Best practoce: Have an answer for everything

October 29, 2004

Are you overburdened by endless questions about accommodation costs and student time-tables? At least two British universities - the University of Central Lancashire and Robert Gordon University - have adopted a US model for cutting down on time-consuming paperwork.

Central Lancashire was the first to install RMT Answer, an interactive database devised by Hobsons Plc, which replies to queries within 48 hours. Although it did not go live until mid-September, it received 1,900 questions that month from undergraduates and their parents, with 900 being dealt with in the first week of October alone. "The more people know about it, the more they use it," says John McCarthy, head of marketing and communications.

The database sends out automatic answers to a list of typical questions pooled by staff. If it does not know an answer, staff email the questioner and store the answer on the database. McCarthy says it offers value for money, although he will not say how much it cost.

Ferris State University in the US reckons ad hoc inquiries handled by staff fell by 75 per cent after the database was installed. "We can put the staff resources saved into doing more proactive work, such as follow-up calls to promote open days," says McCarthy, whose department also runs an open-day information call centre, manned by students in the evenings and on Saturdays.

"We can no longer sit back and send out prospectuses in the traditional way and wait for applications," McCarthy says. "Universities have got to think seriously about customer service."

McCarthy says some of the most popular questions involve timetabling, as more students combine work with study. There is also the occasional odd question. One prospective student, possibly an overseas one, asked about the price of toothpaste. The university is developing a version of RMT Answer for international students.


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