Don’t Make Customers Wait: Smart Solutions for Balancing Demand with Finite Resources


Some people believe that changing technology is behind the disruption that’s roiling markets. But attributing disruption to technology is dead wrong—disruption is really driven by changing customer needs. From fast fashion to smartphones, only companies that truly understand their customers can succeed. Technology is only a tool—or a distraction.

In this era of instant gratification and increasing customer impatience, contact centers are on the front line when it comes to dealing with customers in a hurry. Customers who abandon a shopping cart if it takes a few more seconds to load won’t wait on calls, either. Contact center surveys say that, while in 2014 customers were willing to wait for 13 minutes, in 2017, most customers wait less than 2 minutes. Now, more and more customers expect no hold time. If they don’t get a human, 34% of customers hang up and never call back (“What is Call Center Average Wait Time and 3 Ways to Reduce It,” Chandler Galt, Talkdesk). So, the question is no longer “What’s an acceptable wait time?” but “What can we do so customers don’t have to wait?”

Given all this, why do contact centers still make customers wait? According to queuing theory, the balance between unknown demand and finite contact center resources determines wait time. But in the internet era, assuming that demand is always unknown and resources are always finite is a big mistake. To achieve zero wait time, contact centers have to tackle the problem from both ends—demand and supply.

How to Manage Unknown Demand?

Understand the underlying reason for customer calls

With the availability of self-help, chat and email contact, customers only call when they really need help. Evaluating the reason for customer calls is the first step in knowing the demand. Documenting customers’ reasons for calling and then having someone investigate those reasons will help identify what drives call volumes. Reasons could be: faulty billing, misleading marketing campaign or product failures. Once the reasons are identified, these should be shared with the rest of the organization so that the marketing, sales, billing or supply chain team can resolve the problem quickly and decrease calls.

Triage calls efficiently

Too often, customers are frustrated by long phone trees, unnecessary transfers and long waits—and after all that, many are connected to someone who can’t help them. The goal of the triage process should be to make it simple, fast, smart and less painful for customers, and the way to achieve this is to start with the customer experience first, then use technology to deliver it. Only a handful of companies (think Wayfair) do this well enough to quickly connect customers to a human who has the power to help them.

Solve customer problems the first time

Twenty percent (20%) to 30% of contact center volumes are callbacks from customers. First-call resolution is an important metric as customers who had to call back may not stick around for long. All contact center employees should be measured on that metric.

Use analytics to predict call volumes

With the advent of sophisticated analytics, contact center volumes are predictable with the right attitude and tools. Keep an eye on proxies—for example, if customers complain every time rates are increased, expect more calls when you raise your rates and provide people to answer them. Watch industry trends—for example, if customers have a difficult time setting up new TVs, prepare for more calls after a big sale.

How to Manage Finite Resources?

Use the gig economy

Uber and Lyft have shown that thinking creatively about resources can solve the problem of limited staff. They tapped into the gig economy and hired temporary workers to create the ride-hailing industry. Similarly, contact centers may be able to engage gig economy workers to supplement their in-house staff during peak hours.

Empower your team

To resolve problems the first time and keep delighting customers, you have to empower your employees to make decisions on the spot, as owners of successful small businesses do. This also reduces the attrition rate, because employees won’t feel helpless in resolving customer issues.

Share learnings

Employees should be encouraged to share their learnings on how to improve the customer experience and day-to-day routines. This is also a great way to promote team cohesion, improve morale and increase the overall effectiveness of the contact center.

Is Zero Wait Time Possible?

Some banks have been working on this problem and starting to achieve zero hold times. A survey by Moebs shows that 53% of customers have no hold time at banks and credit unions (“Is Your Call Center Up to Par?” Jeffry Pilcher, The Financial Brand).

Leaders must figure out how to do things so that their customers won’t ever have to wait. This means thinking in entirely new ways—ways that match customer’s new expectations. If you make customers wait, they will find someone else who can address their needs better and may never return to you. Customers are now an impatient bunch and companies who don’t cater to them will pay a heavy price.

For More About “Customer-Driven Disruption”

Evolving customer needs—not technology—drives disruption and innovation. In his new book, “Customer-Driven Disruption” (Berrett-Koehler, September 2019), strategy, supply chain and sourcing expert Suman Sarkar provides five strategies for anticipating, innovating and profiting from customers’ changing demands.

Suman Sarkar is a Partner with Three S Consulting who has advised more than 40 Fortune 500 companies. His new book, “Customer-Driven Disruption” (Berrett-Koehler, 2019), is a blueprint for showing how companies must adapt to ever-changing global demographics and markets.