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Call Centers: Thinking Outside the Queue


A sandglass icon depicting wait times
Image: ASEF -
Since the early days of automatic call distributors 50 years ago, and for as long as the industry existed, call centers have been built around the queuing of calls. While there are many good reasons for that, it also led to one of the biggest customers' frustrations: Their time being wasted on hold. Let's discuss why queuing is needed, how to make it better, and alternate options.
Why queuing (and why it went wrong)
Queuing for an available agent was a breakthrough over having to make repeated calls until you can reach an associate. One can reasonably assume that customer service agents are busy and that the odds of catching one idle in between calls are slim. Moreover, having to wait for the next available one should not be a big deal. After all, we are doing it in stores regularly. Besides, queues help segment and treat customers differently based on their value to the business. Queues also help keep agents busy, maintaining a buffer of work to eliminate idle times.
It looks like a win-win for customers and businesses. However, when the gap between the volume of interactions and the agent capacity starts to widen too much, things go south. Time spent waiting on hold increases, directly impacting the customer experience. Forrester’s survey on how customers define good service consistently found that valuing their time is their top expectation.
How to get it right
Unfortunately, the capacity gap is hard to contain. While interaction volumes can be predicted and agent shifts scheduled accordingly, it’s hard to be accurate under 30 minutes. Call center traffic fluctuates significantly in real-time. Wait times elongate, and because of the need to meet service levels, the pool of resources serving a queue gets expanded to less qualified agents. An often-underappreciated impact is that it takes longer for these agents to address customer inquiries, further expanding wait times. It has gotten worse with the pandemic and external disruptions.
The torture of waiting in line is a well-documented topic and boils down to a few issues. Companies like Disney became famous for their ability to handle them. Being unoccupied increases the perception of the wait. Poor management of expectations and lack of explanation for long wait further amplify negative impressions. Not only do call centers not pay enough attention to these rules, but they often treat IVR navigation and queueing as two distinct experiences. It compounds the problem, creating uncertainty, stress, and anxiety. The first step for customer service organizations is to revisit the entire waiting experience, providing more transparency on the likely duration of the wait and showing progress.
Contact centers can also leverage other options starting with callbacks. I remain puzzled by how much they remain underutilized. Immediate callback simply prompts callers when a long wait time is detected for being called back as soon as an agent becomes available. The estimated wait time can and should be provided. The customer is then taken through a dialog to confirm the phone number. Most contact software now provided immediate callback. It is a proven solution to iron out small capacity gaps.
For longer wait times, call centers should turn to workflow-driven callbacks. Again, setting expectations on when customers will be contacted and keeping them informed through notifications is critical. You can do it in a non-intrusive way using SMS. Two other benefits of workflow-driven callbacks include sending a message just before calling to check the customer availability instead of using an unfriendly IVR and handling retries, should the customer not be available when called back.
Appointments have emerged as an alternative, and it’s not completely new to customer service. Republic Wireless, for example, doesn’t have a toll-free number. Instead, the telecom provider offers several digital options with phone service proposed as an escalation through an appointment system.
The last 10 years have seen the blossoming of applications transforming the scheduling experience. Providers such as Calendly have democratized it. The company founded in 2013 now boasts over 10 million users. Bootstrapped, it made the headlines when it raised $350M a few months ago, hinting at a huge market opportunity. Appointments can be set not only online but also over digital or voice channels. Customers can do it through a simple form or using conversational AI. It provides a seamless experience with sophisticated features such as pooling resources or managing buffer time between appointments. The latest generation of vendors like Chili Piper adds qualification and routing to scheduling.
COVID has spurred new use cases beyond appointments for sales and small businesses. Queue management software vendors such as Nemo-Q, Q-nomy, and Qmatic that initially focused on perfecting the queueing experience for stores, branches, and healthcare have expanded beyond physical meetings. Their model works with short appointments, removes the dependency on individual calendars. They can also manage lobbies.
With hold times consistently topping the frustration list of customers, contact centers need to prioritize improving them. It starts with reviewing the waiting experience end-to-end and includes adding callbacks and appointments to the mix of options offered to get service.

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This post is written on behalf of BCStrategies, an industry resource for enterprises, vendors, system integrators, and anyone interested in the growing business communications arena. A supplier of objective information on business communications, BCStrategies is supported by an alliance of leading communication industry advisors, analysts, and consultants who have worked in the various segments of the dynamic business communications market.