Clearing is a stressful time for students and universities in any year. And it’s getting tougher. In normal, non-Covid times, universities experienced a crazy fortnight after A-level exams, in which students scrambled to secure themselves a university place on the course they wanted. Add in more demand, changing customer expectations, a global pandemic and more, and Clearing has become even more of a challenge than ever. Universities and HE institutions which were already overwhelmed by phone-call volume face an ever-greater challenge.
Here are five of the technologies and technology induced changes that can help.
1 Better, smarter telephone solutions
“The Clearing period is really concertinaed into a couple of days,” says Jonathan Sharp, sales and marketing director at Britannic Technologies. “There’s a mad flurry of activity trying to handle all these calls that come in.”
Britannic developed a robust and resilient SIP (Session Initiation Protocol) service, which is a digital means of receiving and handling phone calls that’s far more scalable than other solutions such as installing dozens of ISDN lines for managing just a few days of peak call traffic. Using SIP lines, it’s possible to handle an unlimited call volume. Sharp says that, in the 2020 Clearing period, one university Britannic worked with was able to cope with this surge in demand, with less than 1% abandoned calls out of the thousands that it received during that period.
Britannic’s technology can also be used to prioritise calls intelligently, meaning that a person who has already been offered a place could be automatically moved into another queue to make room for someone who is still waiting to speak to a phone operator for the first time.
2 Chatbots to the rescue
Prioritising student calls is crucial, but sometimes it can be quicker to automate some of the Clearing interaction.
The company Chatfuel previously helped Leeds Beckett University, a public university in Leeds, to develop an automated Facebook Messenger chatbot capable of running through questions with prospective students. These included how many Ucas points they had, the subject they were interested in pursuing, and more. It was then able to make a course offer in real-time based on the qualifying questions and up-to-date information regarding how many places were left on a particular course. To simplify the process even further, would-be students could accept the offer inside the Messenger app.
Gecko Chatbot, meanwhile, prides itself on its multi-channel integration (meaning that it can be used on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, text, email and live chat), AI-powered capabilities, seamless hand-off from bot to campus staff, dashboard analytics and more.
“Our chatbot actually becomes smarter as it works,” said Jonny Richardson, head of customer success for Gecko.
“It intelligently answers hundreds of student enquiries simultaneously. And it does it from any communication channel, any time of the day or night. It means your team is freed up to spend their time and energy on the most impactful activities and build real relationships with the students who need it most.”
3 Smart forms and voice recognition
Similar technology can be used in other ways. Everyone is familiar with online forms which ask visitors to enter data which is then passed along like a slightly more rigidly structured email. But forms are getting smarter. Several companies offer smart forms, which no longer simply collect enquiries and then pass them on, but can actually analyse the information intelligently. That could mean scheduling a callback with a student with the right qualifications, while providing an automated rejection for those who do not.
On the audio end of the spectrum, Arcus Global has created a call-answering University Clearing Line that harnesses natural language processing technology (think the same kind of tech that makes an Amazon Alexa smart speaker work) to answer calls during high-volume periods. That could mean providing answers to questions such as “What courses are still available?” and “How many Ucas points do I need to study ?” Such tools can greatly reduce the workload for agents, while integrating with current telephony systems.
4 Cloud-based centralisation
This is a broader trend, but it nonetheless highlights a crucial part of any technological solution a university chooses to implement around Clearing time. As unmanageable as it can be, one of the benefits of the traditional way of dealing with Clearing (letters and phone calls) is that it is not too difficult to centralise these.
Today, universities and HE institutions must be willing to offer a myriad of ways for students to contact them, but also make sure all of this can be centralised. As with the chatbot example, this could mean allowing users to make the initial contact through Facebook Messenger. It also means being able to jump from one modality to another to benefit all parties.
For example, Britannic’s technology means that, should a student call from their mobile, the enquiry can automatically be sent to them as a text message to shift the conversation, or via email or WhatsApp.
Cloud computing is a big part of this: also allowing agents to work from anywhere, across multiple platforms, while still having all of that data linked.
“The Cirrus contact centre provides a cloud-based system that unites all modes of conversation and integrates the back and front-office functionality to ensure the university call team has everything they need at their fingertips,” says Andrew Tucker, partner success manager at Cirrus. “The layering of engagement and messaging tools, such as WhatsApp and chatbots allows students to interact on a level that suits them, with universities able to handle multiple queries across different user systems. Consequently, maximising productivity, cutting queue times, and increasing the speed of resolution.
5 Virtual campus tours
Matching prospective students with the right course isn’t simply a matter of box-ticking. HE institutions want to ensure that students are being matched with the right establishment, so that when they arrive on campus they’re walking into the experience that they’re expecting. Virtual campus tours are a great potential boon to this part of the Clearing process, providing an on-website virtual tour which allows students to gain a sense of what a particular university is like.
“Over the past 18 months, there’s been a surge of interest from education providers,” says Neil Henderson, managing director of Virtual Tour Experts. “We’ve worked with Exeter University to create some very specific subject tours. As well as the traditional virtual tour, where you move around the campus like Google Street View, they’ve created virtual tours that are specific to each subject. So if someone’s looking at psychology, you just take them around the relevant areas of the campus that relate to psychology, and add extra videos and interactive content that relate to that particular subject.”
Henderson notes that, in the past, one of the challenges with virtual tour technology is that it was fixed upon completion, making it difficult to update. No more. “We now incorporate content management systems so that universities are constantly able to update all the content that sits within the virtual tool, ensuring it’s up to date and relevant,” he says. “Particularly for things like Clearing, it means that they can put up the very latest offers, interviews, images, and any other information required.”
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