What to Look for in a University Call Center

Sean Lund-Brown

Universities and colleges focus on providing students with knowledge — surfacing information that helps them learn, grow, and develop. However, that process does not stop at the classroom door. The right university call center can help connect students, parents, alumni, faculty, and others with the information they need quickly and easily.

Of course, staffing your own call center can be immensely challenging. Universities and colleges often lack the budget to design, build, and staff a modern call center. Luckily, decision-makers have another option — outsourcing to a professional provider.

But how do you choose the right university call center provider? What services should be offered? On what criteria should you base your decision in the first place? With a little guidance, choosing the right call center for your institution doesn’t have to be as frustrating as it might seem at first glance.

Do colleges and universities really need call centers?

In a word, yes. As far back as 2012, campuses were utilizing call center providers. Take this excerpt from The Chronicle of Higher Education:

“Even for smaller colleges, answering all calls — especially on financial-aid issues — can be a major challenge. Bringing in a vendor is one way to handle the volume, and some colleges have worked with third-party call centers for years.”

The article goes on to note several stumbling blocks that might hinder success, though. “Students have important questions… colleges are supposed to guide them. Can educators trust customer-service agents to handle such key conversations?”

That is the crux of the problem. Colleges and universities can’t simply choose any call center provider out of the blue. Sure, they might have a great reputation, but if they lack the in-depth experience and expertise needed in this highly-specialized niche, those services are going to fall flat. Not only that, but universities and colleges have needs that many call centers are ill-equipped to meet.

What is the solution? Choosing the right call center is crucial. The key to doing that is to understand what services should be offered and how the call center should dovetail with school operations.

Critical call center services for universities and colleges

Call centers have been around for decades and provide flexibility, value, improved customer service, and other benefits. However, most call centers offer services geared for businesses, and while for-profit education is certainly a reality today, universities and colleges are a far cry from the average corporation or LLC.

To make an informed comparison of your call center options, it’s important to evaluate them on a head-to-head basis. The key to that, in many instances, is being able to look for key services that speak to underlying needs and challenges schools experience today. Below, we’ve outlined some of the mission-critical services and capabilities to look for in a university call center.

Switchboard services

Perhaps the single most in-demand function from a university call center is switchboard service. This requires that the call center’s team integrates with the campus and entails more than simple call routing. Switchboard operators should also be able to answer basic questions and provide guidance for callers, in addition to transferring callers to the appropriate department or faculty member.

Financial services

If there is one thing that students and parents have questions about more than any other, it’s financial aid and related services. While it is unlikely that you will find a call center staffed by financial-aid specialists, the right provider can deliver critical benefits here, enable better flexibility, and streamline processes with several related services and capabilities, such as:

● Answering general questions about financial aid and related services

● Emailing forms to students/parents and the financial aid office

● Connecting students or parents with the right faculty members to resolve holds

● Assisting faculty members with after-hours messaging

● Providing information about financial aid requirements and thereby reducing the call volume to staff members

Admissions services

The admissions office is the single busiest place on campus, at least during certain times of the year. The right university call center can offer a lot of benefits to those overworked staff members. One of the most important is round-the-clock call answering. The right answering service will ensure that whenever students or prospective students call, they get a live operator who understands what they need and who can forge a strong relationship. Of course, a call center can also provide other admissions-related services, including:

● Call forwarding/call routing

● Information gathering

● Call pre-qualification services to match students with programs of interest

● Email distribution (to counselors) following call transfer

Business office

While universities and colleges exist to educate students, they are also functioning businesses. The business office can be an incredibly hectic place, but the right call center can help streamline processes, ensure that staff members have the help they need, and more. Some of the business office services to look for include the following:

● Advising students on what forms to complete and how to fill them out

● Distribution of forms by fax/email

● Provide business office hours and other information to callers

● Redirect callers with account holds

● Provide after-hours messaging

● Advise students of news announcements

Alumni Office Services

Schools must stay in communication with their alumni. However, doing so can be challenging, particularly when combined with other aspects of daily operations, such as handling admissions and running the business office. The right university call center can provide alumni office services, including the following:

● Informing alumni of events and announcements

● Collecting RSVPs

● Handling after-hours messaging

Staff/faculty-facing financial services

While university call centers certainly tend to provide student and parent-facing solutions, you cannot neglect the need for staff/faculty-facing services. This is particularly true when it comes to the world of finance. A call center can provide access to critical information and provide staff members with vital guidance with the following services:

● New financial-related announcements, such as mailing W-2s

● Offers information about paycheck delivery/mailout

● Announces paycheck delays

● Handles after-hours answering/messaging

Security/public safety services

Campuses have always needed security and public safety-related services, but that need continues to grow in today’s world. The right university call center can deliver crucial services and solutions here, including the following:

● Alerting the public safety office as events occur, such as class cancelations

● Alerting faculty of classroom access issues

● Lost and found inquiries

● Providing basic security/public safety information to callers

● Transferring calls to public safety officers

● Mass notifications customized to specific needs (entire student body, just faculty, etc.)

● Providing information during true emergencies, including natural disasters

Ethics hotline

Today more than ever, schools must be vigilant when it comes to ethics and misconduct. A university call center can provide a wide range of services via an ethics hotline, including:

● Taking information about ethics infractions, bullying, harassment, and other forms of misconduct

● Processing complaints

● Connecting callers with the appropriate faculty/staff member

● Follow-up processing on complaints

Beyond the service menu

The right list of services is critical. Otherwise, the call center cannot meet your school’s needs. However, it’s important to look beyond the service menu when comparing your options.

Level of customization

Who hasn’t experienced calling a customer service number and being connected with an agent and knowing immediately that the company was outsourcing their customer service? That creates an immediate disconnect, often for good reason. It can make customer service and support feel like an afterthought. It can also leave a caller without accurate answers to their questions. Call centers that take a generic or “good enough” approach should be avoided. Instead, look for a university call center that offers a high degree of customization. What should that encompass, though?

It should go beyond customized greetings specific to your school (although those are important, too). Look for a call center that gets familiar with your school. That should include the hours of operation, the faculty within specific departments, unique policies adopted by the school, and much more. Ideally, the call center operators should feel like an extension of your team, not something that’s been tacked on to the backend.

Beyond the phone

Call centers can be valuable assets, but it’s important to understand that students (and their parents) are no longer limiting their communication to phone calls. You must deal with digital communication, including email and chat. The right call center should integrate directly with the software you use, including the ability to respond to questions or concerns by text, and through chat apps like Facebook messenger.

Creating a tailored solution

At Smith.ai, we understand that every client’s needs are unique. That is particularly true when it comes to colleges and universities. While we offer many preset plans and services, we’re also happy to create a customized solution that speaks directly to your unique challenges. Take a moment to explore the features we deliver or get a bird’s eye view of how we can help streamline operations, while improving outcomes for students, parents, faculty members, and alumni. Or, if you’re ready to discuss your needs, go ahead and book a free consultation.

Sean Lund-Brown

Sean Lund-Brown is a current Marketing Assistant for Smith.ai. A graduate from Metropolitan State University of Denver, Sean graduated with a BA in Music and an individualized degree in Teaching Vocal Pedagogy.

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