‘We are currently experiencing higher than normal call volumes’: Can anything be done to reduce pandemic-era call centre wait times?

When the ice maker in his refrigerator started to malfunction a few weeks ago, anxiety quickly set in for Sean Evans, knowing he was about to spend a good amount of time dealing with customer service.

Sure enough, when he called the retailer, he got the recorded message he was dreading: “We are currently experiencing higher than normal call volumes.”

A second message told Evans, a software developer in Kitchener, that his anticipated wait time was an hour. The estimate proved to be accurate, and about 60 minutes later an agent helped him open a repair ticket. The conversation was quick, taking only a couple of minutes, which led him to make some frustrating calculations.

“That one person would have had to have had 20 customers ahead of me for me to wait an hour, and chances are he wasn’t the only one working and answering calls,” Evans says. “That’s a lot of people on hold. The numbers don’t add up in my head for what’s plausible.”

Evans’s experience has become increasingly common among Canadian consumers during COVID-19, with customers of a wide variety of businesses — from large retailers to banks and airlines — often experiencing long wait times when calling for service.

With stores and offices locked down, many call-centre employees have been working from home using connections and systems that aren’t necessarily optimized for remote working.

While Evans understands that these are unprecedented times, what frustrates him is the seemingly standard warning about higher than normal call volumes, a common refrain even before the pandemic hit.

If customers get the same message no matter when they call, isn’t that the business’s normal call volume?

“It’s not transparent,” Evans says. “They’re not being straight with customers.”

Jon Picoult, founder of U.S.-based customer experience advisory firm Watermark Consulting, says that’s exactly what’s happening. Businesses that are employing the high-volume message usually aren’t really experiencing an abnormal flood of calls. Rather, they are trying to manage callers’ expectations — but doing a poor job of it, he says.

“It reflects inappropriate staffing for any call volume,” he says. “It’s laughable because it’s a standard refrain that’s almost as common as, ‘Thank you for calling.’ ”

Evans was lucky to an extent, Picoult adds, because he got a second message that estimated his wait time. At a time when call volumes are indeed higher — call-centre tech provider Pindrop estimates financial service firms have seen an 800-per-cent increase during the pandemic — it’s a minimal step that businesses should now be taking to more effectively manage caller expectations.

“It makes a huge difference,” he says. “Psychologically, it’s been demonstrated over and over again that a known wait feels much better to a customer than an unknown wait.”

Long holds take tolls on businesses, too, he adds, because of the stress they put on service agents. Understaffing means they are constantly taking calls without breaks. Many calls are from customers who have become irate because of the wait.

“The tenor of the conversation is already starting off on a negative note,” Picoult says. “It’s a real recipe for an erosion of employee morale and engagement.”

This consumer frustration is reflected in a survey by Qualtrics, a customer-experience technology provider. The company’s Net Promoter Score, which measures customer satisfaction with businesses across a range of industries, has dropped precipitously during the pandemic. “Customers aren’t very happy,” the firm says on its website.

Message features such as estimated wait times or an option for the customer to request a callback are standard options offered to businesses by most interactive voice response (IVR) service providers, says Dave Damer, chief executive of Edmonton-based artificial intelligence communications company Testfire Labs.

They typically don’t cost extra and simply need to be enabled, which is why it’s often puzzling or exasperating when businesses don’t offer them, he adds.



Some businesses choose not to for several reasons, however. The callback option, for example, needs to be turned off manually during peak times and then back on when call volumes are lower and staff are less busy, which requires someone to continually monitor the system.

In the case of estimated waits, unpredictable response times may also be at play.

“If you’ve created an expectation that the wait time is going to be 10 minutes and they end up waiting 30, you’ve just created a terrible customer experience,” Damer says.

For some smaller businesses, the pandemic has indeed increased call volumes to unmanageable levels. Dennis Maslo, managing partner of Toronto-based computer repair company Computation, says his phone has been ringing non-stop over the past few months.

Customers are understandably trying to limit in-person interactions and have been calling with simple questions, he says, which means staff are having difficulty working on repairs because they’re constantly on the phone.

Maslo personally despises IVR systems — and the “higher than normal call volume” message in particular — but he’s now considering implementing one.

The key, if he goes through with it, is to create an efficient system that can easily answer the most common questions and quickly direct calls to the right people. He also plans to closely monitor how customers react.

“The last thing we want to do is alienate customers,” he says. “But I really don’t know how else to manage.”

Deflection is vital, Picoult says. Giving customers easy-to-find information online is the simplest way to prevent contacts in the first place, while poorly designed websites result in calls. A 2010 study by the Corporate Executive Board research firm, for example, found that 57 per cent of customers started their queries online, but ended up calling out of frustration that their questions or needs weren’t answered or met.

Customer experience experts say the pandemic can be an opportunity for companies, especially smaller Canadian businesses, to impress customers by improving both their online offerings and their phone interactions, which in turn can breed future loyalty.

“You have to rethink the architecture of what information is being given to the customer and whether it is useful for their decision-making,” says Kaan Yigit, president of Toronto-based analysis firm Solutions Research Group. “That would separate phenomenal customer service companies from those that are just average.”