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Has “unusually high call volume” become the norm for customer service?

Savannah Maher Jul 27, 2023
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“Please remember there’s another human being on the other end of that phone,” said one customer service representative. Richard Pohle/WPA Pool via Getty Images

Has “unusually high call volume” become the norm for customer service?

Savannah Maher Jul 27, 2023
Heard on:
“Please remember there’s another human being on the other end of that phone,” said one customer service representative. Richard Pohle/WPA Pool via Getty Images
HTML EMBED:
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Pick up the phone, dial a customer service line and you’re likely to hear an automated warning that it could be a while before you speak with an agent. These days, it seems like just about every call center is facing “unusually high call volume” pretty much all the time. 

“I joke about this a lot,” said Christina McAllister, a senior customer service analyst with Forrester. “Is it ‘unusual’ if it’s been every month for the past three years?”

In the very early days of the pandemic, McAllister said, a lot of customer service lines were swamped, since customers couldn’t go to stores or banks or the cable company in person to sort out their problems. By now, call volumes have returned to something like normal, she said. What’s really changed is the number of human representatives working the phones. 

At baseline, call centers are tough to staff. 

“If the average attrition at a regular role might be 7% or something like that, the contact center might be 50,” McAllister said, meaning that a company can expect half of that group’s new employees to quit within a year. 

And the problem is getting worse. The pandemic shut down a lot of overseas call centers — many of them permanently. Here in the U.S., the labor shortage has allowed a lot of these low-wage workers to trade up. 

So, those automated messages are covering for staff shortages. Jeff Gallino, chief technology officer at the call center analytics firm CallMiner, said they’re also helping manage customers’ expectations.

“If I tell you it’s gonna be a long wait and then I answer your call in two minutes, then I might get to delight you by that,” Gallino said. “Versus disappointing you when I say I’ll answer in two minutes and I answer in three.” 

Gallino said there’s a reason companies are playing these games instead of investing in a more pleasant experience for callers: They’d rather engage with us online than on the phone. 

“Their preferred channel is you get on [their website or app] and you start chatting,” he said, since outsourcing the work to a bot is cheaper than paying a human agent. “And you still feel like they’re interacting with you. It’s something we’ve grown accustomed to.” 

Digital channels work just fine for simple questions, like “What’s the baggage weight limit for my flight in six weeks?” They’re less helpful when you’re about to miss your connecting flight and you need a solution now. 

Gallino added that nudging customers toward apps and chatbots takes some pressure off the call center. But it also means the problems human agents do field are more complex. 

Call centers “exist to manage the difficult, the things that haven’t been easily automated,” he said. 

Meanwhile, consumers are getting more demanding. Forrester surveyed call center leaders in 2021, and 70% reported that their agents were dealing with more emotionally charged calls than ever before. 

McAllister of Forrester said that brings us back to the staffing problem. “It is hard to get shouted at every single day,” she said.

To retain workers in that environment, companies need to empower them to hang up the phone when callers’ frustration escalates to rage. 

“What I have heard from agents is that it is so much better for their own morale that they [have] that little bit of control to stop someone from yelling at them at work,” McAllister said. 

A call center worker named Amanda said she’s only managed to pull that off once. 

“But boy howdy, it was fantastic,” she said, remembering a particularly hostile caller who demanded that she bend company rules on their behalf, since they’d been a loyal customer for years. 

“I told them, ‘Just because I’ve shopped at Home Depot for over 10 years does not allow me to take their forklifts for a joyride,’” she said. 

Amanda asked us not to use her last name because that could get her in trouble at work — a big corporation that helps people make travel arrangements. She said the operation has been severely understaffed since the start of the pandemic. 

“It’s been a lot of sudden disappearances and announcements popping up on the group chat, of ‘X person is no longer with the team,’” she said. 

Amanda believes her company should improve pay and working conditions to combat staff turnover. But customers could also help. 

“Please remember there’s another human being on the other end of that phone,” Amanda said. 

If we’re tired of those automated messages telling us we’re in for an unusually long wait, she said that we, as callers, could be a little more polite when it’s finally our turn. 

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