Our students see us as one university without silos, and with AI, we’re moving to provide an experience that supports that vision.
Kristy Pritchett, Director of Student Account Services, The University of Alabama
Readiness is the first pillar of scale and adaptability, and it centers around cultural and technical preparation for the unknown. AI chatbots and tools offer a critical advantage when adjusting to adversity, from providing 24/7 automated support to shifting focus to a crisis. Kristy Pritchett is the Director of Student Account Services at The University of Alabama, where they’ve leveraged AI technology since 2019. Read on to learn how Alabama mastered the first pillar of scale and adaptability.
Identifying the Need
Pritchett pointed to three areas of need at Alabama: volume, silos, and access. “We were receiving a high volume of calls and emails,” said Pritchett, “to the extent that we were unable to meet service goals. The high call volume even crashed our phone system at one point. Additionally, we want our students to have a streamlined, seamless experience.”
She elaborated that people often seek answers to questions that some offices aren’t equipped to answer. “Students and parents don’t always perceive a difference between a billing office and a financial aid office, and so they’ll leave one office with some unanswered questions.” She added that Alabama doesn’t have a One Stop operation, and as part of her search for solutions, she was interested in methods to improve customer service in a more comprehensive way.
As it relates to access, Pritchett noted that “students communicate at different hours relative to when we work. They may be asleep in the earlier part of the day, and in class after that, so they often communicate late at night when we aren’t available.” She went on to note that the COVID-19 pandemic further complicated the matter. “Our office moved to a remote operation for a time, and we’ll likely continue that at least on a rotational basis, but our phone system wasn’t accessible remotely for our staff.”
Preparing for AI
When asked about how to prepare for introducing AI as a solution, Pritchett outlined the following steps:
- Identify Wants and Needs
“Make a list of the challenges you’re facing that you expect to resolve with AI.”
- Compare Alternatives
“Most AI solutions have differences – search for a provider that meets all of your needs.”
- Talk to Other Institutions
“This is one of the great things about higher education – everyone is willing to share and learn from one another.”
- Understand Campus Culture
“Be mindful of how things get done, and prepare to communicate through the appropriate channels.”
- Connect the Dots
“Identify how your specific needs are met by your chosen AI solution.”
- Address Concerns
“A common concern is that AI replaces jobs – in reality, it helps staff members achieve greater productivity and job satisfaction.”
- Gather Support
“Other departments on your campus have the same needs. Come together to demonstrate a common need and achieve an enhanced campus experience.”
When describing implementation, Pritchett noted that their vendor scheduled training sessions to teach staff how to use the software. “They also provided helpful guides for creating messages, for example, so by the time our solution was built and ready to install, we were able to hit the ground running.”
She added that installation was as simple as pasting a link into a footnote on their website. “If you have control of your website, you can do it yourself. Otherwise, your IT department may need to assist in that way, but we didn’t require IT support to get started or to maintain our bot once it was up and running.”
Not long after installing their AI solution, Alabama’s Student Account Services office saw a significant decrease in call volume for the month of December, compared to the year prior. “We had 1,000 fewer calls, and our AI chatbot was still brand new at that time. Also, the type of calls changed from routine, repetitive questions to things that required a staff member’s intervention.” She went on to say that they saw a reduction in extended staff hours, where staff no longer needed to stay late to service incoming calls.
Having an AI solution in place was critical when their office moved to remote operations. “Even when our staff could not access our phone system, our AI chatbot was still there to provide immediate assistance. Our AI solution also included a Live Chat platform at no additional cost, so we were able to connect customers with our staff via Live Chat whenever the chatbot was unable to resolve their inquiries.” She added that this particular feature even helped her staff provide answers, since the AI provided recommended responses that could quickly and easily be inserted into each conversation.
“AI technology was a great fit, because it allowed us to provide parents and students with the information that they needed, but it also freed up our staff to help in new ways that benefit our customers.” When asked if AI has helped to break-down silos, Pritchett confirmed that it has. “Our students see us as one university without silos, and with AI, we’re ready to provide an experience that supports that vision. I think we all want to provide a better experience for students and parents. This type of technology is just right for doing that.”
- Use AI to improve productivity, train staff and reduce call volume
- Offer 24/7 support and utilize chat/text features to enhance student engagement
- Keep information updated and track trends and unmet needs
- Provide greater support to students and parents across the campus
- Integrate AI with other campus systems.