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In a time of crisis, one university turned to real-time chat technology to communicate with students-and ended up with a whole new way of handling admissions questions, too.

Click Here to Chat LiveHOW OFTEN DOES it turn out that times of duress prove to be precisely the kick in the pants we need to change our ways? For people, that can mean giving up self-destructive habits. For schools, it can mean giving up practices that are no longer suited to the purposes for which they were originally developed.

A case in point: the way admissions used to be handled by the University of New Orleans, a 12,000-student private university in Louisiana. Direct mail campaigns (in printed form) were a common marketing and recruitment strategy up until Hurricane Katrina struck in August 2005. Of course, students also could visit the school's website to download forms and request information, but that interaction was unidirectional only. When someone submitted a question to UNO, that would require an e-mail response on the school's end. And several staffers had to dedicate themselves to separating legitimate requests from spam, which, understandably, delayed responses. (Now, in an era of real-time instant messaging, texting, and voice/ video over IP, that process sounds archaic.)

But in the autumn of 2005, after Katrina devastated New Orleans and surrounding areas, UNO shut down when its home city did. After brief stints of operation in provisional offices set up in Baton Rouge and on one of its satellite campuses, the university officially reopened its main campus that December.

By then, says Longin Gogu, the school's assistant director for admissions data management, "100 percent of the student body had been displaced to other institutions." And that wasn't the only seemingly insurmountable challenge. There was the matter of limited resources- staff, working phone lines, access to e-mail, printed matter- and a web infrastructure that had to be reassembled. "Katrina pretty much shut down our entire recruiting, mailing, and communications operations," recalls Gogu. Hence, that kick in the pants.

Emergency Response

UNO needed an alternative mechanism that could immediately be used to start reaching out to displaced and prospective students. There was no time for a request for proposals, vendor presentations, web demonstrations, or reference checks. Gogu describes the evaluation process like this: "I did a Google search for 'chat management systems' or 'customer relationship management systems,' and simply looked at the products that came up."

Within two or three weeks, he'd made his choice. "Whoever got in touch with us first and responded promptly were the companies we considered. In the end, LivePerson was the most responsive and customer-friendly. Plus, the company offered very competitive pricing for its services," says Gogu. The LivePerson Contact Center software enables an operator to chat via instant message with a student (current or potential) in real time-precisely what Gogu was looking for.

In UNO's initial post-Katrina deployment of the product, he says, the school purchased a license that allowed it to run two copies of LivePerson Contact Center concurrently, which meant two operators could chat with students at the same time. Staff in the Admissions office took two-hour shifts answering questions in real time through a chat window; questions about whether the university still existed, how displaced students could get copies of transcripts, and how they could access their records. Why just two-hour shifts? "Each staff member also had to cover 10 other duties to help the university start over and reinitialize operations," explains Gogu.

Live Chat (LivePerson's chat module) works like this: A user fills in a quick form that requires a name and optionally prompts for a student ID and e-mail address. When the user clicks "Start chat," an instant message window pops up, and if there is a wait to speak with an operator, the chat window indicates how long the queue time will be. An operator soon introduces him- or herself, tackles questions, provides links to online resources, and acts as a customer service face to the university.

These days at UNO, that university person frequently is a student. (The switch to student operators came about once the school's physical campus was reopened.) The use of students as chat operators is something the university stumbled on. As at most campuses, student workers are part of the university Admissions office staff. It didn't take long for Gogu to discover that those students really shone in the chat environment. "They're all pretty much growing up with chat technology," he says. "It was easy for them to pick up on it." Over time, as the Admissions office expanded its use of the LivePerson technology for both emergency communications and marketing purposes, it increasingly utilized students to tackle the work. Gogu points out, "Students can relate to each other. Students communicate and bond more effectively when they talk to other students. We saw that as a positive aspect."

A New Way of Doing Admissions

In June 2007, long after UNO's initial LivePerson deployment- designed as an emergency measure to address communication problems-the university added modules: e-mail management, Live Call (a click-to-talk option that allows a user to enter a name, phone number, and message to request a phone call back from an operator), and a knowledgebase (a web-based FAQ repository that's available for both visitors and internal people). The enhancements have allowed the software to become the centerpiece of UNO's current online contact solution for admissions.

In fact, the university has expanded its software license to allow five concurrent operators to handle chat requests as they come in (typically, general information or admissionsrelated questions). Like a phone bank, the chat software manages the division of work among the UNO operators. As a staffer starts up a chat with the first person in line, that individual disappears from the queue, and the next inquirer can be claimed by the second operator. Once a chat window has been closed, a voluntary feedback form pops up for the user, asking about the helpfulness and effectiveness of the chat experience.

After Hurricane Katrina shut down UNO's entire recruiting, mailing, and communications operations, admissions officers turned to live chat software to answer the flood of student questions.

Student response to the new contact center has been positive, says Gogu. "Because it's a distributed workflow, answers come quicker," he notes. "There's a lot of follow-up and a lot of functionality built in that allows us to be more efficient." That amounts to better customer service.

Gogu also believes that students appreciate the relative anonymity of the live chat function and the convenience of the call-back capability. Although metrics are hard to come by yet, he says the school has seen its phone volumes shift. "We still receive a lot of phone calls, but the trend goes toward students using the Live Call feature of our website."

He notes that the Admissions office has become the hotspot for all student questions, even those that aren't admissions-related. He sees this as a fundamental change in the communication between school and customer. "Apparently, it's becoming a habit: Whenever they have questions, they come to us," he says. "That's a good thing-it only reinforces our customer service efforts."

7 Best Practices for Emergency Notification: Technology by itself won't save the day when a crisis hits. If it did nothing else, the Virginia Tech massacre taught us to think about instituting best practices-before we purchase that next solution. Case Study: Penn State implements text messaging alerts with Omnilert's e2Campus emergency notification service. Think '360': When it comes to CRM, higher ed institutions are bypassing traditional offerings in favor of targeted solutions that provide an up-close, allencompassing view of student interactions.

-Dian Schaffhauser covers technology and business for a number of print and online publications.

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