Keeping the U connected

by Lynne Kozarek

The phone rings and a calm voice answers, “University of Minnesota information, how can I help you?” The caller asks for the registrar’s phone number. An answer is given and the call connected.
The phone rings again and the same helpful voice answers. “How do you de-beak a chicken?” the caller asks.
Welcome to a day in the life of an information specialist at University Tele-communications Information Services.
Information Services is one of the oldest services at the University. The service came into existence when, on May 14, 1886, the Board of Regents authorized the first telephone at the University. The telephone found a home on the St. Paul Campus, then called the “farm campus.”
It was a weather balloon
By 1947, the University switchboard was handling more than 4,000 calls per day on the main board in the administration building. Two thousand calls were cleared through the University’s automatic telephone equipment; the rest were handled on the switchboard by a staff of five female operators.
Busy signals were a huge problem to those calling into campus, but the overworked operators had more to deal with than just aggravated callers.
In 1947, the University launched a hot air balloon and the switchboard was flooded with calls from people who had seen the balloon and wanted to know whether it was a UFO and if the world was ending.
In 1962, the University replaced its outdated switchboard system with a state-of-the-art Centrex system. With the new switching system, almost every phone at the University had its own private line. The University was proud of the fact that the Centrex system saved callers an average of 28 seconds per call. About 11,363 miles of additional wire were required to make the various interconnections to University phones under the new system.
Ruth Rossman, a switchboard operator at the University in the early 1960s, said the University cut down on operators when it switched to the Centrex system.
“I worked with Centrex for awhile,” Rossman said, “and it was pretty boring.”
Rossman said she preferred working with the University’s switchboard before the new technology because she felt she was helping people and had more personal contact.
“It was a pleasant place to work. I loved that little room,” Rossman said. “It wasn’t hard work as long as you knew the system. We just needed to know where everybody was located in the holes in the switchboard.”
The main switchboard contained about 44 small holes. To transfer calls, the operator plugged cords into different holes to complete a circuit between the incoming call and the destination phone.
Rossman said that she worked at night and dealt mostly with people who needed telephone numbers for specific people or departments.
5,000 calls a day
Today’s Telecommunications Information Services is housed in a modern office with softly chirping phones, gray cubicle walls and polite voices filling the air. The office employs nine full-time information specialists and one full-time data processing specialist. Together they handle more than 5,000 calls each day.
Gwen Bock, telephone operations supervisor at Telecommunications Information Services, said that each information specialist can handle 300 to 500 calls per day.
“We get calls for driving directions, events, library hours, locations, the best hotels around the University, places to get things fixed and, of course, they call to complain,” Bock said.
“Our busiest days are when the weather changes,” Bock said, “one day the tape didn’t work to let people know that the University was open on a bad weather day. That was almost a disaster.”
Bock said that the University is a city of its own and the first contact that people have with the University is often through Information Services.
Because so many people at the University use this service for so many different reasons, Bock heavily stresses customer service. Part of this mission is the unceasingly upbeat tone of voice the operators maintain to their callers.
“Customer service is very important to me,” Bock said. “Regardless of what our moods may be, the tone we use with people is very important.”
Check the pink pages
The information specialists get most of their data from a modified Student-Staff Directory with a special “pink pages” in the back containing information specifically organized for them.
“People are generally appreciative of our services and we try to help,” Bock said, “but sometimes they just don’t give us enough information.”
Information specialists frequently deal with questions such as “I’d like to speak to Dr. Smith, the one with the glasses,” and “How do I get to the building with all the windows.”
Operators try to find out where a person was last seen and whether the caller can remember a specific identifying trait about the person or where they work.
“We take the calls seriously,” Bock said, “but when we get off the phone we laugh a little.”
Bock also said that the information specialists are trained to deal with emergencies such as national crises and suicide calls.
“When we get a suicide call we have to transfer them to crisis prevention,” Bock said, “but we need to keep talking to them.”
Bock said the information specialists keep the caller on the line and use another line to call a crisis prevention center. The operator announces the call at the crisis center while still on the line with the caller.
Information overload
Sometimes new systems at the University cause confusion with the information specialists because they don’t have all of the appropriate information.
Carol Troyer, user services manager at Networking and Communications services, and Bock agreed that the logistics of the Fairview-University hospital merger are beginning to perplex the information specialists.
“It is part of our jobs to find out which clinics are closed or which clinics have moved,” Bock said.
Troyer said that Networking and Telecommunications Services has a team in place to keep track of the various changes and transitions that will take place over the next 18 months.
Information Services also provides callers additional services such as Meet Me conferences.
Faculty members or students who need to place a conference call — with up to 12 other callers — can contact Information Services and set up a Meet Me conference for $5.
Callers dial a special number and an information specialist will connect them with the conference call.
Information services handles about seven Meet Me conferences each day. The service has only been offered in the past several years, and administrators say the service is gaining popularity.
“Over the years, people have become familiar with the service,” said Bock. “When they call in they’re surprised at how easy it is.”
Katie Quinn, an information specialist and University alumnus, has been working at Information Services for 10 years.
“The University is a city and we try to make it seem not so big,” Quinn said. “We’re just the first step.”
Quinn said that people often know what they want but don’t know how to say it. She said she also believes there are no dumb questions.
“We get a lot of consumer questions,” Quinn said. Other questions cover topics such as rodents, trees, gardens, spot removal, field trips, lost and found and careers.
Quinn said that she also receives many international calls, from countries as distant as France, Kenya and Japan.
“People call about national and international research and names that appear in research journals,” Quinn said.
Quinn said she likes the fact that she can open people’s eyes to all of the resources available to them on campus.
“I don’t like to feel that we don’t have the answer,” Quinn said. “We give the callers suggestions and at least they’re not getting turned away empty-handed. You never know who is calling, so we help somebody and down the road they might remember that.
The operators face the same challenge today that they did 111 years ago — keeping themselves on top of the University’s information food chain. No matter how much has changed since the first phone was installed, when the call comes in, Information Services still has to know the answer.