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Should higher ed institutions still be using phone calls to connect with students?

Are phone calls over? Or are there still clever ways of connecting with students and turning conversations into conversions and enrollments? We find out...

Bring, bring… bring, bring… 

Hands up if you’ve ever been frustrated with students not answering their phones when you call them? If you work in higher ed, it’s probably more often than you’d like. 

Maybe they’ve signed up for an Open Day or campus visit and you want to double-check that they’re still planning to attend. Maybe you incorporate phone calls as a critical part of your outreach recruitment strategy. Or perhaps you just want to add personal, human touches to your interactions with prospective students, rather than just firing off another email. However, when you call them, it just rings out, every single time. Why?

Do Gen Z just not like phone calls?

It was recently reported that ringtones are dying out and are seen as the preserve of older generations, with younger people preferring to keep their phones on silent. With wearable tech and vibrating fitbits, there’s simply no need for a ringtone anymore.

But that’s not all. Research by communications regulator Ofcom discovered that twice as many 16-to-24 year-olds in the UK preferred messaging to phone calls. 36% of this age group said messaging was the most important method of communication compared to 15% who said phone calls. Hence, they’ve been dubbed, ‘Generation Mute’.

This is corroborated in the US, with The New York Post reporting that, on average, Americans text twice as much as they call, and text message response rates are 209% higher than from phone calls. Despite that, they report that some young people want to bring the ‘retro art’ (their words) of phone calls back into the world. So what is the answer? Should we continue to phone students by default or should higher ed institutions be switching to text, live chat, or chatbots to better connect?

Using phone calls as a conversion tactic

Well, we’re going to start with a couple of examples that are doing great things with their call campaigns. Cranfield University in the UK is one example. They’re successfully using the Gecko call campaigns module to run call campaigns as part of their international recruitment strategy to convert offer holders…

Christine Rirom, CRM Manager at Cranfield University told us:

“Having a more proactive approach to international recruitment through the call campaigns has helped us speed up processes and have more up-to-date knowledge of where we are in regards to numbers. We ask prospective students to accept or decline offers but the calls are beneficial to prompt prospective students to take those actions and next steps.”

Another institution, the California University of Pennsylvania, use call campaigns for their events and particularly see the benefit in being able to create complex scripts with conditional logic, which enable them to personalize their responses.

Toni Hartley, Director of Communications and Education Pathways told us,

“Gecko has enabled us to increase our outreach and student engagement. It’s all about relationship-building with prospective students and making them feel that this university is authentic and cares about them as a person, as opposed to a number.”

Recreating the call experience on chat 

Some prospective students appreciate the personalised approach of a phone call and respond well to them, so there’s always going to be a place for incorporating those communications into your recruitment and conversion strategies. However, one thing we would guard against is making the mistake of thinking that phone calls are the only way of creating a personalised experience for prospective students.

It can be easy to fall into thinking that phone calls = human to human interaction = a better user experience for prospective students. However, that’s really not the case. Gen Z want answers fast, and if you can deliver those via text or chat, that’s a better experience, right?

There’s also nothing to say that your bot or live chat can’t be just as personable as a conversation – they’re much less formal platforms for one, and that frees you up to engage with students in a completely different way to how you’d speak to them on the phone. 

The University of Exeter found this to be the case during Clearing. Clearing is one of the biggest days in the higher education admissions cycle, and matches unplaced candidates to university places on the day exam results for A-Levels are released. Exeter uses the chat and live chat modules on the day, and they found was that these technologies enabled them to be more personable and align with the kind of experience that you’d expect from a phone call. Zoe Holman, CRM Enquiries Management Business Lead, explains…

“One thing we noticed from looking at the actual chat conversations during Clearing was that the tone on the live chat platform was much warmer than on email. When the agents use email, it can be quite formal. I suppose that kind of personal interaction is what you’d get on a phone call, isn’t it? That’s certainly what we noticed with our chat conversations.”

Switching from calls to chat to meet demand

Another thing to consider is volume. This is something that’s particularly relevant when using calls for high-traffic events, such as Clearing. There are only so many calls you can take at one time, and that more than likely means prospective students may get stuck on hold. Diversifying your platforms means that you can get to students quicker, answer their questions faster, and make them an offer while the competition still has them on hold. 

Finally,City, University of London, recently switched from phone calls to using a Gecko chatbot during their Clearing process. Dominic Davis, Head of Admissions, explained more…

“In 2019 our Clearing strategy was very much around, ‘Here’s our telephone number, call us.’ However, in 2020, we were one of four universities in the UK that didn’t have a phone number to call during Clearing. We didn’t feel we needed it because we had a triage system with the AI form, the Gecko chatbot, and online sessions. 

“We felt prospective students didn’t need to call us because there were other, better, methods of communication – and because we can’t manage 8,000 people calling at the same time. We were much more effective in the handling of our inquiries than before we had that system in place, and the Gecko chatbot is absolutely part of that success.”

Final thoughts on phone calls

Phone calls should definitely play a part in your conversion tactics.

However, they definitely work best when they’re not the only communication tool that you use as part of your recruitment strategy. Other platforms can be just as personal as a phone call if you do it right – there’s no reason why those human connections can’t be forged through texting, chat, or even a bot.

Phone calls also work best when they’re connected to other pieces of technology – something the Gecko all-under-one-roof platform approach enables you to do. Sending follow up texts or directing them to forms to sign up for events all add value to your calls. It’s not about cutting out calls completely, it’s about maximising the value you get from them.

So you heard it here first: phone calls aren’t dead. Do it right and there are definitely still clever ways of connecting with students and turning those conversations… into conversions.