The pandemic turned normal operations at the University upside down, and faculty and staff felt it immediately. The changes were more than a shift to working from home or wearing a mask on campus. With restaurants closed, in-person campus events canceled and students not returning from spring break in 2020, many people saw their workflow grind to a halt last spring.
For example, before the pandemic was declared ...
- Eric Francis coordinated event registration websites and more for VenueND.
- Samantha "Sam" Saberniak served as an event captain in University Catering.
- Leslie DeVolder was a restaurant host at the Morris Inn.
- Olivia Gonzales laundered student bundles at St. Michael’s Laundry.
- Lee Town worked as a senior administrative assistant in the Division of Campus Safety and University Operations.
By late spring, division leaders and Human Resources invited staff whose normal work had been significantly disrupted to apply for new positions that would help the University navigate the pandemic. That’s how the five staff members mentioned above became the COVID-19 Response Unit (CRU) Hotline team, answering calls that go to 574-634-HERE. Town serves as the supervisor of the four operators.
“Lee helped to build the hotline from the ground up, while continuously making improvements,” Tracy Skibins, senior director of emergency management, said. “This is truly a people-focused contact center with the ability to respond to complex COVID-19-related questions and concerns.”
Before the hotline went live, the team was trained to use the communication platforms ServiceNow and, later, Jabber.
“With ServiceNow, I learned how to prepare the call report (template) that the team uses to summarize calls and to refer to when following up with callers. I also learned how to build knowledge-based articles in ServiceNow that we rely on to quickly find information for our callers,” Town said. Meanwhile, the operators had to become comfortable with filling out the reports and calling up the articles while on the line with callers.
Once the team felt skilled at using ServiceNow, the training on Jabber began.
“The calls come through Jabber, and the platform gives us the ability to have a chat room where the team can ask me questions and I can go find the answer or get back to them as quickly as I can,” Town said.
Town prepared what she could for team members as they got ready to field hotline calls.
“We put together several FAQs about things we thought people would probably call and ask about. In reality, nobody called with those questions; they had so many others. So there was a lot of scrambling. I did a lot of detective work to determine who on campus could answer the questions. Then we’d pull information together in knowledge-based articles. We couldn’t have done it without the entire CRU helping to pull together the best information and accurate responses.”
Working at the University for 11 years was also helpful.
“When I started at the University, I was with the Campus Work Control Center, which gave me a bird’s-eye view of the entire campus. I got to know a lot of people, all the different departments and divisions, so I had a good feel for where I could get the answers to questions we get on the CRU hotline,” Town said.
Other previous roles also prepared Town for the job.
“Personally, I have been in customer service for a long, long time. I was in sales before I came to Notre Dame and I worked plenty of reception desks in my career, but this is, by far, the pinnacle of customer service. You’re taking calls from students, parents, alumni, faculty, staff, and everyone has a different level of need and care and you’re trying to keep it straight,” she said.
The volume of calls coming in at the beginning of the academic year was significant.
“In August, the calls were coming in nonstop from students and parents about prematriculation testing, what quarantine and isolation would look like, and other various questions. We operated 24/7, working in shifts.”
Like Town, the hotline operators have leaned on their professional and even personal experience to shine in their new roles.
DeVolder has a lot of customer service experience, having worked at the Morris Inn and, before that, in Development. “Sometimes people are stressed about something,” she said. “It’s our job to listen and find a solution or answers to their questions.”
Francis agrees with the approach. “You have to stay calm and listen. Then jump in when you have something to offer.”
Gonzales said, “I just think of how some parents must feel if their child is living in a different state during a pandemic. That has to be difficult.”
Saberniak is accustomed to working on her feet and face-to-face with customers. She’s honed other communication skills in this position.
“Before this job, I didn’t type or write much,” Saberniak said. “At the beginning, I was a little wordy with my call reports, but now my notes are short and sweet. I used to have to look down at the keyboard all the time and now I am able to just type away without looking.”
The work of the small but mighty team has not gone unnoticed.
“They’ve navigated thousands of questions, shared countless resources and offered reassuring advice to so many,” Skibins said.