The voice on the other end of the line

“Hello, welcome to Portland State University, Oregon’s largest university. Use the following brief menu to direct your call. To reach admissions, registration and records or financial aid, please press one … to reach the campus operator, please press zero.”

So says the “mysterious recorded voice” that greets callers in mellifluous electronic tones when they call 503-725-3000, the number for the main switchboard at PSU. The same voice guides callers through various mazes of choice, depending on where the caller wishes to make contact.

The mysterious voice that greets callers at PSU is actually a pert 28-year-old woman named Michelle Simpson. Simpson occupies a cubbyhole office in telecommunications, Shattuck Hall 107. Providing the recorded voice is only one of her duties.

Simpson is officially a systems analyst who spends her days manipulating a computer keyboard as she helps solve the myriad system problems inherent in a telephone system as vast and varied as the one at PSU.

One of her duties is to meet with various departments and offices that need some kind of guiding electronic voice to route incoming calls. Simpson confers with them, analyzes the needs, then creates the voice response and the system configuration to make it happen. Becoming the voice that makes this all happen appears to be only the end of a chain of system analyses.

As for being the voice at the other end, “It’s fun,” she said. “It’s something different. From department to department the needs vary so much. It’s always something new.”

When a caller seeks information, Michelle’s goal is to present a voice that guides callers to menu choices as quickly and easily as possible. The mainstays are old standbys like admissions, the cashier’s office, registration, financial aid, accounts receivable, the computer help desk and mainline assistance.

“Admissions and registration answers are about 95 percent of the traffic,” she said, “but the university is always changing. We’re constantly adding new services.” The most recent demand is for information and help relating to the Higher One card, the new student ID card that was implemented last winter.

The system can be much more complicated than a caller may realize. For some inquiries, the caller may be told to press phone key one, for example. This may flip over to a number of possible answerers, systematized to ring whichever of these people is available at the moment.

The system is constantly being upgraded. One of the biggest recent improvements is the ability to tell callers how long they may have to wait for a live voice. The system is geared to monitor the volume of traffic coming in and how much staff is available to handle it.

“Most of the offices are going to the wait-time feature,” Simpson said. “It gives the caller more power.” She recalls that when she was a senior at Portland State she frequently could not get through to the desired office.

Yes, Simpson is a 2000 Portland State psychology graduate, and considers it a good educational background for what she is doing. She started working for Oregon Health and Sciences University in telecommunications while still a 20-year-old undergraduate. From OHSU she went to similar work for a high tech company, working more and more with system analysis and database management.

In 2000, just before graduation, she applied for a job as system analyst at PSU and has been doing this work since. Reorganization and combination of offices at PSU moved her from primarily the telecom side to the database side. Now she spends much of her time on call center systems.

‘It’s a learning experience,” Simpson said. She is presented with a problem, which may come from administration, financial aid, admissions, registration or most anywhere that incoming phone traffic is increasing and threatening to become a service problem. She tries to help with solutions to the overload problem.

“From department to department it varies so much, it’s always something new,” Simpson said. “If they come to me with a problem, I may find a solution they’ve never used before, or I’ve never used before.”

Sometimes there are almost complete makeovers required. Last year there was a substantial upgrade for the system in admissions, registration and financial aid.

“A lot of the programming has to be done after hours when people aren’t calling the university,” Simpson said. This means the voice recordings must be done late at night. She does most of the voices from home, recording them with a Plantronics device that allows her to record directly to her PSU office phone.

“It has to be a very quiet environment,” she explained. She generally schedules a four-hour recording session once a week. This produces about one hour of recording to go with three hours of fiddling with the systems end of the process, connecting through what is called the Internet Protocol, or IP.

Does this recording require throat lozenges or any other special voice soothers?

“I sometimes drink hot tea,” she said, “especially if I have a cold.”

Simpson started doing new recordings as the mysterious voice a little over a year ago, but histrionics were nothing new to her. She had considerable experience with drama and voice training as an undergraduate.

She thinks that the telecommunications function at PSU has become very proficient in handling incoming calls. All the “live” voices in the central switchboard – also located in Shattuck 107 – are students. Consequently, they understand questions from the students’ point of view.

Simpson finds systems analysis today a constantly changing challenge and she intends to keep up with it. She has her eyes set on acquiring a master’s in engineering technology management.

Simpson sets a strict standard for her own voice productions.

“It’s really important that the message isn’t too long and it’s clear,” she explained.

She saw one drawback to her recording chores.

“I don’t like listening to my own voice.”