University consistently fails to serve students

by Steven Snyder

Your call is important to us. Please hold for the next available Ö”.

It is probably the most hilarious of modern contradictions – a prerecorded message conveying a business’ appreciation of its customers. There might be an hour wait, they might have lost your order, you might have to deal with angry operators, but the automated message reassures us that, yes, we “are important.”

Most times in life, when the nuisance of poor customer service reaches a certain point, we can go elsewhere. We close our account and move on. But what is one to do when the same disregard and disrespect occurs at a university, an institution supposedly built expressly to serve its student body?

I have written before about the University taking students for granted. This semester, one of the University’s biggest debacles will come to an end. With the reopening of Coffman Union, I will no longer be able to rant about the administration’s poor finances, planning and accountability.

But as Coffman is taken off the table, I see many other issues that call out for criticism. The most obvious of these is the One Stop Student Services Helpline. It is a good idea in theory: Take all the normal questions a student might have and route them through one phone number.

To call the Helpline a disaster might be a bit far-fetched, but it is, at the very least, additional proof of a university where student convenience is low on the priority list.

The phone number is (612) 624-1111. Call it and you might encounter the following:

ï A mandatory five-minute, prerecorded message before you have the luxury of holding for a “One Stop counselor,”

ï Waits up to and exceeding 40 minutes to speak with a human being.

ï The possibility that the center is closed. It is only open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., when most students are in classes.

ï If you’re really lucky, a prerecorded message telling you that due to the number of calls, “we are unable to take your call.”

For an even bigger laugh, call University Information and ask for the One Stop Helpline. The operators will likely ask you where you are on campus and suggest that you go there in person rather than endure the lengthy wait on the phone.

Now, I am not complaining that a phone number dares to have a long wait. I think we would all admit that, on a campus with nearly 50,000 students, there might be waits for certain services during the first weeks of school.

What I am incensed by is the gall of the University to take every important issue a student might face, route them through the same phone number and then do nothing to ensure that this helpline is adequately maintained.

The One Stop Helpline handles every issue one would likely have a question about these first days of school. Grades, transcripts, registration problems, financial aid issues, billing and payment questions are all routed through that phone number. Yet, excessive waits continue to occur.

Out of seven sample calls last week, made on different days at different times, I found the following results: a 15-minute wait, a 22-minute wait, a 34-minute wait, a 41-minute wait and three instances when the line’s traffic was so excessive that “counselors” could not take my call.

Now, is this a helpful helpline? Someone, please tell me, is it unfair to expect service better than this when inquiring about missing financial aid or unexpected holds on a student account?

“How would you fix this, Steve?” you might ask. I’ve thought of that too. On one of my calls, after I was awoken from my 30-minute nap on hold, I asked the “counselor” how many human beings staff this helpline. The answer was “usually four.” There are other counselors at Fraser Hall helping with walk-up service, but the helpline typically has four such counselors.

And I had an epiphany. I had found a better contradiction than this rant’s opening quote. On a campus of nearly 50,000 people, all questions must go through four human beings, two of which were not even in on the days I called.

Robert Bruininks, the new University president, sent out an e-mail to all students last week in which he said, “The beginning of a new semester allows us to evaluate our schedules and our priorities.” I agree with Bruininks’ statements.

I call on the University to re-evaluate its priorities. What is most important to the administration? While I realize the One Stop Helpline is not the biggest budget item, its poor construction and delays will affect thousands and thousands of students. It is the symptom of a bigger problem, another indication of an unfocused and misguided administration.

I might concede delays for buses, books, the Bursar’s Office, computer help, e-mail problems and the use of a student union, but someone please explain to me why I have to wait almost an hour to speak with a human being about missing financial aid.

How can they fix it? They can start by staffing an “all-service” helpline with more than four people. Also, quit telling me that my call is important. It loses its effectiveness around the 30th minute on hold.

Steve Snyder’s biweekly column usually appears alternate Wednesdays. Send letters to the editor to [email protected]