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Who You Gonna Call? NOVA’s Call Center Improves Customer Satisfaction

Innovation Showcase


June 2011, Volume 6, Number 6


By Carlene R. Mackereth and Linda Barthelus

Which comes first at colleges: first-class educational programs or excellent customer service? Administrators at Northern Virginia Community College believe students deserve both.

NOVA, as the college is called locally, serves more than 75,000 credit students on six full-scale campuses and at multiple other locations around the Northern Virginia region. Another 24,000 students enroll in noncredit courses each year. When administrators realized that students—and even its own employees—frequently couldn’t figure out which office to call for information, they created a Call Center to provide one-stop shopping for answers.

One Center, Many Solutions

Linda Barthelus, who used 10 years of call center experience to set up the department, explained the problem.

“Students would call the business office or an academic division to ask about holidays or the bookstore hours,” Barthelus said. “Then somebody in that office would have to stop whatever he or she was doing to answer the phone. Too often that person wouldn’t have the right information and be forced to transfer the call. That scenario was repeated at offices around the college all day, resulting in aggravation for everyone involved.”

A center with trained agents not only reduces the number of random calls going to college offices but also provides better service to callers by providing the majority of answers without transferring the call. A call center is also a great place to collect valuable feedback that can be used to keep the college running smoothly. The frontline representatives are often the first to learn about callers’ frustrations, expectations, and desires, and the ability to capture and share that feedback with administrators helps NOVA remain proactive in its decision making.

To create awareness and encourage callers to start inquiries with the Call Center, the center’s phone number is featured prominently in all college marketing materials. The center is staffed 8:30 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. on Fridays, and 9:00 a.m. to noon on Saturdays.

In addition to phone calls, the center responds to queries sent through e-mail, provides a live chat service, and fulfills requests for common forms and publications. The center also supports the college in numerous retention and recruitment efforts, such as conducting phone surveys, handling data entry, and preparing mail pieces.

The center’s goal is to correctly answer 80 percent of inquiries without transferring the call to another office. From 2008 to 2010, the number of calls transferred declined by 22.5 percent. During the three years the center has been in operation, nearly 640,000 calls have been received, and more than 601,000 were answered successfully, with only 6 percent of calls abandoned (or unanswered). During that same time, the Call Center handled more than 16,000 online chats, responded to 9,600 e-mail inquiries, and fulfilled 5,100 mail requests for catalogs and class schedules.

“Our positive record can be attributed to quality assurance measures that we implemented to ensure all representatives receive consistent coaching and feedback,” Barthelus said. “We work closely with key departments around the college, such as Student Services and Financial Aid, to make sure accurate and timely information is communicated to customers, and we developed specific training workshops to target problematic areas identified during coaching.”

Staff Training

All new Call Center representatives go through a four-week training period before they are allowed to answer inquiries alone. During this time, a combination of classroom and hands-on training is provided and a team lead provides constant feedback and coaching.

During the first two weeks of employment, new representatives sit with a team lead to listen to live calls, observe proper phone etiquette and customer services skills, and learn how to navigate the NOVA website, Smarter Track system, Student Information System, and other applications. In the next two weeks, the new representative begins taking calls with a team lead listening and providing coaching. This method allows for hands-on training without sacrificing quality. Throughout the initial training, the new representatives are quizzed two to three times to gauge their grasp of the information.

Weekly meetings are held to make sure everyone has current information. Annual training sessions are provided by key personnel in Student Services and the Financial Aid office. In addition, two annual training sessions on Saturdays cover three important areas: quality assurance, peak-period readiness, and specific academic programs. These sessions ensure all representatives are informed and qualified to handle the wide range of questions received.

Challenges and Lessons Learned

As might be expected, Barthelus encountered a few challenges while getting the Call Center up and running. One of the major issues was the unusual nature of operating a call center in an educational environment. It’s also one reason NOVA’s Call Center is thriving.

“Call centers are traditionally found in more customer service-driven private sectors like telecommunications, financial/banking, and reservation-type businesses. Since the competitiveness within the private sector is fierce, establishing customer loyalty is necessary to remain in business,” Barthelus said.

Colleges use other indicators of success, such as enrollment and graduation numbers. Academic reputation, excellent professors, in-demand programs, convenient class schedules, and interesting student activities are some of the main characteristics used to recruit and retain students.

“However, educational institutions are realizing such efforts may not be enough,” Barthelus said. “Students are more sophisticated today and expect quality service and convenience for their tuition dollars. When students have difficulty connecting with college personnel or feel unappreciated, they will take their business elsewhere. Implementing a call center within the educational institution will help students achieve their goals easier and help the college retain them.”

Motivating and retaining employees without the ability to raise salaries due to the economic downturn has been a particular challenge, but Barthelus developed several creative ways to show appreciation for her staff’s efforts. A monthly employee recognition program based on overall performance and attendance has been effective, as well as on-the-spot recognitions based on customer feedback or outstanding contributions. During the first week of October, the Call Center celebrates National Customer Service Week with fun work-related activities and potlucks. To reward their valued service and create a sense of community, staff members receive NOVA T-shirts, sweatshirts, and other merchandise.

Ongoing challenges include ensuring proper tools are implemented to effectively manage and track overall performance, and finding qualified but also diverse employees to meet the needs of a diverse college.

Barthelus puts a lot of emphasis on listening to staff members and developing strong relationships with other departments around the college.

“Our reps are the backbone of the Call Center, and they are often the first to hear customer concerns. It’s also important to create a positive support team outside the center to help ensure the unit’s objectives are met,” Barthelus said.

Center of Excellence

After a rigorous on-site assessment by an outside auditor, NOVA’s Call Center earned the Center of Excellence certification in May 2010. The Center of Excellence designation is awarded by Benchmark Portal and the Center for Customer-Driven Quality at Purdue University.

Just 10 percent of call centers have earned the Center of Excellence designation following a thorough, four-step assessment that includes:

1. An in-depth survey of 22 key performance indicators, such as first-call resolution, caller satisfaction, in-bound calls per agent per hour, cost per call in dollars, average speed of answer in seconds, and calls closed on first call.

2. A survey of more than 200 callers to assess overall customer satisfaction.

3. A survey of the center’s agents to determine level of agent satisfaction and engagement.

4. A two-day on-site assessment by an auditor from Benchmark Portal who reviews such key functional areas as hiring, screening, training, and call monitoring.

“We’re honored to be the only community college to receive this prestigious award,” Barthelus said. “Achieving the certification was validation that NOVA’s Call Center is operating at the lowest possible cost while increasing customer satisfaction and loyalty. But we know it’s an ongoing process. We plan to continue making improvements as necessary to maintain the certification and, more importantly, keep adjusting our procedures to ensure we are providing our customers with the best possible service."

Posted by The League for Innovation in the Community College on 06/22/2011 at 9:03 AM | Categories: Innovation Showcase -