Transforming Your Web site Into a 24/7 Service Center

The University of Houston was growing, and we had more current and prospective students asking questions about more things than ever. The volume of phone calls and e-mails we were getting began overwhelming our staff. And students were having a harder time getting the answers they needed.

Potentially, the Web offered the solution. If our Web site contained all the information that students needed, then phone and e-mail volume could be brought down to manageable levels. Plus, students would be able to find answers to their questions at 3:00 a.m. as easily as they could at 3:00 p.m.

However, several obstacles stand between any university and the Promised Land of Online Answers. Those obstacles include:

Navigation. Most university Web sites have a good deal of information already. The problem is that students can’t always find the needle they seek in the haystack of content.

Fragmentation. The various functional areas of a university—financial aid, registrar, bursar, athletics, academic departments—traditionally operate independently of each other. That makes it difficult, if not impossible, to manage information in a centralized manner.

Relevance. You can speculate about what you think students will want to know, but the effectiveness of your Web site depends on allowing students’ actual, documented information needs to drive your online content. Awareness. You can build it, but they still may not come. In addition to having all the information students need on the Web and making it easy for them to find, they have to know the information is there.

At UH, we overcame these obstacles with a combination of the right technology and the right strategy. After a review and a request for proposals, we determined that RightNow Service from RightNow Technologies would be our technology platform. RightNow enables us to build a knowledge base that can be accessed via the Web. Unlike conventional “FAQs,” the RightNow knowledge base makes it easy to search through hundreds of knowledge items using keyword search, plain-language queries and/or category browsing. Site visitors can quickly zero in on the specific piece of information they’re looking for. UH staff can also use the knowledge base to give fast, accurate answers over the phone or via e-mail.

We had each functional area of the university assign its own project liaison and content manager to determine how to present the knowledge base within its section of the UH Web site and how to use RightNow internally for phone and e-mail. Because the knowledge base itself would be in common, site search results would show users all relevant answers across all functional areas.

We put processes in place to ensure that our Web content was truly driven by customer needs. Often, after responding to a phone call or e-mail inquiry, staff members realized that their answer would make a valuable addition to the knowledge base. With our system, they can quickly submit their answer to an assigned knowledge base or Web site content manager. This approach, effective for building a knowledge base that is both comprehensive and highly relevant to students’ needs, also removes the burden of trying to figure out exactly what students want from content managers.

We branded the system, naming it “Ask Shasta,” after UH’s cougar mascot. We put links to the Ask Shasta system in prominent positions on the UH home page, and promoted it through UH publications and other programs. This promotion was critical for gaining the necessary mindshare across our entire student population.

The impact of the Ask Shasta system has been tremendous. Use of the Web by students and other constituencies rose dramatically from 11,622 “answer views” in November 2002 to 21,917 in October 2003. As a result, phone calls have decreased substantially—in some cases, by as much as 25 percent. In addition, entry-level department employees can use the knowledge base to answer questions instead of having to wait for subject-matter experts to respond to the queries. This saves UH money, and allows department experts to focus on their primary work responsibilities.

And, because they’ve been reviewed and approved by assigned content managers, the answers on our site are always consistent and accurate.

The lesson for other universities is that the Web can indeed be a powerful channel for serving the broad information needs of students and other constituencies. Conventional approaches to Web content creation and management, however, are insufficient for exploiting the full potential of the university Web site. Instead, more sophisticated knowledge management technology and a more strategic, institution-wide approach to content and communication are essential.

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