Student Services

Inside Arizona State U's All-in-One Help Center

Arizona State University turned its help desk into a “front door” for a broad range of campus services — IT and otherwise. Here's how.

When an Arizona State University student calls to get help with setting up an e-mail account, he or she can also get the lowdown on financial aid, find out where a particular parking permit can be used and report a water pipe leak in the dorm restroom — all to the same help desk specialist. If the person on the receiving end of the call can't answer a specific question, he or she can dip into a knowledgebase to see if the solution is there or jump on a Slack channel for a quick chat with colleagues.

"We do not want to bounce students all over the organization," said Help Center Director Eric Dover. "We want to try and keep them as much as we can at the tier one level, because if we can resolve their issue here, it really protects the other tiers to be able to focus on their deeper things." The goal: "To become that front door for ASU services."

Help hasn't always been dished out this way to students. For a long time, starting in the 2000s, the university outsourced help to two different vendors — experiences that were less than ideal, according to Deborah Whitten, the assistant vice president for IT customer service and support at ASU.

"Neither vendor had anticipated the extremely large call volumes experienced by ASU during the startup periods before semesters began, resulting in long wait times and disgruntled callers," Whitten said. "The quality of service was not perceived as acceptable by faculty and students who called. The vendors' call centers were located in another state, and ASU faculty and students did not feel the agents were familiar enough with the higher education environment, did not have empathy for the faculty or student caller, and did not exhibit the appropriate level of professionalism or skill required to be a call center for the largest university in the nation."

By 2013, the institution was ready to bring services back in house, a move viewed as "critical to the success of ASU and it constituents," as declared in a project description for setting up a "shared service contact center."

Today, besides handling basic IT support calls, chats and tweets, the help center provides coverage on tier one questions for admissions, financial aid, student business services, parking, facilities overflow calls and application support for several academic areas — the School of Engineering, Teachers College and Design & the Arts — as well as the PLuS Alliance, which allows students from two international schools to take courses through ASU and vice versa. That's all on top of "a lot of other little services that we assist with here and there," noted Dover.

The help center, which runs seven days a week, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, is part of the University Technology Office. But, insisted Dover, "the vast majority of the calls we take are not IT related. People call and ask us about all sorts of things — from 'Where's a good place to get lunch around the ASU area?' to 'Where can we donate a dead body?'"

That adds up to a large volume of contacts. During 2016, a period during which the help center took on 10 additional new support services, the group answered 452,492 calls, an increase of 17 percent over the year prior. During that same time, it also handled 64,561 chats, a 33 percent increase over 2015.

The model being iterated by ASU could be attractive to any other institutional help desk tired of being written off as just another cost center. Here's what ASU has learned in becoming a "one-stop shop" for students and their families.

Hire for Soft Skills

You've heard it before. Training people in standard technical skills is one thing, but imbuing the ability to communicate with customers is quite another. When they're looking at candidates, Dover's hiring managers emphasize soft skills over just about anything else. To determine a person's capacity, interviews tend to offer "more situational and what-if questions," he said. "You answer the phone and somebody is irate about x. How do you handle that situation?"

From there, they start working the "harder skills" into their questions. "If we find people with an IT background with those soft skills, it's a natural fit to have them help us out with the IT end of things," he said. "We try to find folks who have experience with financial aid or business in the university to bolster that area as well." He acknowledged that those are a little tougher to find because "there aren't as many university people working with financial aid who are looking to come to a help center."

Don't Be Hidebound by Job Descriptions

The help center crew stands at about 69 full-time staff, which includes customer support specialists, an office manager, specialists to run the phone system, a workforce manager and other managers that oversee day-to-day operations. The organization also includes 30 student employees who answer the phones. And while its customer support people do specialize, when certain types of calls come in, it's all hands on deck. The philosophy is that anybody should be able to pitch in and handle them.

Training employees on all areas "brings a little bit of variety to their life," Dover pointed out. That said, there's a small number of people who go "really deep" and "really specialize in a particular skill area." But if the wireless network has gone down in a storm and the number of calls from desperate students has shot up, even specialists in student payments ought to be able to pitch in and know enough to be able to tell a student where to find an open parking space or hunt down and dispatch a plumber to fix a water pipe break.

Training Must Be Continual

Dover's group has two dedicated trainers who report to the larger organization under Whitten, his own boss. Those individuals provide "formal training" to new hires, which takes about a month and covers customer service, aspects of university operations they'll be supporting and how to work with the various systems in use. As part of preparation, trainees also shadow other agents.

In addition, the help center uses a "huddle" process, which lasts just a few minutes — long enough for "hitting topics — either things we need to focus on, areas of improvement, or the successes we've had," explained Dover. "We're getting a lot of feedback on that process. Those receiving the training like the interactivity. They like that it's out of a classroom environment. It's quick. It's on the floor."

More recently, the center has begun bringing in subject-matter experts from other departments on campus to participate in the huddles, run small group training sessions or to help on-board new staff members during their orientation. For example, a specialist on FAFSA, the federal student aid program, has been keeping staffers in that area up-to-date on changing regulations. Experts from the e-mail team came in to provide instruction on Office 365.

When the subject-matter experts aren't available to train people on the swing or graveyard shifts, the group turns to a train-the-trainer model. A lead will take the information and deliver it to others.

Develop Career Paths

The "average life expectancy" of a call center agent at ASU is about two years. That's not good enough for Dover. He and his management team are working on development of a progression path for employees that enables them to be promoted and get to know the different services at the university in a way that makes them more valuable to the organization and allows them to "slide into other areas."

"As they acquire skills, they get more specialized, their knowledge gets deeper, they have a better understanding of the university," said Dover. "They should have their customer service skills at the top end and be able to operate very comfortably in the culture of Arizona State University and higher ed. We really want to develop them as phenomenal employees for other ASU departments."

"I tell everyone," he added, "'Please steal my staff within ASU.'"

Use Technology as the Nerve Center

ASU's help center relies on four systems:

  • inContact, the call center phone system that handles routing of calls to the appropriate support specialists, according to their "skills" assignments;
  • Slack, the business chat system that allows specialists to post questions and answers, and for subject-matter experts to jump in to answer questions as well;
  • Salesforce, used campuswide to track "the experience of the student," as Dover put it, allowing student case files to be routed between different departments for follow-up or to understand how frequently a student needs assistance and in what areas; and
  • ServiceNow, a service management application primarily targeted at IT and directed more toward ticket-tracking for faculty and staff issues.

Salesforce and ServiceNow have knowledgebases in which "internal knowledge" resides. "We use both across the floor," said Dover. "But from a ticket processing standpoint, most of what we do in ServiceNow is IT-related."

Data Fuels Support Improvements

All four systems generate a rich set of data, said Dover. "That's one area we're really happy with. I have a ton of metrics — average speed to answer, average handle time, utilization, customer satisfaction scores." But the accumulation of data is just the start, he noted. A better goal is to find those "metrics that are going to help you grow and help you understand the organization's health."

For example, customer satisfaction among those students or family members calling or chatting for help could be a good source for helping determine perceived changes in the quality of service. Right now, while 30 percent of chat contacts result in post-chat survey responses, only 2 percent of callers fill out the post-call survey. As Dover explained, a caller is asked to "opt in" to the survey at the beginning of the call — even before they've gotten their help. At the end of the call, a system calls them back to ask them to fill out the survey.

"There's two failure points," Dover asserted. "If they don't opt in, we never have a chance to collect the data. If they opt in and never answer the phone call to answer the survey, we never capture that information."

To remedy that (and lift the number of survey results), every caller will be opted in, and after they've received help, they'll automatically be switched over to a satisfaction survey with a message encouraging them to fill it out, he said. "We wanted to provide people the opportunity to [give] us that feedback, both positive and 'opportunities for growth.'"

Data Also Powers New Initiatives

Having access to data also helps in working with the "service owners," the people within the institution who have handed over support functions to the help center. Right now the help center is undergoing a process to understand what its service owner expectations are and figure out what metrics are needed to show that those expectations are being met "or where we need to develop and grow."

When a new service owner comes in, Dover and company can examine the metrics to determine such factors as volume of calls, how long each call takes and what hours calls are likely come in. From there they can figure out what capacity is required to take on the additional work or whether it's "negligible and won't even show up as a blip on the radar."

Lately, Dover's group has been meeting with some of the "newer" service owners to examine the numbers and discuss questions such as, "Is this good enough? Do we want to look at making changes?" Some service owners will request improvements to service, and the help center's challenge is to interpret what "better" means and figure out what the increases in resources must be "to get to that level of 'better.'"

Now the help center has begun "looping back to our big service owners" to pursue the same evaluation process with them, Dover said.

Just as importantly, the help center is applying the use of data to identify likely targets for new support services. As Dover explained, "We went with low-hanging fruit in the last year. Some of these are folks we just kind of met in passing or they heard about what we could provide for them as a 24/7/365 organization and they were very interested in that."

Going forward, however, the group would like to have "targeted discussions to close some gaps that we see — areas where students will call us and we can provide almost no information because we don't have a window into those organizations." Those discussions can begin, he noted, by sharing the data: "Here are the number of calls we get related to your service that we have to send on to you. Wouldn't it be nice if we could handle these for you?" Over the next 18 to 24 months, he said, "targeted service acquisitions" are expected to be an area of focus.

Become the "Front Door"

While Dover has assumed that his campus expects "phenomenal customer service" from the help center, that's not enough. What it needs to be able to do is prove itself as a "value-added organization" that brings benefit to students and parents.

"We're trying to reduce the amount of friction between the services and the students," he said. "If we're able to offload some of those basic question-and-answer type things, we free up staff time — that tier two — to focus on those deeper things. If we're able to handle more calls rather than transfer them out, we're showing value added. If we're keeping students from having that feeling of being bounced everywhere to get answers to three different questions, that's value added, because we're able to help the student faster in a smaller space and we can keep them moving."

The way Dover talks, one could imagine a day when the help center becomes the entry point for just about any need an ASU student would have. "We really want to be that front door for all services," he avowed. "It's definitely a plan that's moving forward. It's going to take several iterations to get there, but we're working the journey and having a good time at it."

Help Center to the State

Last year Arizona State University's help center was contacted by the local county, city and statewide emergency preparedness management groups to provide tier one support for statewide emergencies such as plane crashes, fires or terrorist attacks. According to Deborah Whitten, assistant vice president for IT customer service and support at the university, her organization is working with police, fire, emergency centers and crisis hotlines "to provide an emergency location for call center operations in the event of a catastrophic event in Arizona." As she noted, "We continue to look for opportunities to serve the ASU community, Maricopa County and the state of Arizona as a one-stop shop for information and escalation."

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