Contact Center Technology Brings Improved Customer Service, Business Benefits to Higher Education

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Brandeis University and Florida International University put the customer first in offices across campus

December 3, 2008

By Jenny Carless

Calling All Universities: Contact Centers in Higher Education

Brandeis University is putting fewer student callers on hold and Florida International University has been able to route fewer calls to voicemail, thanks to network-based contact centers that let them handle calls more efficiently, streamline costs and keep students a whole lot happier.

Financial institutions, retailers, healthcare providers and others have long used Cisco's Unified Contact Center Solutions to help make customer service agents more efficient and productive, while keeping costs under control. The open network-based platform gives businesses the ability to go beyond simple phone transactions and the traditional contact center to provide customers with unique content-rich experiences.

Now universities are putting the same technologies to work in such offices as admissions, enrollment, financial aid, IT help, registrar and housing.

"The Cisco Unified Contact Center is extremely robust and flexible, meeting the variety of needs of our customers," says Murali Sitaram, vice president and general manager of the Cisco Customer Contact Business Unit. "It really stands out in the market for its ability to address the full business lifecycle of customer service applications."

More efficient call handling

At Brandeis University, located on 235 acres in Waltham, Massachusetts, the Student Financial Aid department was an early adopter of Cisco Unified Contact Center Express. One of the solution's biggest advantages, university officials say, is the skills-based routing that is at the heart of the contact center.

"It allows separate pools of people to be shared across lines," explains John Turner, the university's director of Networks and Systems. "We define agents' skill sets and program the system to route calls to the best available agent. And when a new agent logs in, the contact center adjusts the routing schedule to acknowledge that new person's skills."

"Higher education is still a relatively untapped market for contact centers. But once these institutions understand the efficiencies that contact center solutions can bring to administrative and other service operations, they'll start behaving like private business. They will use contact center disciplines such as work force optimization to maximize their productivity, service levels and their realization of the overall business benefits that a well-run contact center provides."

— Paul Stockford, Chief Analyst, Saddletree Research

Previously students might have called the financial aid office (now part of Student Financial Services) to find out how to process their student loan checks and chances are they would end up on hold. But they didn't really need that office; anyone from several offices that process those payments could have handled that particular call.

Now, when students call in to the Student Financial Services queue, they choose their option and can get their question answered more quickly by the first available agent, rather than having to wait specifically for a financial aid representative.

"We've used the contact center as a business driver. It's not really designed to reduce headcount so much; it's designed to better use the people we already have here," Turner says. "Another important factor is that the system overall is very sound. In comparison to other services we deal with, it's a rock-solid platform."

Florida International University

Florida International University's Cisco Unified Contact Center Express serves its two main sites: the 344-acre University Park campus and the 200-acre Biscayne Bay Campus, both in northeast Miami-Dade County.

According to Odalys Diaz, assistant director of the university's Division of Information Technology, one of the most useful tools in serving customers well is the flexibility to record and change the messages callers hear as soon as they call in and/or while they're on hold. For example, many callers want directions or office hours, so simply providing the most requested information in a menu streamlines their process and enables many callers to get their questions answered quickly.

Because the system is easy to use, each department can manage its own messages and prompts. For example, the admissions office can alert callers to a change in application deadlines. Likewise, in severe weather, all callers to the university can be notified of a school closure.

"The contact center allows departments to be much more effective. For example, several areas have moved away from voice mail altogether, which has relieved a lot of the time that staff were spending going back and trying to translate whatever they heard on the answer machine into a service request," Diaz explains. "And from the customer's perspective, if they just stay on the line, they're sure to get a live person."

Better resource management

Diaz says the system's reporting tools have also helped with resource management.

"Some offices, like enrollment, get very heavy phone traffic. Previously, they knew the call load was a problem, but it wasn't quantifiable," she explains. "Now, they know how many calls they processed in one day with two agents, even though a lot of callers had to be on hold.

"Because departments can quantify the work, they can plan better and manage resources better," she continues. "If they know they'll have 5,000 calls starting at 8 a.m., they staff for that, and they adjust similarly for the slower times."

The result is less hold time for callers. "Departments received feedback that students, faculty and staff were much happier after the contact centers were implemented," Diaz comments.

Growing role of contact centers

Analysts expect that more and more universities will discover the advantages of network-based contact centers that use collaborative and rich-media technologies to deliver unique, customer-centric service.

"Higher education is still a relatively untapped market for contact centers," notes Paul Stockford, chief analyst at Saddletree Research. "But once these institutions understand the efficiencies that contact center solutions can bring to administrative and other service operations, they'll start behaving like private business. They will use contact center disciplines such as work force optimization to maximize their productivity, service levels and their realization of the overall business benefits that a well-run contact center provides."

And with that comes the potential for financial benefits and enhancing the overall experience of their customers.

"The contact center will undoubtedly have an increasingly important role in higher education in the years to come," Stockford predicts.

For More Information

To find about more about Cisco Unified Communications, please click here.

Product List

  • Cisco Unified Contact Center Express

Jenny Carless is a freelance writer located in Santa Cruz, CA.

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