Thursday, September 08, 2016

Results of a Phone Answering Study of College Campuses

The first contact with a school quite often is by a potential student calling the college to get some information. We know that 12% of enrollment is lost after the first real contact with a college.So we decided to see what that first contact with a college might be like. 

Last Wednesday we called 50 colleges and universities – 45 not for profit, 5 for-profit to check on what sort of telephone answering and service skills we would find. If this were a pop quiz the class failed.

Of the 50 schools called, 43 had phone answering technologies picking up the calls. They all welcomed us in a fairly tolerant android voice similar to my GPS Jill voice. Pleasant, non-committal and clearly not human.  These technological answering systems are sold as both labor and cost saving devices that could also provide some CRM information on who calls, when they call and for whom they called.  They may have done that with our calls but they clearly turned us off when of the 43, 16 stated that we should “listen closely. Our menu has changed ... and there will be a quiz. Yes this will be on the test!”

Hasn’t anyone learned that no one cares that your menu has changed. People are not memorizing the menu and they just do not care. The only menu change that interests me is the dim sum menu at Sunflower, my favorite Chinese restaurant in Columbus, OH. And they always just bring the dim sum carts to me and let me choose what I want. No need to memorize anything.

Another problem with the use of phone answering devices and services is that the recorded message is often poorly done. When I called one school three times, the name of the school was cut off from the message. Thirty-eight of the answering voice sounded bored and in a hurry to get through recording the message. For some reason, people have trouble recording a message. They feel awkward talking to a machine and they sound it. Get someone who has a good voice and can record without awkwardness anxiety to make your answering message if you are going to have an automatic system. That voice is the one that a caller hears and gets her first feelings about the school.

The menus on the tech systems all started with admissions Push 1. A logical decision on the part of the school. But if you want something else, still push 1 for admissions. Or at least that was what the for-profits seemed to be doing. No matter what we wanted, we ended up in admissions. That tells us something about the for-profits that is causing them problems. What they seem to care about is admissions and revenue and not much else. Just ask ITT.

Of the 39 systems, the bursar’s office was number 2 on 28 of the systems with financial aid number 2 on 11. This is a reverse of what we would recommend. Financial aid is more important to students and parents calling the school than the bursar's office (or records office as twelve schools called it, Thank you for not using bursar, the arcane name most no one outside of academia knows.)

What was most maddening on 19 of the systems was that pushing 0 for an operator did not get to an operator, just restarting the call tree, branch by branch. The other 20 did go to an operator or at least a promise of one. On seven of the systems, no operator ever answered. Instead we were asked if we wanted to leave a message, someone would get back to us. So we did leave a message in the general mailbox. Still waiting.

Telephone technology and answering systems can have their value but we are not fully sure what it is yet. Having an android answer a person’s call is really not the best way to prove the school “cares and gives each student personal attention.”  Rather it shows that the school may have bought into being impersonal and more commercial than educational.

When a living breathing individual calls, he or she is a real person expecting some form of social equity from an educational institution. We really do believe a real person should answer the phone. Whether the idea is real or not any more, Americans have a quaint image of college being a place different than a cold, money-oriented commercial institution.  Technology answering telephones shakes that image quickly.

Especially so when the technology traps one inside telephony hell and will not let you talk to a real person ever. Four of the phone systems refused to let us talk to a real person unless we knew the extension of that person. So, we ended up back at…yup…admissions.

Of the eleven schools that had someone answering the phone, though it may be hard for you to believe this, but six may have been better off with a technological android rather than the human one that answered the phone. Four of the six sounded so bored they made us worry we had woken them. Two of these were actually rude sounding stating the name of the school as if it were some curse they were sending our way.  Others were just not cut out to be receptionists.

There is some odd belief that anyone can answer a phone and greet people well. Nothing is further from the truth. A receptionist that receives people and makes them feel welcome and as if they were the most important person in his or her life at that moment is a rare and valuable individual. These people are worth doing all you can to keep. If you don’t have one yet, find an enthusiastic people person and we can train them in the finer art of phone protocols for you. It is the enthusiasm and people orientation that is most important. It cannot be taught.

But I Don't Want Admissions
In all of the for-profit calls, the receptionist did everything she could to get us to talk to an admissions person. All but on for-profit phone call did not lead to speaking with an identified individual. This was partially we suppose because some of the calls were not answered by people at the schools but at call centers and they have no knowledge of the school. A very poor situation.

In the not-for-profits, when we did get a real person to answer the phone, only thirty could connect us to the person we were trying to call even when that person was a vice president.  Five answerers asked me what department the person worked in. Receptionists should either be taught to immediately recognize names of important people on campus such as administrators and key faculty or should have a cheat sheet right in front of them to be able to find the information quickly.

In one instance after a person was located and the call transferred, the next person answering was clearly not a native speaker of English. We fully support diversity but perhaps not when answering the phone when the person could not understand us and we could not understand her.

Our on-campus service audits have led us to realize that too many schools employ students as receptionists and telephone answerers. Not that we have anything against students working on campus. Not at all. What we are opposed to is placing students in very important positions without training or at least adequate training. There are definite ways to answer a phone. “Yes” is not one of them. Nor is “Hi, can I help you?” even if said in a half-hearted, cheery voice, Just not quite professional.

And if the person answering the phones is having a bad day, that is not a valid reason to share that in the negative or even hostile tone used to answer the phone. 

Train to Avoid a Train Wreck
A telephone call is still the common first contact with a school for potential students, outside of the web that is. A telephone call is almost always the first contact when trying to gain resolution on a problem or gaining assistance. Having an overtly bored or rude person answering the phone is a sure way to lose potential enrollment or escalate a problem. An impolite or angry tone tells the caller he or she is not wanted on the phone and by extension on campus. When someone is already upset or has a problem, an indifferent to disrespectful tone is going to escalate the concern. The receptionist is the point at which a soothing, empathetic tone needs to be used to make the caller feel he or she is important and can get the help or admissions assistance wanted.

In training. we start with mirrors in Here’s Looking at Me: A Way to End Phone Rudeness. That will help. Teach people to follow the procedure outlined there. It is a low cost, high value, solution.  When you find someone who follows the procedures, be sure to recognize that person and reward him or her. Point out the person as a role model for others. Praise goes a long way especially when raise is not available.

Be sure to train receptionists, students and all others who answer phones how to modulate their voice, what to say and how to say it. If students are answering the phones, make certain they know they are going front stage to use Goffmans term. Also make sure they are dressed appropriately. The voice and attitudes are actually affected by what one wears so have people dress to positive advantage. Teach all receptionists how to reduce anger and antagonism from callers.

Finally, make certain the telephone receptionist has all the information he or she needs to be able to either address issues from a caller or to know whom to send the call to. Without this information readily available, the phone person will not be able to do the job, feel frustrated and soon get aggravated especially if he or she cares. This aggravation will soon be carried in the voice to every caller.

For an example of a school that does it all wonderfully well, contact Columbus State and Technical College (OH) ( 800-621-6407) where we did a campus customer service and some training. CSCC has the very best phone call center in higher education. Their well trained professionals do not just answer a call better than anywhere else we know of, but can help solve problems. They can change a class section, take payments, explain regulations, even order books and perform counseling for students in need. They are a model for others.

If this article made sense to you, you will want to consider bringing NRaisman & Associates to your campus for training, a presentation or a campus customer service study to increase academic customer service, enrollment and retention. Contact me today at or call at 413.219.6939.

1 comment:

Kate Schultz said...

Great article!