Axe Handle Director Alex Reisinger

Stephen F. Austin State University recently opened the virtual Axe Handle one-stop shop and launched an affiliated chatbot, Jack, on the main university website. Alex Reisinger, the Axe Handle director, said both will allow SFA to offer current and prospective students comprehensive and thorough service for five student service-related offices on campus.

NACOGDOCHES, Texas — Stephen F. Austin State University visitors, students and their families now have centralized access to key student services through the university’s new Axe Handle one-stop shop, a virtual assistance center, and its recently launched 24-hour chatbot, Jack.

Both the Axe Handle and the chatbot it oversees will assist with matters related to SFA’s Office of the Registrar, Office of Financial Aid and Scholarships, Business Office, Student Success Center and Residence Life. All calls made to these offices will be automatically redirected to the Axe Handle.

The virtual assistance center will operate during SFA’s normal business hours; however, the chatbot, Jack, will be available 24 hours on desktop and phone browsers.

“The benefit and purpose of calling the Axe Handle is to offer current and prospective students comprehensive and thorough service for all five offices in one phone call,” said Alex Reisinger, SFA’s Axe Handle director. “In the past, students would have to call multiple offices to receive answers to questions that spanned beyond the scope of one office. Now, even if someone calls with one question, Axe Handle team members are trained to review the file for any potential issues within our other offices, reducing the number of calls a student must make.”

The Axe Handle functions on a tiered system, and its staff members are able to provide answers to 70% of the calls received. Student employees who have undergone training with all affiliated offices serve as the first tier, which encompasses basic questions, as well as a few slightly elevated issues. More complex questions are elevated to tier two and handled directly by Reisinger.

Calls that make it to tier three are transferred to affiliated offices, which currently receive approximately 30% of Axe Handle calls due to either their complex nature or a process that is maintained solely within the affiliated office.

“The Axe Handle one-stop shop and its chatbot, Jack, allow us to build a culture of holistic student services,” said Erma Brecht, SFA’s executive director of enrollment management. “The Axe Handle will be able to serve as a front-line service for multiple offices, allowing those offices to restructure operations to be more efficient and impactful in serving students.

“For example, in January 2021, Axe Handle staff members responded to 5,812 phone calls and were able to answer and resolve more than 65% of them,” she added. “That means staff members in campus offices had 3,793 less calls to address, gaining them back 404 hours that would have been spent on the phone.”

The chatbot, which launched this month, also will help in reducing not only the time employees spend answering calls but also the time current or prospective students must spend making calls to multiple campus offices.

“The chatbot is able to answer specific questions related to our five affiliated offices plus the Barnes & Noble Bookstore, ITS Help Desk and the Office of Admissions,” Reisinger said. “We plan to add a live chat function in the near future so if Jack is unable to answer a question, the caller will be prompted to chat live with a waiting Axe Handle student employee.”

Plans for the creation of a one-stop shop have been in the works for approximately four years but shifted alongside evolving state and institutional budgets.

“The original plan was to house a one-stop welcome center in Kennedy Auditorium; however, construction projects and budget changes altered the plans, shifting the one-stop shop toward a virtual offering,” said Brecht. “The Axe Handle is designed to train front-line student workers on tier one questions for key student service offices. This helps minimize the occurrence of students being ping-ponged from office to office and helps provide timely and effective service.”

The Axe Handle opened through a soft launch in August 2020 and, using historical data, chose to begin by assisting only financial aid queries. Axe Handle employees spent more than 458 hours on the phone during that month answering calls for just one office.

“The Axe Handle has allowed our staff members to concentrate on processing applications so aid can be awarded more quickly,” said Rachele Garrett, SFA’s director of financial aid and scholarships. “With COVID-19 affecting the lives of so many of our students and their families, the decrease in general phone calls also allowed our staff members to work one on one with students whose financial situations have changed drastically since they completed the FAFSA, which often meant they could receive additional aid.”

All SFA offices serviced through the Axe Handle have noted this same drastic decrease in call volumes.

“The phone traffic has substantially diminished and freed us up to work on projects like scheduling and graduation checkout, which can be time consuming,” said Lynda Langham, SFA’s registrar. “Axe Handle employees do a fabulous job of assisting our students with the majority of their questions about services across campus. We really appreciate their can-do attitude and hard work!”

Plans are already in place to continue expanding Axe Handle services, including the eventual creation of a front counter, holistic student service appointments, and additional chat functionalities that would allow students to log in to the chatbot through mySFA to receive account-specific answers.

“The ultimate phase will be to incorporate a face-to-face location that will be able to serve students (and their families) in a personal manner,” Brecht said. “We’re thrilled that the Axe Handle is already benefiting new and continuing students as well as our whole campus community.”