10+ ways to reduce contact center hold time

One of the few universal truths of customer service is that nobody likes being on hold. In a world with ever-increasing demands on our time, we all have better things to do than listen to poorly-looped smooth jazz interspersed with assurances that our business is important.

During their lifetime, the average person spends a total of 43 days on hold waiting for customer service, so it comes as no surprise that tolerance for being on hold is not high.  Most callers will hang up after an average of 1 minute and 55 seconds on hold, and 34% of those callers won’t ever call back. 

Average handle time (AHT) is widely considered to be the most important metric for evaluating contact center success, as a lower AHT usually means more-efficient call-handling and decreased customer wait times.

What actions can you take to reduce your contact center’s hold times?

1. Collect information first

Agents need to collect customer information at the very beginning of the call. This will let them quickly verify the customer has reached the correct department and the agent they are speaking with is able to assist them with their inquiry.

Agents should gather all the required information before starting a process to avoid wasting time through duplicated work. If a customer wishes to make a payment, but then after that process is started mentions they need to change information on file, your agent must switch tasks, and then start the first task over again.

This questioning process can also be used to identify potential problems later in the process.

2. Expand your agents’ authority to make decisions

Requiring agents to escalate calls to managers can help ensure procedures are followed consistently, but is that consistency worth the added aggravation to your customer when they must wait longer and repeat their story? Is the marginal benefit of ensuring that your agents strictly adhere to protocol worth the larger lost of a customer lost to poor customer experience?

Empowering agents to make certain decisions without the need to escalate is a common-sense win. It greatly boosts efficiency by eliminating the bottle-neck of requiring agents to escalate interactions to a limited number of supervisors. It also dramatically increases customer satisfaction because your customers are saved the time and added frustration of having their call escalated.

This will also improve agent morale, as it demonstrates you trust in their ability to make intelligent decisions about what is best for the company and your customers, resulting in further gains to customer satisfaction.

3. Have a knowledge base

One of the most critical components of a strategy to reduce hold times is an easily-available knowledge base. When agents can quickly access information, they are more efficient at answering customer inquiries.

Information in the knowledge base needs to be clear, easy to use and routinely updated, otherwise agents won’t be able to use or trust it. Instead they will have to choose between annoying customers with sometimes-incorrect information, or using time-consuming work-arounds to get the information they need.

4. Use analytics & satisfaction surveys

It is a truism in business that you can’t improve what you don’t measure. Gathering comprehensive analytics is critical to learning what areas agents need to improve.

Just as you need to gather call metrics to analyze agent performance, you also need to measure customer satisfaction to properly evaluate how customers feel about process changes and improvements.

5. Look at your routing strategies

Rather than routing customers to the first available agent, advanced call-routing strategies can help boost efficiency by ensuring customers are connected with an agent who can assist them from the beginning – eliminating extra hold time caused by transferring from agent to agent. Skills-based routing is an excellent strategy for ensuring high-efficiency and higher rates of first-call resolution.

6. Agent training

It may sound like common sense, but when you hire new agents, ensure you are providing them with comprehensive training, which includes the software platforms used in your contact center, frequently encountered problems (and their solutions), and how to find needed information and answers. You should make a habit of regularly reviewing the knowledge provided by your interaction metrics to identify and create new employee education programs when new challenges arise.

Call control training – there are certain conversational techniques that improve interaction efficiency and prevent agents from getting bogged down in unnecessary details, such as asking close-ended questions, rather than open-ended questions. When your agent remains “in control” of the interaction, they can ensure issues are resolved smoothly and efficiently.

New agents – while it can be tempting to save on training costs by having new agents learn by doing the job, in the long run you are costing yourself lost efficiency and added customer aggravation. Undertrained agents will only serve to increase your average hold times, as they will frequently need to place callers on hold to find the information needed to assist the customer. Because they will require assistance from others, they will also hamper the efficiency of agents and supervisors around them.

Providing adequate training before moving new trainee agents into the call center will benefit everyone:  better call efficiency, better agent morale, and a better customer experience.

7. Scripts and cheat sheets

Scripts are an important resource for agents who must handle a wide variety of interactions, as are cheat sheets. Cheat sheets should contain the most commonly referenced pieces of information, which might include:

  • Important phone numbers
  • Current promotions and offers
  • Notes on recent system updates or outages
  • Key pieces of information needed for a particular task
  • Answers to high-volume “nuisance” inquiries

8. Use workforce management to solve staffing issues

If your contact center isn’t already using workforce management (WFM), you should be. Customer service can be highly seasonal, so it’s important to plan staffing around estimated call volume. Historical interaction data and metrics can be used to predict call volume and workforce management will help reduce staffing issues.

9. Look at how the rest of your organization affects hold times

Hold times aren’t always something your agents can control. Do your agents have to contact another department to resolve issues? If so, you may need to improve the interdepartmental inquiry process to make sure agents aren’t left waiting for responses to their queries.

10. Make live chat an option

Live chat is inherently more efficient than voice interaction. Phone is a synchronous form of communication, meaning that even a highly-skilled agent can only handle one phone call at a time. Live chat is asynchronous, allowing agents to handle multiple concurrent interactions. An average agent will typically manage between 2 to 3 concurrent interactions, while a highly-skilled agent might handle 4 or 5 interactions at a time.

One of the benefits of using live chat is the ability to configure “canned” messages for commonly-encountered questions and issues. This allows agents to use a simple shortcut to send a message. Your agents will love not having to type the same three sentences over and over, and customers will love getting quick responses to questions.

Live chat also has the ability to easily share media as part of the interaction. Instead of typing out solutions, make it easy for the agent and the customer by creating resources like PDF guides with screenshots, which customers can use to easily solve their problem. This will help increase your rate of first-call resolution, as well as cutting down your AHT.

Live chat won’t entirely replace phone for interactions that are highly complex or require empathy, but it’s great for low-complexity inquiries that just need a quick answer. Increasingly, your customers want to contact you via chat, and moving in this direction will keep your customers happy by showing them you value their time.

Bonus.  Consolidate your digital channels into one interface with CRM integration

The average contact center agent uses seven different programs on two monitors to access information needed to solve customer issues. That kind of task-switching exhausts your agents’ mental resources and can result in as much as a 40% drop in agent productivity. Improve agent experience by investing in a platform that eliminates this cognitive exhaustion by consolidating all digital channels into one platform, integrated with your CRM. 

This will allow your agents to fully assist customers from one window, saving time and aggravation.

Final caveat: don’t reduce AHT at the cost of FCR

These tips are aimed at helping you reduce your contact center’s AHT, but it’s important to note that while AHT is an important metric – it shouldn’t be the holy grail of contact center metrics. First call resolution is just as important. If a customer interaction is completed quickly, but the customer’s problem is not actually fixed, all you’re doing is wasting time and annoying your customers, and overwhelming your agents with repeat callers.

Rather than trying to reduce AHT across all interactions, it’s important to make distinctions. Some customer service issues are more complex than others, and agents who spend the extra time to ensure those issues are resolved correctly the first time should be rewarded, not punished. Instead, look for areas where your agents are spending time on things that aren’t worthwhile, and focus on improving your processes to remove those inefficiencies.

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About the Author: Anna Kreider