Dan Gaines, Associate Director of Marketing and Analytics for the Mitchell E. Daniels, Jr. School of Business at Purdue University, uses artificial intelligence to manage the volume of inquiries the school receives.

Aug 22 2023
Digital Workspace

AI Streamlines University Contact Center Operations

Universities roll out artificial intelligence to improve communication with prospective students.

It was the kind of problem that most colleges and universities would love to have.

A few years ago, the Mitchell E. Daniels, Jr. School of Business at Purdue University, then known as the Krannert School of Management, was struggling to keep up with inquiries from prospective students interested in learning more about its programs.

“The first issue was the volume of emails we were getting and the time it took to answer them,” says Dan Gaines, associate director of marketing and analytics at the business school. Beyond that, the challenge had to do with the variety of programs offered. “The knowledge you had to possess to answer the possible questions was too much to manage,” he says.

With just a handful of people on the contact center team to field inquiries from people around the world, the team turned its attention to solutions that promised to augment its capabilities. It ultimately chose AtlasRTX chatbot technology powered by IBM Watson Assistant, which uses artificial intelligence (AI).

Today, Gaines says, he and his colleagues are still plenty busy corresponding with people who are curious about the business school. The difference now is that the bot handles about 70 percent of the questions they receive about their on-campus and online programs.

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When a prospect goes to a program webpage, the BizBot pops up as one of several options to get more information. Built on natural language processing models, the tool can communicate seamlessly in hundreds of different languages.

“If it can’t answer a question, it will send a notification to the right person and tell them they need to jump in,” Gaines explains. If the Purdue employee can’t join the conversation right away, the bot asks the user for a cell phone number for a follow-up text.

READ MORE: AI has arrived in higher education. Now what?

Since the business school launched the digital assistant in 2020, it’s become its second-highest generator of new applications. The latest numbers show that more than 50 percent of those who engage with the bot are eventually accepted into the institution.

Gaines notes that the goal was never to completely eliminate the human element of the contact center’s work. Instead, he says, the bot is a tool that brings people together.

“Higher education is highly relational; it’s important to keep our team involved,” he says. “This approach works well for us. I think we’ve found a really good balance.”

Kate Silva
If you don’t meet them where they want to be met, there’s always another university that will.”

Kate Silva Digital Communications Manager, Vanderbilt University

Contact Center AI Helps Your Team Provide the Best Support

While much of the news about AI in recent months has focused on how it could eliminate certain jobs, higher ed leaders agree that the technology will only make their contact centers better.

At Stanford University, for example, IT leaders are “trying to figure out where AI belongs” in the school’s Cisco Contact Center platform, according to Sylvie Cosgrove, executive director of IT infrastructure. Stanford hasn’t deployed artificial intelligence yet because the automation it has now is highly effective, but Cosgrove says that day is coming soon as AI-equipped solutions rapidly evolve.

“It’s something that we’re looking at because it can certainly expedite call routing,” she says. “It can get people to the right agents faster, which is really the whole purpose of contact centers.”

DIG DEEPER: Why a community college adopted Microsoft Teams for its contact center.

Tamara Cibenko Askew, principal at Deloitte Consulting, puts it a slightly different way. One recent Deloitte survey found that more than 8 in 10 contact center leaders across industries are investing in AI for “agent-enabling technologies” that promote operational efficiency.

AI can help prospects connect with humans at university contact centers, but it can also ensure employees are prepared with everything they need to communicate, Cibenko Askew says.

“The great thing about AI is its ability to parse through infinite amounts of data,” she says. If a student is looking at a certain program and shares information on his or her background and interests, for example, a technology boosted by AI might use those details to provide suggestions to an agent. “Like, ‘here are some of the features about the university this person should find compelling.’ It’s a way to give them exactly what they’re looking for more efficiently.”



Contact Center Tools Can Help Your University Reach More Students

At Regent University in Virginia, Kevin Ferguson understands the importance of optimizing operational efficiencies. As director of communication technologies, Ferguson oversees Regent’s contact center, a cloud-based platform from Five9.

When agents reach out to prospective students who have provided their contact information, the technology leverages AI to do the dialing automatically, Ferguson says.

“It allows us to call multiple prospects at once by calculating the probability that someone will pick up,” he explains. “You might dial out to three people, for example, knowing you’ll only get one on the line.”

The system integrates with Regent’s Microsoft customer relationship management system, so inbound calls from previously identified customers trigger a pop-up screen on the answering agent’s desktop providing details about the caller and any interaction history. The technology helped the school double its call volume the first year it was used, “and we did that while improving customer service and without having to hire more staff,” Ferguson says.

It’s a similar story at Vanderbilt University’s Owen Graduate School of Management, where Kate Silva serves as digital communications manager. Like Purdue, Vanderbilt is using AtlasRTX to streamline the contact center at its business school.


The percentage of organizations that have deployed or are testing customer-facing chatbots

Source: deloittedigital.com, 2023 Global Contact Center Survey, April 2023

With the digital assistant on the team, Silva says, “we’re available to anyone 24/7, 365 days a year.” In Vanderbilt’s case, the chatbot tool is gated; it only goes to work once a website visitor provides a name and other basic information.

When a candidate has questions that the digital assistant can’t answer, it’s up to Silva to make sure that person connects with the appropriate contact at the school. An inquiry from a prospective student interested in the school’s master’s degree in finance, for example, would be forwarded to the admissions team responsible for evaluating applications to the highly selective program.

“I’m immediately alerted through the system, and I’ll take the contact information and chat history and pass it along right away,” Silva says. That history usually includes enough useful details to set the stage for a productive conversation.

Silva says that the admissions team “will take a second to learn about the candidate and their interests so when they talk to them, they already have a sense of how to nurture the relationship.” This discussion could be in person or over the phone, but it typically takes place in the digital domain, either via email or chat.

“If you don’t meet them where they want to be met, there’s always another university that will,” Silva says.

Photography by Chris Bucher

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