Given declining enrollment in higher ed institutions nationwide, universities are under increasing pressure to attract students and keep them happy. Customer service has become more important than ever, but with limited budgets and staff, many universities have fallen behind and need to up their game.
Let’s face it, millennials, who grew up with the Internet and self-service applications, are used to getting information how and when they want it, 24/7. They want to be able to easily find answers to their questions on academic requirements, financial aid and other areas at the tap of a finger on their mobile devices.
Universities have tried to staff call centers as best they can to address these questions, often using students whose first priority, of course, is their academic work. It’s just simply not feasible –not to mention exorbitantly expensive — to staff these call centers 24/7, so throwing more people at the problem isn’t the solution. And often, students don’t want to talk anyway. They want to use their mobile devices to get answers to their questions.
Fortunately, chatbots are an ideal way to address the problem. Chatbots, which simulate human communication either via voice or text, provide a direct user experience without any intermediaries. They can be programmed to answer all types of questions that students may have, providing immediate information to address their needs – through text and SMS messages, chat discussions on the website or by phone.
Making the best first impression for recruitment
Each year, colleges receive a flurry of inquiries from potential students about all aspects of college and academic life, financial aid and scholarships. To create the best first impression with students and a great user experience, it’s critical for schools to answer all of these questions quickly and accurately.
How the students are treated – and whether they feel well serviced or neglected – can make or break their overall feeling about a university and whether they want to apply or reject the school. A chatbot on a university website can be programmed to talk about what makes the school so unique and why it would be a great place to go, enabling students to click on a topic to learn more.
Once they decide to apply, students typically have a lot of questions. Chatbots can help guide them through the admissions process, which often involves an extensive application with lots of supporting materials. Similarly, they can get help with the many questions they typically have when applying for financial aid.
But even after students apply, are accepted and decide to attend, the process is still not over. Universities lose some of the incoming class to “summer melt,” when accepted students change their minds and don’t end up attending the school. Georgia State University decided to develop a chatbot that could reach out to students who had enrolled via text messages with reminders and key information during the summer before they attend. It also answered questions about the dorm, financial aid, tuition, etc. The school found that the chatbot reduced the summer melt by over 21 percent compared to students in a control group.
Continuing a high-level user experience throughout college
Helping students during the application process isn’t enough. It’s important to maintain a high level of customer service throughout the student’s college career to ensure a positive experience at the school. Studies have shown that when students feel unsupported by the institution it can be a factor in causing them to drop out. Chatbots can be used in in all areas – answering questions about university services such as health services, and athletic services, clubs, student accounts and other aspects of student life.
To answer the growing number of student questions, the Inter-American University of Puerto Rico developed a chatbot that would communicate with students where they predominately spent their time — on the website, and via Facebook Messenger and SMS mobile. The university found that it was able to automate responses for 80 percent of the calls, while reducing by half the support staff needed for this task. Because their time was freed up from having to handle all the calls, the staff could focus on answering more complex questions and proactively help students meet financial aid deadlines, select courses course selection and get any academic help they might need.
Chatbots can also be used for technical support, answering some of the routine questions, so the support team can be more available to focus on the more difficult issues.
Enabling consistency and accuracy
Through years of experience fielding questions from prospective and incoming students, universities can easily develop a list of commonly asked questions, and prepare answers that are clear, accurate and consistent. Chatbots can be programmed to answer these routine questions quickly, while routing more complex questions to human staffers. They also provide a high degree of quality control. Since you program in all of the answers, you can ensure that they are consistent and accurate, something that is harder to do with humans, as well as with websites, that require constant updating.
Every industry is interested in data today and higher education is no exception. Since chatbots answer lots of student queries, they provide a hotbed of documented data and insights into student behavior, student concerns, and areas where the university is strong and where it may fall short. By providing a sort of transactional record of each transaction, chatbots enable universities to use patterns of data to improve their operations. For example, are many student asking questions that should be standard information on the website? Perhaps the website needs updating, with clearer information. Are many students voicing concerns over library closing times? Maybe the hours of operation need changing.
Chatbots provide an easy, cost-effective solution to help universities overcome some of their most pressing challenges today, like declining enrollment and summer melt. It’s quickly becoming apparent that with the help of chatbots, the schools that can best address student needs quickly, effectively and accurately, will win over their hearts and minds – and be well positioned to succeed in today’s competitive marketplace.