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University of Heidelberg: Better Service for Applicants

20 February 2008

The ResStud project aims to provide future students with ideal, trouble-free, personal advice — "Personal portal” planned to supplement the phone and internet portals functioning very successfully since May 2005

The students manning the phone portal get the best equipment possible — computers, internet, cable-free headsets. A Siemens phone system provides automatic caller distribution and captures data on the number of calls received, accepted and passed on. In statistical terms, it’s safe to say that the whole thing works. In 2006 97,000 calls were received, 66.5% of them got through at first try — and if they didn’t, they just tried again. 

So the technical equipment is about as good as you get. But the assistants themselves of course are the ones who have to deal with difficult questions and other problems. That’s why they get at least 30 hours of special training before they start work, giving them a fund of essential knowledge about administration, courses, qualifications and other things. There’s also an internal database containing all the information they’re ever likely to need. What they also get is an introductory course on psychology. How do I deal with callers in general? When is it better to pass a call on to the experts? What do I do if callers lose their tempers?

The spot test: How well does it work in practice?

But how do the staff actually cope with difficult calls? I decide to put them to the test myself. Normally, questions have to do with applications or student fees, or callers require forms of some kind or want to know what chance they stand of getting accepted at the university. This time, I decide to confront them with a different situation. It takes about 20 seconds for me to get through. Then a young lady answers and listens politely to what I have to say. I tell her that I come from Kassel and ask about the student accommodation situation in Heidelberg.

The young lady at the other end is completely unfazed. There are student halls of residence in Heidelberg, she tells me. If I’m interested in them I should contact Student Services. Then there’s the private accommodation market. Just as she’s about to refer me to a different number, I ask her about prices. She responds immediately, telling me that it depends on the location. In the Old Town I should expect to pay between 300 and 350 euros a month, elsewhere between 150 and 250 euros is standard for a one-room flat with a bath. Then there are the additional costs, say, for electricity and water. The private market is a bit more expensive than a hall of residence, but in a hall I cannot choose who I want to live with. Then she goes on to point out that the ideal location depends on the subjects I’m studying. The Neuenheimer Feld campus is much less expensive, of course, and that is precisely where part of the university is situated. I thank her and ring off. I must say I found the information very helpful.

Other difficult situations occur when callers decide they want a bit of a chat and start talking about all kinds of things. This wastes time and is not what the information centre is for. But even then, the staff do not get irritated or cut you off short. Service is writ large, and they know they’re there to assist. Sometimes callers lose their tempers and vent their anger on the unfortunate phone staff, although they are the last ones to blame for any grievances. For example, parents sometimes call, up in arms because the university has rejected an application from their children. Here the only recourse is to point out politely that there’s nothing that can be done about it.

Between two and — at peak times — seven assistants work at the phone portal. The total number of staff is 30, all of them students. The phone portal is on call Mondays to Thursdays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Fridays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. The number is 06221/545454.

The e-mail portal

Basically, the e-mail portal works the same way. Here between six and nine assistants answer the incoming mails, over 1,000 of them in any given month. The e-mail address is . To make the whole business more efficient the assistants have access to the same knowledge database, as well as to individual modules, i.e. texts containing information about all issues concerning the university.

The assistants simply copy the relevant sections of these texts into the answering e-mail. But the service still retains its individual touch. They invariably add a word or two of their own, and in some cases, of course, the database itself is not enough. If they do not know the answer themselves, they do all they can to refer the inquiry to the right destination. Even if they cannot supply the required information, they do their level best to be helpful. None of this is mere routine, most of it is creative work. Ask the students what they like about the job and they all say: "The feeling of being able to help.”

The biggest problem — especially for the phone portal — is that there are so many callers. After all, not all those inquiring will actually apply. Frequently it turns out that there would be little point in doing so — for various reasons, but usually because the callers don’t have the necessary qualifications. In Heidelberg there are six times as many applicants as there are places available: to be sure of getting into a suitable university most people will apply to several at the same time.

So the stress level is high. No sooner is the receiver back on the hook than the phone rings again. One call after another. This is something that requires attention to make the system even better.

One thing likely to help is the prospect of a "personal portal” in the near future. The University Administration (Seminarstraße 2) will be the central location providing this service. Full-time professionals will be on hand to advise and assist, and this will hopefully take some of the strain off the phone portal, enabling people to sort out their inquiries on the spot and face to face, rather than reaching for the phone — and maybe having to call five times before someone responds.
Jesper Hodge

Journalists’ inquiries should be addressed to
Dr. Michael Schwarz
Public Information Officer
University of Heidelberg
phone: 06221/542310, fax: 542317

Irene Thewalt
phone: 06221/542310, fax: 542317
Editor: Email
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