joint effort to outsource calls allows students and parents to receive answers to financial aid and refunding questions with one call. In August 2006 alone, Campus Assist personnel answered 28,000 calls on behalf of UNT.

For nearly three years, Belmont University in Nashville has also used Sallie Mae’s Campus Assist program to handle student financial service inquiries. But that was hardly Belmont’s first foray into call center outsourcing. A dozen years ago, it established an ongoing partnership with Tuition Management Systems to answer inquiries related to tuition payment plans. And Belmont outsources to Educational Computer Systems, Inc., the answering of inquiries about 1098T, institutional, and Perkins loans.

This multiple-partner approach is the right fit for Belmont, because it underscores the university’s goal to provide exemplary customer service, says Paula Gill, associate dean of enrollment services. She explains, “At Belmont, we needed a live voice to answer questions at the time the questions were asked, versus simply answering the phone and taking messages or transferring calls.”

Gill estimates that hiring and training additional university personnel to provide the same level of service would cost more than outsourcing. She also sees a positive effect within the university. Last year, the three vendors together served more than 24,000 callers on Belmont’s behalf—that’s 24,000 fewer opportunities to pull staff away from their other work.

“If internal staff members have the opportunity to complete projects in a timely manner, it decreases the call volume because students no longer need to ask the question,” Gill says. Another benefit has been the information contained in the vendors’ reports. Gill notes, for example, that identifying the top 10 reasons for incoming calls has helped the university in its strategic planning efforts.

Benefiting From Research

The University of Southern Mississippi, Hattiesburg, is in the process of developing a comprehensive call center that will serve various needs of the institution. Once realized, it will be a centralized point for inbound inquiries—including financial services—and for outbound calls related to survey research and capital campaigns.

Focusing on call center research. The university has a unique asset that will aid in this transition: the Call Center Research Laboratory, which is dedicated to studying the burgeoning call center industry. David Butler serves as the director of the laboratory and says that consolidating multiple small-center units will provide greater efficiency, because each department can benefit from the center’s resources and technology. The university received federal grants to fund the project and is renovating a site to house the call center, with the intention that it open in mid-2007. “Eventually the center will be a one-stop shop,” Butler explains. “Ideally, people will be able to get all of their questions answered with a single phone call.”

Adopting a strategic perspective. Butler emphasizes the importance of understanding the objectives of a call center prior to implementation. He has consulted with employees throughout the university about the pros and cons of developing a full-service call center internally versus externally. He says that it is generally a toss-up, with staff identifying advantages with either arrangement. While employees have been generally supportive of the call center plan, some challenges have accompanied the planning and implementation process. Specifically, a level of resistance to change among staff has required that Butler convince some that a consolidated center will be a business process improvement. In addition, because many departments operate as silos, the project has forced staff to break down communication walls and interact when they may not be accustomed to doing so. “It behooves us all to think strategically about the objectives of the call center,” he says.

Communicating with consistency. The Southern Mississippi call center will serve multiple needs and audiences, and Butler says staffing is an important consideration. In addition to full-time staff, the center will employ students and second-career individuals with different backgrounds. It is crucial that staff receive continuous and consistent training so that they operate from the same knowledge base. That way, callers receive the same answers to similar questions regardless of which representative handles the call. By using a call-routing system, the consolidated call center will be able to direct callers to representatives with a niche specialty, while maintaining a customer relationship management database that ensures that representatives have access to the same information.

While the centralized call center is still in the developmental stages, Butler says that he is not aware of another institutional call center that serves such a diverse group of incoming inquiries and outbound needs. The university may be ambitious in its hopes to create a consolidated call center. However, Butler believes that faculty, staff, and students will benefit not only from the center but from the enhanced communication it will generate—and that already has transpired as a result of the planning process. “This is the first attempt at a call center of this magnitude,” he says. “We’ll see what successes or lessons learned we take from the experience.”

Using a Blended Approach

So what’s the best way to handle student inquiries—internally or externally? Drexel University in Philadelphia prefers a combination of the two approaches.

The university outsources a financial aid hotline for all inquiries from prospective and incoming students, while campus staff handle all questions posed by enrolled students. The distinction developed when Drexel determined that calls from prospective students tended to be routine and straightforward. In contrast, enrolled students had more complex financial aid inquiries that required greater attention.

“During peak times, our staff resources were stretched very thin,” acknowledges Melissa Englund, executive director of the student resource center and financial aid at Drexel. “This [outsourced] call center enables us to provide better service to enrolled students.”

The call center, operated for Drexel by Edamerica, primarily answers financial aid inquires for prospective students. It operates year-round, with up to 12 representatives taking calls during peak periods. Any issues that they cannot answer directly are passed along to Drexel personnel at the end of each day.

Drexel, which promotes the financial aid hotline in materials sent to prospective students, also uses the call center to conduct outgoing call campaigns, both pre-recorded and live. In fiscal year 2005, the call center handled 4,700 inbound and 4,800 outbound phone calls related to financial aid packages. In fiscal year 2006, the center handled 8,500 inbound calls and 16,000 outbound calls.

Considering Key Decisions  

Plan Now for March Conference

Join fellow business officers, bursars, and student services and financial aid professionals at NACUBO’s fifth annual Student Financial Services Conference, March 4–6, in San Diego. This year’s lineup includes plenary sessions covering business ethics, coping with change, the pertinent recommendations of the Spellings Commission, and more. With your choice of more than 15 concurrent sessions, stay current on new rules from the Department of Education, cutting-edge customer service to students, the latest technology advancements, and improvement of your financial results.

Interact with faculty and colleagues from like institutions through issue-driven discussions.  Meet with representatives from more than 30 student financial services companies to learn about the latest products and services. To register, visit www.nacubo.org or call 800.462.4916.

In addition, don’t miss an opportunity to explore in-depth the concept of call centers and other ways to enhance your customer relationship management capabilities during an  interactive post-conference seminar. David Butler, director of the Call Center Research Laboratory at the University of Southern Mississippi, will lend his expertise to jump-start discussions.

Whether set up as an internal operation or completely outsourced, a call center requires decisions related to several key elements.

  • Costs. If you're developing an in-house operation, you'll need a high-quality telephone system. The University of Pennsylvania, for example, is replacing its outdated automated call-distribution phone system with a state-of-the-art product that will allow its call center to expand its capabilities to other parts of campus. Penn’s Jackie Smith is also shopping for a customer relationship management system to help employees of Penn’s call center manage and organize information; this will help ensure consistency among responses, no matter who takes the call.

    You’ll also need to budget for training. Even when outsourced, call center employees are an extension of your educational institution and therefore must provide the same level of service and knowledge. To ensure consistency, Drexel employees train the outsourcing company’s call center representatives. In addition, about four times per year, Englund or one of her staff members visits the Edamerica site—or Edamerica managers visit Drexel—to provide additional training and information.

    While the costs of outsourcing or staffing a call center are apparent—and for external operations, the costs are often determined on a per-call basis—it is more difficult to calculate the savings related to an institution’s general operations. Still, both Belmont University’s Paula Gill and UNT’s Joey Saxon noticed that employee morale increased when their institutions began to outsource their call centers.  Before, says Saxon, UNT staff worked a lot of overtime to answer all the calls. Spending so much time on incoming calls meant that staff had difficulty getting their jobs done. He reasons that less overtime might translate into a decrease in staff turnover as well.

    Saxon says the outsourcing arrangement with Campus Assist has not only enabled UNT’s administrative staff to focus exclusively on their work but also contributed to institutional success. In the past year, the university has experienced a 4 percent increase in enrollment, an increase in student retention, and a dramatic decrease in complaints about customer service.
  • Additional uses. Call centers aren’t only a means of handling incoming inquiries. You can also tap their capabilities to initiate contact with students.

    The University of Miami uses Xact Telecommunications to answer inquiries as well as conduct outbound calls to inform students about issues with their accounts or upcoming deadlines. Through its in-house call center, Sinclair Community College often places automated reminder calls to students about their accounts. In addition, Sinclair uses its system to contact all new applicants, welcoming them to the college and informing them about available resources—including the call center.
  • Confidentiality. You’ll need to have a policy in place to guide how much information your institution is willing to share—and with whom.

    Although Sinclair and Penn staff their call centers with campus employees, those people do not necessarily have the same privileges as other financial services staff. At Sinclair, for instance, call center representatives have limited access to student account information; at times, they must re-route detailed requests to the relevant department for a response. Penn grants its call center staff access to the same systems as other financial services employees, but the center staff have limited updating capabilities.

    UNT grants Campus Assist personnel the same view access to student accounts as campus employees. They also have access to UNT’s PeopleSoft program.

    Staff at the University of Miami do not feel comfortable providing detailed student account information to its call center employees, who work for Xact Telecommunications. As a result, most of the inquiries that the company answers on the university’s behalf are of a general nature. In-depth and confidential inquiries about student accounts are routed back to the university. Even so, says Hiram Sem, the university saves an estimated $30,000-$40,000 annually thanks to a decrease in staffing requirements.
  • Semantics. The term “call center” may have negative connotations on some campuses. Tabitha Shuey, for example, sometimes encounters the stereotype that her employees are simply telephone operators, even though they act as a first point of contact for Sinclair Community College in many cases.

    A more general term—such as “communication center” or “contact center”—may also be more accurate as educational institutions adopt additional modes of communicating with students and parents. In addition to having phone lines, these operations might host Web-based chats on topics such as financial aid or admissions, answer student questions via instant messaging, or host a blog for parents of prospective students. Miami already encourages students to access detailed information about bills and financial aid online, and Belmont often posts individualized messages regarding students’ accounts on their Web portal’s front page.

    With each generation of students more tech savvy than the last, you’ll need to continually develop innovative ways to reach your audiences. But ironically, just as institutions are making more services electronic, old-fashioned customer service is making a comeback. Sometimes, there’s no substitute for the sound of a friendly voice, for someone who can answer a question reassuringly or explain a process patiently.

    This personal touch has led to positive feedback about the communication center from staff and students at Sinclair Community College. Students clearly like receiving answers quickly—and from a real person. “The call center is something that people rely on,” says Shuey. “I really can’t imagine how the college could operate without it now.”

ANNA JACKSON, Chicago, covers higher education business issues for Business Officer.