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Can a Dedicated Call Center Boost Enrollment?

When a prospective student phones a college for information, answering questions quickly might mean the difference between enrolling that student and having that student decide to go elsewhere.

A project rolled out in 2006 at Montgomery County Community College in Philadelphia, PA, addressed the importance of those sorts of calls with a new call center located on one of the college's two campuses. With the new call center and new technology for running and monitoring it, the college now answers 80 percent of its calls with 30 seconds, dong so with just two full-time staff members. And administrators believe that, among other things, this has contributed to the biggest enrollment numbers ever at MCCC.

Before the new system was installed, MCCC's administration was often inundated with phone calls, especially during peak times such as spring and fall registration. Last year, the college received perhaps 55,000 calls to admissions and registration; on a single day during a peak period, 800 calls might come in. If lines were busy, many of the calls went to the voice mail system, leaving a huge volume of calls waiting to be returned. Faced with hundreds of calls to return, staff often found it difficult to reach students, resulting in endless calls back and forth.

"During peak periods, there could be a backlog of 30 or 50 or 100 calls," according to Celeste Schwartz, VP of IT at MCCC. "To redial all of those and actually get [a student] on the phone ... you could be playing telephone tag for days."

Because of that, students complained regularly about either calling and having no one answer or leaving a message and not hearing back in a timely fashion. With the new system in place, Schwartz said, those complaints have virtually disappeared.

Not only that, but enrollment is up significantly, according to Schwartz. And while the new call center isn't the only reason, she said, "certainly, when you can answer a prospective [student's] questions instantly, as opposed to it going into a voice mail box where they might not hear back from someone for a few days,... maybe by then they've [chosen] another college."

With campuses in Blue Bell and Pottstown, MCCC serves some 24,000 students in the Philadelphia area. In order to enhance student retention and attract new students, student affairs and the IT administration worked closely together to plan, design and implement the new call center. The call center is part of a larger "Student Success Center" that serves walk-in student traffic with such services as registration and financial aid in a single location.

One goal of the new call system, according to Call Center Manager Barbara Lefevre, was to eliminate or reduce to practically nothing those time-consuming voice mail messages. "We wanted to be there when the student called us [the first time]," she said. That goal has been accomplished, as has another: To free up staff members working in the Student Success Center for face-to-face work with walk-in students, without the phone interruptions that used to be common.

In an interesting twist, MCCC carefully planned the training component of its new call center. Rather than the sort of large staff that is typical of many corporate call centers, the college has just two full-time and one part-time person answering phones. Those staff members were trained by working for extended periods in an assortment of areas that they are now answering questions about. "For example, they worked in the student success area… in the admissions area, in the registration area," Schwartz said, "so that they could better answer questions." To further assist, coworkers in various areas provided a list of "top 10" questions students ask of them, leading to a detailed list of possible questions and answers.

With that sort of background, a call center staff member is able to immediately answer 80 percent of calls that come in. And using the data gathered during the training sessions, as well as additional information added since, they can appropriately route questions they can't answer themselves.

That's where the call center software that MCCC is using comes into play. According to Coordinator of Telecommunications Erick Robinson, the software, which is from Siemens, allows calls coming in to the call center to be sorted and routed by staff to the appropriate expert. The system uses Siemens' HiPath 4000 switch and HiPath ProCenter call center server. According to Robinson, some of the features the Siemens system offered were key, including its ability to not only track call center activity, but to allow calls to be routed appropriately as they come in. The system collects data from each caller as the call comes in, allowing call center staff to quickly and efficiently route the caller to the appropriate if necessary. The Siemens software can tell staff members who in a given area of expertise is available at that time to take a call.

The system also helps administrators by gathering data on when call volumes are heaviest, such as lunchtime, so that support staff can be added at those times. Lefevre and Dean of Student Success Steady Moono both monitor the reports regularly to make sure quality of service goals are being met.

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About the Author

Linda Briggs is a freelance writer based in San Diego, Calif. She can be reached at [email protected].

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