Industry Standard

Student Success Center, Montgomery County Community College

In these days of instantaneous communication, having to wait for an answer feels anachronistic. If our e-mail isn’t returned within five minutes, we call our colleague to make sure she got it. Technology, it seems, has sped communication as well as slowed it down, as multiple means of messaging?telephones, online channels, face-to-face conversation?crowd one another for attention.

Staffers work the phones at Montgomery County Community College's Student Success Center.

At Montgomery County Community College (Pa.), students trying to register for classes overwhelmed the Student Success Center and the admissions and registrar’s offices with 800 calls a day. Handling electronic inquiries and walk-ins along with all of those calls tied up staffers so that many calls were routed straight into the college’s voicemail system and many others bounced around campus a half-dozen times or so.

“The front-line folks would say to a student standing in front of them, ‘hold on.’ while they picked up the phone,” says Steady Moono, vice president of student affairs. “The student would be frustrated because they weren’t getting the service they were expecting, and the privacy of the person on the phone was compromised.”

Wanting to improve student interaction and streamline the response process, MCCC administrators engaged in several months of field research to benchmark best practices. Officials didn’t limit themselves to higher education; they also visited private-sector businesses to see how they balanced callers and walk-ins effectively.

The college’s work led it four years ago to establish what was then a rarity in higher ed circles: a centrally located call center. MCCC hired and trained three operators to answer most general inquiries from students; those questions that cannot be answered are routed to an academic advisor or counselor from the appropriate area. Using Siemens’ HiPath ProCenter scheduling tool, operators can determine who has immediate capacity to assist callers, so that calls aren’t transferred from department to department or dumped into voicemail.

Since staffers are no longer chained to handsets, they are freed to help students who seek assistance in person.

Thanks to the call center, nearly 90 percent of all incoming calls are answered in 30 seconds or less, even when registration is at its peak. If all three operators are on the line, the phone system sends callers to the staffers most qualified to answer.

MCCC’s center improved more than phone interactions. Since staffers are no longer chained to handsets, they are freed to help students who seek assistance in person. Pursuing further improvement, this spring the college has plans to add e-mail and web support to the call center.

“I really believe the call center is transformational for colleges and universities,” Moono says. “I know the industry has been doing it, but considering the thousands of students that come to us every day as walk-ins and as phone traffic, if an institution can institute a call center, they’re going to find out the service levels are going to go up.”

Perhaps most importantly, Moono notes wryly, he, too, has been liberated from placating angst-ridden callers.

“Calls to the vice president of student affairs from frustrated students in search of information,” he says, “have been virtually eliminated.” -T.D.