ccDaily > Technology helps address demands in student services

Technology helps address demands in student services

Kevin Carman

​Like many other community colleges across the country, Cuyahoga Community College (Tri-C) in Ohio has experienced unprecedented enrollments over the past two years. As a result, managing the needs of the influx of students—4,500 more students than a year ago—has stressed Tri-C’s information center as agents struggled to handle a record numbers of calls for help with financial aid, scheduling and other issues.

The college had to develop a strategy to ensure good customer service for all students, track the number and nature of calls, and measure the time it took to meet each caller’s needs.

“We are expected to service a lot more students without any new resources,” said Crystal Brodis, director of the Tri-C Information Center. “Student satisfaction is very important, and with our record enrollment numbers, it’s a challenge to keep everybody happy.”

In addition, student expectations have changed, in part because of technology.

“We have experienced a huge increase in the number of students taking classes online and we have begun offering a number of hybrid courses, with in-class meetings and online work,” Brodis said. “We have to make resources available online and during nontraditional hours.”

Despite the popularity of its online applications, change did not happen quickly. Students who had trouble with online processes sometimes found it difficult to get help quickly when they called the college. To assist them, Tri-C created a temporary call center, but officials soon found that it lacked many of the features they wanted, such as the ability to track the number of calls, how long each caller was on hold and how many transfers were required to answer the caller’s questions.

Helping callers was complicated by the fact that each student service department, such as admissions and financial aid, at each of Tri-C’s three campuses had a different phone number.

“There was a lot of transferring calls back and forth between locations to get the student to the right department,” Brodis said.

A technology solution

Tri-C looked to an outside provider for help. AT&T developed integrated contact center technology for the college using Cisco equipment, which enabled Tri-C to improve student services. The cost-effective solution links the college’s remote local area networks to support intelligent call-routing and management capabilities, giving Tri-C the bandwidth to meet current needs as well as accommodate more growth.

The network also made it easier for callers to reach someone who can quickly answer their questions. Calls are distributed based on touch-tone or “natural language responses” to prompts and routed to the agent best able to handle them. On an average day, the system manages 3,000 to 4,000 calls. It handles 8,000 calls during peak times, such as at the beginning of a semester.

Now, with the support of the phone technology, students are more comfortable using the college’s website to apply and register, schedule their classes, apply for financial aid and pay tuition. Most have embraced the technology, with 89 percent of Tri-C students registering online this year.

“When we see the increased foot traffic on campus, we can only imagine what it would have been like if they all had to come in to register at the counter,” Brodis said.

Sharing the load, smartly

The college has 190 agents on staff, with about 60 of them logged on during peak hours. Tri-C decided against a traditional call center model, with agents working together from a single location. Instead, it opted to route calls to specific departments where agents are assigned to peak hours and complete other tasks when volumes slow down.

“They may only be assigned to be on phones from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. every day if that’s our busiest time,” Brodis said. “Otherwise, they may be in the back room processing documents or at the front counter working with students.”

The average caller wait time has decreased by 20 percent, and call abandonment has dropped 41 percent. Tri-C also can track the number of calls and how quickly each call is handled.

“It gives us the information we need to allocate resources appropriately,” she said. “The solution will grow with us to help us maintain a good level of customer service.”

The college has also trained some staff to handle basic inquiries across departments. Previously, a student who wanted to make a payment had to wait to speak with someone in the business office.

“Now, anyone who has that payment skill set is able to take the call, so it’s typically handled a lot faster than before,” Brodis said.

The system also allows students to access certain information themselves. 

“If students want to check their requirements or loan status, they can do it over the phone,” Brodis said. “Our student database provides basic information specific to them once they have entered their student ID and password.”

To enable agents to manage the expected growth and further streamline communication with students, Tri-C plans to integrate e-mail and chat functionality into its contact solution.

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Carman is the education segment marketing manager at  AT&T, which is a member of the American Association of Community Colleges’ Corporate Council.