[Guest post by Anand Kannan, Managing Director and Co-founder of Valued Epistemics Pvt. Ltd]
At GREedge, we have had our challenges with the right telephony system. As a technology innovation and R&D driven Online Training firm we offer a highly personalized and unique service that helps students improve their GRE scores through online study programs.
Handling variety AND scale
With “high degree of personal attention” as a core customer promise, we have the challenge of paying detailed attention to each and every student, each time they contact us. No other e-learning or online service company in any branch of learning, let alone the GRE, offers this type of strong, personalized value proposition to its customers. As a result we have the capability to help a wide variety of students boost their score for GRE.
The top GRE scorer, aiming for nothing less than a 330 (a very high, globally competitive score in GRE) to an eager aspirant requiring the basic minimum requirement of a 290 or 300 (that might be required in a graduate education program in physiotherapy, for example) pose very different expectations. Our mix of customers draws from college going students, working professionals and that small but significant section who are in transition from college to the next step of their career. Each of these segments in turn has vastly different conveniences, aspirations and expectations. They hail from all states and several countries.
In any given week, we might have dozens, sometimes even well over a hundred of our students taking the GRE. Others, in various stages of their GRE preparation or practice for the GRE, can run into thousands at a time. This includes students who have completed their GRE but come in for additional help regarding their higher studies or other advice pertaining to their aspiration. GREedge offers programs of relatively long duration and stays in touch with students for several months (sometimes well over a year), providing them the freedom, flexibility and assurance of support for the GRE and higher studies.
The customer response process is both event driven and proactive. Our internal objective is to not miss even one opportunity to help or motivate a student to do better. This comes with its own operational challenges. How do you make sure that you do not miss even a single incoming communication? How do you make sure that a student who requires intervention or follow-up always gets it? In addition, how do you make sure that the student has the freedom to use a medium of his or her choice/preference? A student may use email, SMS, website form, a direct messaging system built into our proprietary student learning interface, called Learning Tracker or an Online Seminar Session chat box or a mobile messaging system such as What’s app, Facebook messaging, post on the student Facebook Group and of course, the classic old way – the telephone or mobile call.
Living up to your own service model
It is imperative of any modern service that you give the customer (in our case, the student) the freedom and flexibility of using any touch-point and take the burden and pain of tracking and maintaining continuity of service across different touch-points upon oneself. And in this process, have high standards – not miss even a single communication opportunity, especially one that is desired by a customer. GREedge’s own internal tracking metrics also tell us and prompt us about each student who might need additional help, inputs or feedback as they work through their GRE training program online.
GREedge is aided by sophisticated back-end technology platform, a sort of an extended, homegrown CRM – amalgamated with a learning tracking and lesson/ content management system and analytics and an online training program delivery center that utilizes this technology platform to drive service delivery- GRE online training and coaching including student support.
The telephone call is the especially touchy part. While any student can originate a call anytime, he/she would actually call only when in relatively high urgency, deeper than normal frustration or as the GRE is nearing. The telephone call is real-time. Unlike email or other modes of messaging, the interaction has to be right then and there. Even if the incoming call is missed for any reason, the call has to be returned double quick and with no scope of missing the contact. While the telephonic contact itself is a minor part of the overall learning service that we offer for GRE, it is an important and high value piece, and is personally very important to the customer, especially at certain points in the life-cycle of the service. In other words, our telephonic communication process has unique requirements that are not met by older telephony solutions in the market.
As a personalized service, this is further complicated by the fact that we assign unique Student Facilitators for GRE training. Since each student has his/her own way of learning and preparing and challenges with respect to scoring, only the corresponding SFA of a student can actually address a particular student’s concern based on their familiarity with the past history of the student and their learning process for GRE. Now, on top of this, there are two subjects in the GRE –GRE Verbal and GRE Quant or Quantitative Reasoning. Besides, we have a fairly rigorous Student Welfare and Quality of Service Survey Process to ensure that an overwhelming majority of our students are happy, satisfied and progressing well with their GRE score boosting objective and with the kind of help and support they receive from GREedge. There is a GREedge Quality Bell, a system to alert and escalate any dissatisfaction issues to the top management of the company instantly. All these aspects have to be made available to every student as soon as they try contacting us over any touch-point.
Relevant Responsiveness is the better half of Quality
Strongly and consistently pursuing these objectives has enabled us to exceed over a period of time, the academic quality andGRE score improvement track record offered by any high end coaching class, a book or a website full of study material and even for that matter, a website with plenty of video lectures. This has in turn translated into higher trust and positive market chatter, again, over a period of time.
Detailed, scientific ability to boost gre scores along with an extensive communication and contact system has its own power in becoming a preferred method of preparing for the GRE. However, the telephonic contact part was also the most flaky bit. There were quite a bit of mismatches in time, missed calls and inability to keep track of the sheer volume and detailed nature of the interactions. Besides, if a student has the proverbial “last minute doubts and queries” or “butterflies in my stomach anxieties” a couple of hours before his GRE, it is futile to return the call late. Relevant Responsiveness, as we have learnt, matters highly when you want the quality of your offering to be perceived well by your customer.
Wild beasts and heavy-lifting
Adopting a good method of telephony which can hold up against the expectations and requirements described above has been on our radar for a long time. Besides the personalized routing abilities, we were also seeking a certain degree of intelligence and flexibility. In many ways, the telephony and call routing system should not only integrate with our customer/student tracking technology but also understand our model of organization.
We had searched and also considered developing internally, a system that suits these requirements. This includes heavy equipment used by Call Centers and BPOs’ like Avaya or Cisco as well as smaller SME focussed products from companies such as Panasonic. We had discussed with different telephone and mobile operators. They are simply not geared to customize solutions they have to the requirements of one small company. We examined free software like Asterisk, FreeSwitch etc which offer an open source telephone exchange. These are wild beasts which require considerable programming and software development and integration to be tamed and used consistently. We called in a couple of telephone system vendors and held extensive discussions with them. All that resulted was an expensive, unaffordable price quote.
Finally, we considered developing such a system internally, expending some R&D clock-cycles but abandoned that approach due to the high difficulty and cost of the project and the need to focus on our core technology – the tracking and improvement of learning. Most solutions also require what Jeff Bezos once called “undifferentiated heavy-lifting”, managing clumsy clusters of telephone lines, servers, software, redundancy and a stand alone support and maintenance team. Often, these are far away from your core skills and best done by someone else who focuses on it exclusively. In the quest for a good telephony system that integrates well with our internal software framework and organizational model and helps us do better for our customer, we had almost given up.
Fortunately, one of the managers in the company, stumbled upon Exotel, a Bangalore based cloud telephony solution provider and started investigating on his own. After a while, more people got into the discussion and the solution appeared to hold promise. We contacted Exotel and initiated the process of piloting and testing their neat solution to this vexing problem. Recently, we completed integrating and switching to Exotel for a significant part of our telephony requirements.
Beauty and the beast
Exotel, it appears, has tamed the wild beast! It has even made it behave according to its clients wishes and desires. And learnt to do all the heavy lifting that the supply of reliable and appropriate telephony seems to entail. In just a matter of a few weeks, the entire model of service was embedded in the call routing and integrated into our CRM. The system of API’s and architectural flexibility provided for painless – almost joyful – integration and testing. The great aspect of exotel’s solution is that the capex requirements are negligible. Everything has been turned into opex and pay-by-use by their flexible billing model. We do not have to deal with running servers, monitoring ports, maintaining a motley of telephone and internet lines, understanding really tedious regulatory requirements and discussing with a whole bunch of operators.
But the best part, is the sheer beauty and awesomeness of their interfaces and the full suite of API’s for integration. The entire experience of using the exotel system as well as switching over to it, was simply superb for both our internal teams as well as for our customers and students. The responsive and flexible approach of the exotel team is one more thing that we really appreciate and value. My team feels like brave and jubilant ring-masters striding alongside a big, ferocious beast and feeling in perfect control while using exotel’s cloud telephony solution.
Exotel’s cloud telephony solutions will go a long way in providing satisfactory solutions to a number of small and large enterprises with varying and complex requirements of contacting and staying in touch with their customers.