Calling the university hotline

12 November 2012

The Student Service Hotline of Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) is the first point of contact for anyone with questions about student life. Up to 1,500 calls are taken each day. JGU's hotline service was the first of its kind at a German university and now it celebrates its 10th anniversary.

The telephone rings. Once. Twice. "Good morning. Student Services of Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz. Aynur Şen speaking." Aynur Şen utters these words into the microphone of her headset innumerable times every day. She is the JGU Student Service Hotline manager. "We are the first point of contact for all questions about study-related matters. Anyone who calls for general information on studying is put in contact with us first," she explains. The hotline is there to provide information only. "We give people basic information, we don't provide specific advice. That is the responsibility of the specific departmental student advisors. But we can tell our callers their office hours and arrange appointments," Şen emphasizes.

The Student Service Hotline at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz celebrated its 10th anniversary in the summer of 2012. When it was set up in July 2002, JGU was the first German university to provide a fully-fledged call center for current and prospective students. And the value of the service has been clearly apparent to date. Recently, because of rising application numbers and the changeover to the Bachelor's and Master's study program concept, the phones have hardly stopped ringing. It is thus all the more important to be able to quickly and directly answer the initial and usually very general questions of current students and applicants.

In the beginning, the hotline team consisted of just five people. The call center, which uses an Internet-based telephone system, is now served by 16 part-time student workers in addition to Aynur Şen and her two supervisors, Katharina Dötzer and Alexander Brechtel.

"The work is tremendously demanding and you need a lot of background knowledge, for example on deadlines and the rules for special cases," explains Brechtel. Of course, those working here can’t have everything in their heads, but they do know where to find the corresponding answers. A huge board with important telephone numbers, information, and news hangs in each of the three hotline offices. In addition, the call center workers keep a thick binder with all information relevant to university-related matters next to them so that they can refer to it any time, while another source of information, the intranet – JGU's internal knowledge database – is constantly updated.

A hectic workplace

The babble of voices pervades the rooms and mixes with the sound of ringing telephones. The noise level is high but consistent. There are always two workplaces facing each other, separated by a small partition. Every call center worker wears dual-use headphones that help deaden the background noise a little. But it can get quite hectic. Every workplace shows multiple windows with tables and databases on the computer screen.

During peak times, such as shortly before closing date for applications, the center receives up to 1,500 calls daily. When so many are trying to contact the Student Service Hotline, the lines are sometimes all busy and not everyone can get through. "On good days, with an incoming volume of calls like that, we can manage to respond to 50 percent of inquiries or perhaps even more," claims Brechtel. For those who don't get through, a recorded message is played in German and English with the most important information. "The general information in the recorded message already answers the questions of many of our callers," Dötzer explains.

Curious parents and amorous students

The hotline team sometimes gets callers with rather unusual questions. Parents will sometimes call to find out if their child is still actually enrolled and studying hard. "Of course, data protection laws prevent us from giving out information on our students. Sadly, not all callers are as understanding as they might be," states Dötzer.

But some calls also bring smiles to faces of the hotline team. Dötzer tells of students calling the hotline in an attempt to find out the name of the pretty girl majoring in Book Studies or the surname of the cool Business Studies student who they met at yesterday’s student party. Or it's about a book loaned out to a fellow student and the caller is really trying to get hold of helpful contact information because he has to return the book to the library. "Unfortunately, we also have to disappoint callers with these sorts of inquiries: Data protection is more important than the provision of networking services or helping someone return something by a deadline," says Dötzer.

Appreciative callers

But, as a rule, when it comes to inquiries concerning study-related concerns, the hotline team can provide the information callers need – be it on online application, on last year’s numerus clausus in the chosen subject, or on the recognition of qualifications obtained in a foreign country. In all such cases, the "Hotliners" offer information, guidance, or consultation appointments. "Callers are really thankful when they get the information they need quickly and directly through our university hotline," says Brechtel.

Of course, Şen and her team also respond to numerous calls from foreign countries. This is not a problem for the call center workers. When necessary, they can also answer all questions in English – and a number of other languages. "Besides German and English, many of our student workers speak other foreign languages, so that we can respond to inquiries also in Spanish, Turkish or Arabic," is how Şen describes her team's multilingualism.

At the moment, the hotline is a little less 'hot'. The semester has just begun. But the next application phase is just around the corner. However, callers can be certain that Şen and her team will be well prepared for all possible questions.