Stefan Drew

Please Answer Your PhonesEach year FE spends huge sums on marketing.  A lot of that money is wasted!

How do I know?

Looks at these facts. Over Easter we conducted a survey of colleges. We phoned 20 colleges to enquire about courses. Of course, we knew the colleges were closed, but we wanted to leave an enquiry to be answered after the holiday.

We also know that, in a world where every penny counts, providers can't afford to lose a single enquiry. Incomes have been slashed in recent years, so the ROI on marketing spend has to be better than ever before.  

The colleges we contacted were equal numbers from the south west and from London & south east. Overall 50% of colleges didn't have an operational answerphone. This sounds appalling but bear in mind that research shows that fully 30% of businesses fail to respond “hot” sales enquiries.


Regional Inconsistencies

Interestingly our results were not consistent between regions. In the south west 70% of colleges we phoned had an answerphone where we could leave a message.

But in London and the south east only 30% had a functional answerphone operating when we phoned.

CEOs frequently contact me asking me to improve their marketing. But the reality is that marketing is only part of the story. There is a process here that starts with marketing, goes through the enquiry stage, and ends with enrolment. Taking into account nights, weekends and holidays, providers spend more closed than open. So, we need to ensure we have a good communications system at all times ... even when closed.

Sadly the lack of answerphones at Easter is replicated in many colleges every night and weekend.  


There is an Answer To Enquiry Wastage

There is an answer to the enquiry wastage problem.

But first let's look at the publics’ expectations. We live in a 24/7 society. Few people actually celebrate most holidays. Some retailers operate 24/7 and some will now deliver within an hour of an online purchase.  So of course the public will contact us out of hours. Experience and society has trained them to expect this as standard.

Likewise, over any holiday period many businesses operate as normal. I’m told by providers that employers know not to phone providers out of term time, but that is probably untrue and misses the point. We need to consider our service from the prospective customer's viewpoint and not from our own. They want service during the hours they work .. what they consider as being normal working hours. In the competitive world we now operate in, where every penny has to be fought for, we need to up our game.

A lot of the enquires that providers received over the Easter break, from both the public and employers, weren’t made during the day. They were made during the evenings and at night. We don’t live in a society where everyone works 9-5. If they can order online from Argos 24/7 and get a same day, 3 hour home delivery slot, between 7am and 10pm, seven days a week, then many people expect to be able to phone and leave a message 24/7.  This doesn’t seem unreasonable to me.

We need to be capable of responding 24/7. Some providers ridicule this notion. Others have embraced it.

The solution isn’t an overseas call centre. It is a simple answerphone and/or an Intelligent App that takes on all the routine, mundane, repetitive tasks that we all pay a lot of money to be undertaken. And a bot can do it at minimal cost ... sometimes it can do it at nil cost.


FE Enquiry Good Practice

One provider in our survey only had four phone messages left during the Easter break. All these were answered the first day the staff were back.

But that provider also received 20 messages via a hybrid bot (Intelligent App) that is embedded in their website. The bot they use can provide answers to some questions using a combination of technologies. On average it is answering 30% of enquiries in real time without human intervention. It doesn't sleep, it doesn’t take lunch breaks, it has never asked for a holiday and it costs very little. In fact, in some circumstances this type of bot is totally free of amny costs whatsoever.

The use of bots will soon be regarded as good FE practice.

Bots, or Intelligent Apps as I prefer to call them, come in all shapes and sizes. Some quietly sit on your website and answer questions. Some sit on your Facebook page and perform their magic, some are designed to work with your phone system.

They can be conversational bots capable of holding an intelligent conversation with callers. In fact you may have spoken to one and not realised it was a bot .. some are that good. They depend on conversational algorithms and Artificial Intelligence (AI) to learn from experience and to answer using natural language sequencing (NLS). The outcome is a machine that behaves to all intents and purposes as close to human behaviour that, on the phone or email, that you cannot distinguish them from the real thing.

This isn't science fiction. It is the behaviour needed for a machine to pass the Turing Test. The Turing Test is named after Alan Turing of Bletchley Park fame. Today a lot of systems are indistinguishable from humans. If you haven't noticed them it might be because they are very very good!


Enquiry Futurology

This isn’t a flash in the pan. It is the start of a communications revolution.  We aren’t going to be limited to natural language sequencing or AI.

Very soon I predict that you will see a humanoid bot on your screen and not be able to tell if it is real person or a bot. Adobe recently launched software that can view a person, via their webcam, and can lip synch their words when speaking onto a computer-generated character in real time. In the past this could have been achieved large teams of people working for days, but it is now in the realm of the desktop. I predict the next move to evolve from this will be where the computer lip syncs AI generated conversations that the human model never spoke!  But it will look like a human is speaking in real time. This is a Turing Test level that Alan Turing never considered.

Where does this leave us? I believe it means we need to take answering enquiries ... and bots ..... seriously. Bots will soon be handling the majority of enquiries, they may even start teaching in a way we’ve never envisaged.

The world is changing. Ignore bots at your peril.

If you use Facebook and/or Facebook Messenger you can communicate with a very simple bot here. The bot will send you to a website and, provided you use Facebook Messenger, send you as messenger message as well. The latter allows you to be taken through a simple sequence where you control the bot and get it to offer you a download of our Dummies Guide to Bots.

In the guide I talk about the way bots can be given all the mundane tasks and release people for better things.

This bot will open your eyes to other possibilities.


About Stefan Drew

FHE Marketing Consultant Stefan Drew was previously director of marketing at two FHE colleges and for the last decade has worked with colleges, universities and private providers throughout the UK, Europe and the US.



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