Thursday, February 03, 2011

America’s Best Collegiate Customer Service Call Center

customer service, college retention, academic customer service, attrition, collegiate customer service

Columbus, Oh was covered by a quarter inch of ice. The main and many secondary roads seemed okay in most places though the local schools were closed. But Columbus State Community College did not. It was open and the calls from angry students who had to come to school flooded into CSCC. Fortunately, CSCC has what is the best college call center in the country so the angry students were handled by professionals who knew what to do.

“Hello. This is XXXXX (name of the call center person). Who am I talking with please?”
“Sam and I’m really pissed off.”
“What seems to be the problem Sam? I’ll see what I can do to help.”
“The roads are all ice and I’m supposed to come to school? You guys are the only one open. What the hell is the problem with you? Do you want students to get hurt trying to get there? What are you crazy? It’s all ice out there. It’s not safe to drive on the roads. That’s why everyone else in the city is closed. What are you doing being open? You must just want me to get in an accident and get hurt just to come to class.””
(pause to see if he were done) “We certainly do not want you to get hurt. Not at all. The school is open but if you feel it is not safe to drive here please get in touch with your instructor and let him or her know what the problem is.”
“Do you have his telephone number? It’s Prof Smith teaching Bio 112 today at 10:00.”
“Let me get that for you. Yes, here it is. The number is XXXXXXX Call him and let him know what your decision is. We certainly do not want you to get hurt and he’ll work something out with you.”

Wow! That is the way it should be done rather than what happens at most schools. But isn’t

Considering that twelve percent of all potential enrollment is lost when an interested probable student makes contact with a school, it should be alarming that telephone skills have dropped. In the last two schools we audited, we found that people simply did not know how to answer the phone when someone called. At one school, the person answered the phone with just a very bored mumbled “hello” and the other let the phone ring five times and answered with such as methodical. “This is xxxx University. Can I help you” that a caller would be pushed back by the indifference. At another school, we called, as we do in a customer service audit to test knowledge and handoff skills, we asked where we go to drop a course but the person answering had no idea. She sent us on a merry shuffle from phone to phone to phone to phone to when a normal person would have hung up. We finally did get to the Records office only to be put on hold for three minutes! None of these represented good customer service and would have likely contributed to a non-application or drop.

People just do not know how to use the telephone anymore yet the phone is often the first actual point of contact with a school. So not thinking about that, schools place the least skilled, lowest paid, untrained people to make the first contact – often students who have no idea at all how to answer and use a phone. I am amazed that admissions people allow this to happen since they’re the ones who lose out most directly since the poor phone skills turn off potential students. I am also amazed that schools do not take phone answering seriously at all. A twelve percent boost in applications would be an enrollment and thus revenue boost. But who needs money nowadays? Not colleges and universities!

Thankfully there are some schools that are looking into solving the telephone issue. Some do get training in phone use from groups like ours. Some have adopted our mirror and smile approach that we recommend to everyone. That is a good start. Some schools are even hiring people with skills to answer phones in all offices. Remember it is not just the main trunk line coming in that is a problem but every phone in the school. And some, (bless them) have been looking at setting up a phone call center with a group of highly trained professionals who can answer a phone and actually solve problems.

When we work with a college to set up a call center we always have one model program, in mind. The best darn call center in American academia – the call center at Columbus State Community College in Columbus, OH under the leadership of Nina Reece who also played the college president at times when a very angry student demanded to speak to the college president. Likely Nina played a conciliatory president better than the real one would do and the student was happy he was heard at the “top”.

The Columbus State Community College Call Center
The CSCC call center has been in existence for nineteen years. It started In July of 1992 as an attempt (and success) to take the problem of poor phone skills and turn them into a benefit for the school.  And boy has it succeeded. It started as a way to end the long lines students experienced trying to take care of basic tasks like registration, drop/adds and admissions questions and requests. It has become a central feature in CSCC’s customer service and ending telephone shuffle by having all external calls sent to one spot where trained telephone professionals answer the phone and send the caller to the correct connection or even better, take care of the caller’s needs right then and there.

For example, if a student has the change her schedule during registration, the student can call into the center and the trained professional on the other end can cancel a class section, help the student choose another day and time or even another course in the major, schedule the student, accept any change in payment or fee and even order and accept payment for the books which will be mailed out to the student all in one call. No need to find a parking spot, run around the registrar’s, bursar’s, financial aid, find an adviser go back to registrar and perhaps bursar and financial aid and then the bookstore to complete the change. Now that’s customer service.

And the call center helps an average of 1600 people/calls a day and even more during registration time. The normal shift has ten full and part-time people answering the phones and helping callers.  Unlike a corporate call center there is no board reminding people to get rid of the caller in 2.6 minutes and get on to the next one. In fact, the representatives are trained to take all the time the caller needs to help, resolve any issues and do all they can to make sure everyone hangs up the phone feeling heard and helped That can be a tough task too. There are callers who are just plain angry but the call center folks do a great job of helping soother angered callers. But the center is a great and rewarding place to work and the full time staff have been there from four to seventeen years. Once they are there, they stay in this demanding but very satisfying job. Satisfying because they really do help people and the center leadership is so great to work for.

The Center uses the 6 basic steps to success in telephone customer service
They answer with a smile on their face, a simple hello and give a name – get a name. “Columbus State Community College. This is XXXXXX. Who am I talking with please?
After getting the caller’s name they repeat it and ask how they might help.”Thank you Paul. How may I help you today?” Then they use the two ears and one mouth rule. They listen and let the caller talk as long as he or she likes, While the caller talks, they might take notes and start to plan a response while considering what they will need to do. They can access information on line and through the large physical date vase in their information books. The information books are supplemental information they might need beyond their own extensive knowledge of the college and on-line information and forms.
Summarize issue
After the caller has said all he wants to, the center worker pauses to make sure the speaker is really finished then summarizes the issue before going on to resolve it. The summation shows she has been listening and assures that they are all on the right topic.
Suggest solution and resolve
Then the agent suggests solutions and with the caller’s consent implements the agreed upon resolution.
Thank you for allowing me to help
Thanks the caller for calling an either goes onto the nest call or gets up and goes in a break room to relieve the tension if it was a tough call.
If the call is a particularly tough one or one that escalates to the point that the agent does not feel she can work successfully with the caller, she can hand it off to another agent who is coming into the call fresh and after much of the rancor has been expressed. In the handoff, the handing off agent ells the receiving agent the crux of the call and politely passes the caller on –usually to the center director Nina Reese. This way the caller does not have to go over the same ground which just would intensify frustration and anger. The call can start en media res and move forward.

The goal is to resolve’s the caller’s need or issue happily no matter how long it takes and to get it done in the center if at all possible. They abhor the shuffle and are anti-turfing agents at their core.

New agents are selected not on experience with call centers but on their personality and creativeness. “They need to be really creative to be able to think and realize what a caller is really asking. Sometimes they also need to become an actor and show interest even if they are not. Many of the calls we get are often the same and it can be hard to sound interested in the thirtieth change a course call in a row., So the agents need to be creative enough to find ways to motivate themselves and show the caller they are interested even if they are faking it” said Center Director Reese.

They also look for people who are organized. They have to know where their information is and get to it quickly so they don’t keep the caller holding. Little upsets people more than holding for someone to find something so the agents need to be able to know where it all is. Reese mentioned that people with food service experience tend to do real well in the call center. They come to the job with a hospitality experience that suits them well for the work in the center.

Reese also added a key ability she looks for when hiring. “They have to have a good sense of humor to roll with the punches. Not ever caller is great to work with. Some are downright rude and impolite and you have to be able to laugh it off or you’ll go crazy and take it out on other callers.”

Every new agent receives a full three week training course from Asst. Director Barb Simpson. Barb starts the training with having the new agent learn the college itself. She actually walks the trainee around the full campus, in and out of buildings so the can later picture what they are talking about. She then walks the trainee into all the various departments and office that the center interacts with; stopping at each one to discuss what they do and make introductions so the trainee can later put faces and names with actions and places. The agents really need to know how and what they are talking about to provide the full customer service with confidence and empathy.

The agent is next trained on the use of all in-line internet forms and the College’s MIS system, Datatel. If they are going to help students complete forms like add/drop to FAFSAs, they need to fully understand the process. They also need to know the MIS system since every call is logged into the system for future reference and to help caller without making them go through the entire history if the issue.

They are next trained on “how WE do it.” This is not a commercial call center. No quotas; no time constraints. The mission and purpose of the center is to help callers and have them leave satisfied and with answers or resolution no matter how much time it takes. They are taught give a name – get a name; how to talk with people, how to listen; and how to follow the center’s three P’s “Be patient, polite and professional” at all times. Only after they have absorbed the P’s will Barb let them start to listen in on calls and then start taking calls themselves. Nina Reese the center’s first and only director says it really takes about six months to really get it to the training including listening on their calls continues. It is not a quick affair but an on0goping aspect of center success.

The center handles most everything from admissions questions and application information through some areas in which other schools really fall down like advising, registration and even financial aid. Even parking. The center people can advise on what courses are available for their major, can tell them if they have made appropriate academic progress to take course, if they have met pre-reqs for a course and can quickly find the requirements for programs a student might be interested in and then place them in the course or the major area. They can also help students choose majors by listening to them and guiding them into programs that they are looking for. They can even look at a transcript from outside the college and let students know what courses can equal what or the reverse, what CSCC course will be accepted at another Ohio college. This level of service is amazing and really helps kill the shuffle that starts when a student needs to find an advisor to move forward in his career at CSCC. They are so knowledgeable that faculty, even department chairs call them for help in academic matters at times.

The center can also handle all financial aid questions but does not do any backroom calculations of financial aid. They can and do guide students through the FAFSA, deadline information, explain loans and availability of them to students and families who call in. They can also let the students know what financial aid has been awarded and how to access it. They also can work with students on academic progress issues that can affect how much financial aid is available. For example they can tell a student how any courses they attempted, completed, passed and how that could affect their financial aid. They can tell them that because of lack of academic progress the student is on the restricted list and will need to take x class or classes to get their grade level where it needs to be to receive financial aid. If there are some personal issues or calculations needed or issues that are too specific, they set up an appointment for the student with a professional financial aid adviser.

The goal of the call center is not to replace financial aid or any other office but to positively supplement them by taking care of issues that can be handled in the center. That way the professionals in specific offices can focus more fully on service students who come to them for more in depth issues than repeating the same simple service over and over taking them away from providing really good service to students who really need it.

In 1992 Columbus State Community College had really poor customer service. Long lines as the one pictured here from a customer service audit there; angry students; students who shuffled out the door; calls going unanswered and generally a core group of upset and frustrated students. If the school were open during snow students would try to call and get a busy signal or no one picking up. They did not know what to do with their courses or their anger. So CSCC asked Nina Reese to forma  group to answer calls coming in and try to make students happier with the way they were being treated on the phone.  Nineteen years later and with a sporadic focus on customer service now picked up again strongly by a new president, CSCC has cut its lines, reduced student frustration and anger and much if that is the result of its call center which is the best in the country. The new president will no doubt continue to build on the Canter’s success but will cause one center solution to end. Center director Nina Reese can no longer play the president because the new president is a man. He’ll have to answer his own phone. Even she can’t fake a man’s voice though she and her colleagues in the center can darn well do most anything else it seems.

If this article makes sense to you
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The Power of Retention
: More Customer Service for Higher Education
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N.Raisman & Associates is the leader in increasing student retention, enrollment and revenue through research training and customer service solutions to colleges, universities and career colleges in the US, Canada, and Europe as well as to businesses that seek to work with them
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Neal is a pleasure to work with – his depth of knowledge and engaging, approachable style creates a strong connection with attendees. He goes beyond the typical, “show up, talk, and leave” experience that some professional speakers use. He “walks the talk” with his passion for customer service. We exchanged multiple emails prior to the event, with his focus being on meeting our needs, understanding our organization and creating a customized presentation. Neal also attended and actively participated in our evening-before team-building event, forging positive relationships with attendees – truly getting to know them. Personable, knowledgeable, down-to-earth and inspiring…. " Jean Wolfe, Training Manager, Davenport University

“We had hoped we’d improve our retention by 3% but with the help of Dr. Raisman, we increased it by 5%. Rachel Albert, Provost, University of Maine-Farmington
“Thank you so much for the wonderful workshop at Lincoln Technical Institute. It served to re-center ideas in a great way. I perceived it to be a morale booster, breath of fresh air, and a burst of passion.” Shelly S, Faculty Member, Lincoln Technical Institute

“Neal led a retreat that initiated customer service and retention as a real focus for us and gave us a clear plan. Then he followed up with presentations and workshops that kicked us all into high gear. We recommend with no reservations; just success.” Susan Mesheau, Executive Director U First: Integrated Recruitment & Retention University of New Brunswick, Canada


Outsource Call Center said...

Good to hear that! Glad that there are still companies who have good customer service. Anyway, I enjoyed reading it. Thanks for sharing this post.


Doris Dimaggio said...

I am happy to know that you did that work. I think most of the call centers are giving good customer service. Wish your success.

Doris R. Dimaggio
customer service call center