Human operator assistance makes a comeback on many campuses
MOBILE, Ala. — You hear it when you call the electric company. Or the airline reservation desk. Or the bank. “For the business office, press one. For billing, press two. For customer service, press three. To speak to an operator, press zero.”Automated phone answering systems are as common as the frustration that often follows the seemingly endless cycle of options. But are they the right answer for colleges and universities? The jury is still out.Here at Bishop State Community College, frustration is mounting over an automated telephone answering system that college administrators purchased and put into operation a year and a half ago.With eight incoming lines and options for callers to simply push a button to request transcripts and handle other business, school officials thought they were simplifying the system and making things easier for callers. Instead, automation is making life miserable. “It just does not fill the bill,” says Wanda Daniels, Bishop State’s dean of students. “While it is better in some sense, in other ways it is not better at all.”Callers to the college complain of an endless cycle of rollovers or incessant ringing when all lines are busy. The problems peaked during registration when the school went from its normal average of 200 calls a day to 2,000 calls a day.Now Bishop State officials are trying to figure out what to do. “We’ll probably keep the automation, but we’ve got to find a better way to designing the system,” Daniels says.In contrast, officials at Norfolk State University in Virginia say they’re pleased with their automated answering system, says Edward Jolley, the school’s vice president for finance and business.“Before, if you got a person who didn’t specialize in your area, you were transferred again and had to repeat your whole story,” Jolley says. “We’re just trying to get people there faster the first time around.” The main complaint at Norfolk State comes during the busy registration period, when callers are put on hold because of the high volume of calls. To make that downtime a little more pleasant, the college plays a pre-recorded “verbal profile,” complete with background music by Norfolk State music professor Rogers Brown.Human TouchNot everyone is a believer in automation.Dr. Alan I. Marcus is a professor of history at Iowa State University and a leading expert on the history of American technology, including the backlash against technology and something he refers to as “technology and anxiety.” He calls auto-attendant answering systems at colleges “the worst marketing strategy you could possibly make.”“One thing in the competition for students is to show a personal, hands-on approach,” Marcus argues. “This [automation] reduces it to not caring enough to even put a person on live to take a call.”When human operators are replaced by machines, Marcus believes, the school loses its opportunity to give potential students the impression that they will be treated like human beings. That may not be important for technology-based institutions such as banks or software companies, he says, because they specialize in competency.“A bank wants to show you that they’re on the cutting edge. But schools want you to think that you’re warm and loved,” he says.Educational institutions should flaunt their cutting-edge qualities through online applications, Marcus believes. But the human telephone contact point is indispensable.“If you really are in a competitive school market, this is an incidental expense,” he says. “To have someone there who is encouraging and gives a damn is worth its weight in gold.”There’s no place for automation at Savannah State University, a school of about 2,400 students that has always prided itself on being a small institution with a wholesome family atmosphere and a healthy dose of Southern hospitality.The Georgia college’s main telephone line is answered by personnel in the security office 24 hours a day as part of the university’s “nurturing atmosphere,” says Loretta Heyward, the university’s director of communications.“We’ve considered using automation for some of the functions and will probably do so in the future,” she says. “But automation will not be the major means of communications contact on campus.”Even some larger schools feel the same way. Take Hampton University in Hampton, Va., for instance. With 5,500 students, the college fields more than 400 calls per day using live operators — a policy it has no plans to change.“It gives a more personal touch and callers are less likely to be bounced around,” says university spokeswoman Victoria Jones, adding that the school employs two operators to take calls from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily.Tennessee State University, with more than 8,000 students, employs switchboard operators during business hours. But calls often default to an automated system when the operators are taking other calls.The school’s director of communication and information technology contends that not everyone wants to have to punch their way through a series of options before reaching a real, live person on the other end of the line.“If a person stays on the phone without talking to a human voice in the first minute of the call, then we get irate calls,” says Anand Podmanabhan. “But if they know who they want to talk to, they can get there immediately” with automation.Unfriendly AutomationOfficials at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, Calif., in the heart of the technology-savvy Silicon Valley, thought they were doing the right thing when they converted to an automated system five years ago.“We had an option to ‘press 0′ for a live person, but we didn’t have an operator, so the phone tree was set up to go someplace on campus, and then you couldn’t get back into the system,” says Penny Patz, vice president of technology and instruction. “If you did get someone live, it increased the workload of the staff.”The automated system at Foothill lasted about a year before it was run off campus by complaints. No one calculated the cost savings that the system may have produced, but Patz says the frustration level was just too high for both the callers and the staff.“We were in a growth mode and we wanted to make sure we were student friendly,” Patz says. “People were not as familiar with the automated phone systems back then.”Ten years ago, officials at Green River Community College had a decision to make. The school’s full-time operator could no longer handle the volume of calls, so the college had to either hire additional staff or go to automation. Because so many of the callers just wanted a specific extension and didn’t need an operator to patch them through, college officials opted for automation.“In the beginning, we got a lot of negative feedback because the telephone system was just beginning to take hold,” says Shirley Benson, telecommunications analyst at Green River. During the learning years, the school made changes and continues to tweak the system based on feedback. But today, Benson says, with more than 1,800 calls a day, if the automated system goes down and a live person answers the calls, callers are shocked and don’t know what to do. While the school still employs an operator, 75 percent of the callers route themselves instead of selecting the live operator. When there is a complaint about the phone system, it is often symptomatic of a deeper issue.“Usually they’re already mad about something else, like a problem with financial aid, and they start complaining about the whole phone system,” says Debbie Mitchell, director of business services. To Mitchell, the advantages of automation are obvious: control is in the caller’s hands, hours of operation are extended, the school has the flexibility to manage a large volume of calls without adding staff and operators can give better service to those who really need it.“We have no plans to do away with the automated system,” Mitchell says. “We’re looking at how we can enhance it and get even more bang for our buck.”With 14,000 students spread over three campuses, Pikes Peak Community College in Colorado Springs, Colo., has relied on a machine to answer its phones for the last seven or eight years.But now colleges officials are thinking they may better serve their customers by having them talk to someone live and in person.“There is something to be said for answering the phone, even it means taking a message or transferring the call,” says Beth Lebsock, dean of student services who will soon turn off the automation at the college.“We think it may be worth a try to see if we can handle the phone load and really provide better service,” she says.The general consensus at the college, she says, is that many people don’t find an automated system to be friendly. Without hiring additional staff, the college is planning to “go back to where a human being talks to people.“We have lots of focus on customer service and finding better ways to meet the needs of students,” Lebsock says. “Sometimes you think automation will help, and it often doesn’t.”Pluses and Minuses James R. Mingle, executive director of the State Higher Education Executive Officers and an expert on technology applications in higher education, believes, like most college officials, that there are pluses and minus to automated phone answering.“If you can get the user to do the data entry, you’ve eliminated the middle man,” Mingle reasons. “But the [automated] telephone thing irritates me as well.”On the positive side, automation provides more consistent information and can allow a caller to move straight to the specialist when he needs one. On the negative side, callers can get caught in a loop.“At some point you want to talk to a person to solve your particular problem,” he says. “Automated systems can’t do that yet.”The answer, Mingle believes, lies in the computer and the Internet.“People are happier with the Web,” he says. “If I can use a search engine to find someone and then send an e-mail, the results will be much richer and robust than a phone system.”
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