Respect is a Two Way Street

Working in the Communication Center (where my student team and I field all incoming emails and phone calls to the admission office) is an education in stopping blame and rudeness at the door, and re-framing the underlying feelings with words that are still kind. Whether it’s trying to dodge finger pointing, diffuse a dicey situation, or keeping ourselves calm and kind after being asked the same question for the hundredth time, you learn a lot about how we as a society choose to  communicate with each other.

One afternoon I was speaking with a frustrated, and angry, parent. The family was trying to schedule a campus visit on a day that we were at our maximum capacity (per fire code regulations). We could not overload the tour for extra guests, which is I understand is frustrating for families who are trying to make travel plans. I explained to the parent that we get many calls every day asking to overload the tours (which we can’t), so an exception in one person’s case would be really unfair to others. After what I thought was a successful navigation, though disappointing conclusion for the caller, the parent threw a pointed jab at me and the school and hung up. After a sigh, I had to go back to work and answer more calls. I tried not to over analyze the conversation, but in reality, it’s hard to let everything roll off.

The Snowball Effect

When someone is rude or unkind, it has an effect not only on our staff, but on other parents, students, and families who call our office. It makes my students and I less motivated to work, and less chipper on the next call. We regularly have calls where we need to “take a lap” afterwards. Usually during those breaks, I remind myself that the person on the other end of the line may be having a bad day, or things are overwhelming and stressful with trying to get into college and pay for it. While I know that I’m probably not the reason for the outburst, our team, including our student workers, still get our feelings hurt in the blast.

Even if we aren’t upset at the end of a hard call, the calls themselves are exhausting as we try to calmly, kindly and firmly give the correct responses. Calls often start with an issue… that’s usually the reason people call in the first place. The majority of problems are easy to solve and we move on. However, when the situation is dicey, it’s an intricate balance to give the caller options and resources while the ultimate conclusion is not what the caller came for. That’s why the parent’s comment in the situation I just described was hurtful. I tried to balance the situation and provide a well-informed and genuine response. The remark invalidated my work. But then… the parent called back.

A Surprising Outcome

One of our student workers waved me down. “It’s that parent. They’re asking for you.” No part of me wanted to take the call. After a quick glance for emergency exits, I mustered some fake enthusiasm, “Hi! Was there anything else I can help you with?” To my utter amazement, the parent genuinely apologized for the unkind words and tone. No one have ever done that before!

It was the first and only time anyone has ever called back to apologize for their rude behavior. In their apology, the parent recognized that while it was a frustrating situation, I was doing my job, and their annoyance had little to do with me personally.

It takes a lot to separate the message from the messenger, but we appreciate it when the caller can do that. Of course I would prefer for people to be kind in the first place, but sometimes things get away from all of us, and an apology speaks volumes to our willingness to see each other as people and not just nameless voices on the other end of a phone line.

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5 Essential Ingredients When Calling an Admission Office

At Tech we love formulas, and while not everything can fit into the magic of math and flow charts, I’ll let you in on a secret: there is a correct formula when you call the admission office. See, I’m the inside man. I work in the Communication Center, and generally speaking, I love talking to parents and students about Tech and helping solve the problems that come with going to college. I also train student workers. We work together every day and share insights about how to better communicate with our audience. Several months ago, I started to notice some emerging patterns and correlations – I am a Tech grad after all – regarding those frustrating or unproductive conversations, versus those where the caller left better equipped, and I or my students felt satisfied with our work.

So what is the formula? What pattern results in a positive experience with the Admission Office? Here are five essential ingredients to having the best experience:

Preparation

What you do before the call is as important as what you do during. In the most successful interactions, the caller has 1) called the right department 2) asked the right question 3) has the explanations and identification to help the process along.

  • When folks have called us erroneously (we were once asked if we could help sell a mink coat…) I wonder if they Googled it first. This is everything from the mink coat lady, to asking about programs we don’t offer or contacting us instead of Alumni, Athletics, Financial Aid, etc. It’s part of our job to help redirect calls, but we don’t love bouncing people around, or feeling like we can’t help at all.
  • Why does it matter if you call with a question versus a scenario? Our job involves problem solving, but when I don’t know what the problem is I don’t know what details I’m looking for in the story. The question first helps us know what to look for, and it helps us be more efficient if we have to redirect your call or have the answer on hand. For example, in January, a lot of applicants were having trouble submitting a document. Call volume was really high, and we knew about the problem. Applicants were under the impression they were the only one with the issue, and they would begin with a story instead of the question. Most of time, I could clarify one or two things and get an answer to them quickly and clearly without needing the longer explanation. They had a quick answer, and I could help the next person in line.
  • Sometimes explanations and stories are necessary. Ask your question first thing, but be prepared when we have to ask you clarifying questions. This means the context of why you are asking and having the proper background and identification information (like your GTID).

Be Nice

You’ve done all the prep work – now it’s time to call. I cannot emphasize enough – be nice. In Kindergarten, we were taught that when you are mad or anxious, take a deep breath (count to 10). When you engage us, you can let know your emotional status, but know we want to help you, even if the answer is an infuriating “no”.

This really is very helpful for the caller. The minute a call comes in, we are there to help you, but the more abrasive the person on the other line is, that desire to help starts draining, and I or my students just want the call to end. The reality of being nice is that it will take you further.

Call

Sometimes when people are asking questions, it’s too late to be asking questions. Once there was an applicant who had a discrepancy in his application. He called a couple weeks after decision release – which was too late for us to edit anything. Calling a month or two earlier would have ironed out the issue, and avoided a frustrating scenario. If you see a problem – and you can’t find the solution online, count to 10 and give us a call.

Communicate with the Applicant

If the student can call themselves, do that. If not, communicate with them before calling. I have had scenarios where I talked to mom, dad, mom, applicant, dad, and then the applicant again. I felt like I had entered a Days of Our Lives season finale, but I couldn’t drag everyone in a room and fanatically cry for everyone to tell the truth to each other. Students – talk to you parents. Parents – talk to your kids. Students – do as much as you can on your own. Parents – let them.

Email

Anyone – send an email. We get through most of the emails every day. Bad phone connection? Email. Expensive to call? Email. Mad? Email (then don’t send it). The only thing we ask is to please include your name on the emails, and past correspondence.

Conclusion

It should be said, formulas have variables, and one you can’t help is the human factor. For example, you do everything right, but my stomach is playing games with my temperament, and I get short with answers. So instead I promise you this, whatever capricious version you get on the phone, my students and I are working in this office because we love Tech, we value higher education and we care about students finding the right university to attend.