Call center serves as starting place for many returning adult learners

Denise Gray’s voice is calm, almost nurturing. Despite the fact that the young woman she’s talking to, in the military overseas, is on the phone and can’t see her, Gray has a concerned expression on her face. The young woman wants to get a degree online through Penn State World Campus but is unsure of what program to enter. What program would match her background (a paralegal associate degree)? What would be best for her future? Should it be Organizational Leadership or Law and Society? She’s not sure what she wants to do. “Don’t worry, we’ll work this out with you,” says Gray, who proceeds to suggest an academic adviser for the woman to talk to.

It’s 2 p.m. on a recent afternoon in the call center of Adult Learner Enrollment Services -- a unit of Penn State Outreach that is the central information source for the University’s adult student population. Gray set up a phone appointment with the adviser and also encouraged the woman to call her back if she had any other questions. “Thank you!” the caller said before hanging up.

The call center serves as a starting place of sorts for adult learners. Gray, whose background includes 28 years of banking customer service, is just one of the staff members working the phones. There are five others answering the thousands of calls received monthly, from people with questions ranging from how to reschedule a proctored exam to how to use ANGEL, Penn State’s online course management system.

“We adjust, think on our feet, and stay in tune with new offerings” from World Campus and Continuing and Professional Education, said Michelle Ash, supervisor of the call center.

“For many of our prospective students, the staff at the call center are the voice of Penn State," said Martha Jordan, director of adult learner enrollment services. "They provide information, but more importantly, encouragement for those who are overwhelmed with the thought of returning to school.”

The staff members in the call center find providing that encouragement is a big part of the job.

Patty Goodwin, who before joining the call center worked at the front desk at University Park’s Pattee Library, described her job as part customer service and part amateur psychologist. “We try to make people more at ease,” she said. “Some people who call are really anxious at the thought of taking courses online, for example. For those people we may take 40 minutes with them to calm them down, and that’s OK. They’re thankful. They like the personalization."

Jessica Bower, Michael Kauffman, Sherry Mock and Sue Wykoff are the other staff members, who, in addition to taking calls, process faxes, access course work and answer questions received online through a knowledge base. The staff constantly updates the knowledge base with the actual vernacular of callers’ questions, giving the system a successful auto response rate of 97 percent.

Wykoff, whose background includes working as a caseworker for the nonprofit World Relief, helping refugees in Texas, said she simply likes working with people. “I enjoy working with students in the online environment,” she said.

The longest time a staff member has stayed on the phone with a potential customer? About 45 minutes to an hour, the staff estimates.

“I’m not going to cut anyone off,” said Goodwin. “They’re calling from all over and can’t just walk into an office. We’re all they have, or so they think.”

“We will do whatever it takes to help that student,” said Ash.

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Last Updated May 20, 2011