Readers reply: why are companies always experiencing higher-than-normal call volumes?

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Last modified on Sun 18 Jul 2021 09.02 EDT

Does anyone still believe that any of the companies they call or email are labouring under higher-than-normal call volumes – especially given that that they all seem to have it “higher than normal” all of the time. Does anyone know how long ago the baseline “normal” might have been? Robert Cullen, Härryda, Sweden

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Readers reply

Because they are experiencing lower than normal staff levels. Isanyonelistening

I once asked a technical service representative why his company was always having “higher than normal” call volumes every time I called. He replied that it was really just a marketing and sales ploy to exaggerate the popularity of their products. It was also a cover for inadequate staffing. Sara Owen, Pensacola, Florida

I used to work in a hotel call centre and yes, we did get “higher than usual” call volumes. We would look for trends and call peaks over the previous five years and attempt to get staffing right, however, it would just take a casual mention in a newspaper about our hotels to get calls queueing. It’s all too easy to assume the worst about how companies staff departments, the one I worked for did its absolute best to maintain good staffing levels and still we got caught out. ONscotland

It’s the glib prerecorded reassurance that “you are a valued customer” that really bugs me. PlausibleDenier

The words they use are interesting – “Your call is important to us.” Not you, your call. Bill01

How about: “This call may be recorded for quality control purposes”? Really? Don’t most of them already know how abysmally poor their service is? madhusa

I work in customer services for a small energy firm and it’s almost always a cover to manage expectations, although the whole edifice is surely undermined if every company says it. Last year we had four permanent customer service staff, but we have seven this year after investment from the company and the shift in attitude is indescribably better. Our procedures are infinitely better and our customer satisfaction levels are through the roof. Nurnsy97

I used to work in a call centre for a large company when I was a university student. When it got to a point that there were too many calls in the queue, we went to “systems down” where we told customers (untruthfully) that our systems were down and we were unable to help them, please call back later. The aim of this was to clear the queue – needless to say, it did not go down well with the customers, some of whom had been waiting in the queue for an hour just to be lied to. IndigOh

Contact centre manager here. We make a prediction on call volumes for the coming year based on a number of factors (historic calls, sales targets, product releases and marketing campaigns) and these are usually pretty accurate, but lots of things can cause unexpected increases in traffic even without factoring unplanned absences or staff attrition. That said, if you’re regularly not meeting service levels for a sustained period, it’s probably a good indication that the company doesn’t value (and aren’t investing in) either their staff, their customers, or both. Arnoldsbiggerbrother

Someone I know’s job was to cut in on the people who had been on hold the longest, offer sympathy, ask if they would prefer to leave their number for a callback, and then never call them back – it was purely an exercise to reduce the hold queue. This was a well-known company. unbloodylikely

The real lottery is often getting through to someone who can help you, especially if your inquiry is non-standard. It’s no reflection on call centre staff, who must have to deal with very grumpy and vexed callers, but limited training, the narrow scope of standardised scripts and high staff turnover means you’re very fortunate to find someone who knows enough to help – and wants to. bitsiemiller

Having worked for many years in “customer services” the basic problem is that call centres all concentrate on call volume and customer service. Staff are judged on how many calls they take and not if they actually take time to resolve the customer’s problem.

Pretty much everyone who works in a call centres is working towards getting a different job in the organisation or trying to find a job somewhere else. Companies make all the noises about customer service but see it as an overhead to be borne. Wasserfall

Your call is not as important as their profit margin. lexicon_mistress

What about the newer trend that is emerging, of an automated call answering system, designed in such a way that whatever options you choose it tells you to find your answer by going on to the website, then thanks you for your call and hangs up? WondermouseUK

I used to work in a call centre … worst job I ever had.

Trained for two weeks in a group of 10, lost three before we even started a shift. Then on shift, a further seven people had to be taken off regular calls to sit with us newbies and offer guidance and advice (usually through the manner of silent, waving gestures and nods and panic) for another week. Fourteen people in total and average call length when new was four times as long as those who had been there for a while.

Our floor was full. We only ever had four or five spare seats (hot desk environment, you only got a good spot if you worked 12-hour shifts and got there at 7am to secure your spot). But nowhere near enough people to handle the incoming calls – saved the third party company money by not hiring enough individuals to tackle the flow.

One-third of the floor were only trained on one product. Took at least six months to train up to two or three products. Some were only permitted to take business and VIP calls, meaning they spent hours between calls, but couldn’t do regular calls “just in case biz line needed”.

Bonuses were based on how quickly you got calls and wrap up done. It was almost impossible to achieve the targets set, so people didn’t bother trying to speed up and get things done quickly. Plus the queue of calls was so massive at any given time, it felt never ending. Staff in another call centre didn’t understand what our department did, so frequently transferred people to our department by mistake, often to get rid of those complaining about another service.

Breaks and holiday were scheduled, at one point scheduling would only allow five people annual leave a day, when there were at least 200 people on the floor. Staff turnover was ridiculously high, and then they were back at square one, only trained on one product, taking staff off the phone to train others. Whenever the phone lines went down, we would cheer. Several people I worked with pulled the fire alarm on a number of occasions, purely so we could have an unscheduled break.

Never blamed the customers, just the poorly run place and unattainable service level agreement! Caseyrose

I think the problem lies with the fact companies can now have a very slick websites and one assumes that they also have a large organisation to go with it but in reality many are small operations. Even bigger companies only have skeleton staff manning so-called call centres. You imagine that when told “all our lines are busy at the moment. Your call is important to us” that there is a room full of people all on the phone but actually it is more likely to be A and another. Angela Colbridge

I asked this question of the person I got on a helpline recently. He said they have had high volumes since the beginning of Covid – so time to reset your norms. More broadly, this blurb can only be designed to thin out callers as it is usually followed by an irritatingly long spiel about the simplistic services to be had on their website. Sit this out and many helplines answer much more quickly than the claimed wait. Henry Coates, Frome

I used to work in a call centre in Scotland for a US tech company. When we had all positions filled, there were no issues with any wait times and it was chill for us to work there. Even with the switch to working from home, which increased our call volume for a while, we weren’t too busy to handle it. I think certain companies need to just accept high call volume and hire more staff. hettisa

The call volumes are higher than normal because people are shouting. PieroSerra

Worked in planning in a contact centre for a few years. There are a couple of issues here (if we ignore those companies that do run the bare minimum of staff). Customer behaviour is a big one: 25% of our calls come in on a Monday, with a large number on a Monday morning. It’s not financially viable to carry enough staff to deal with that volume in a prompt manner, because they would all be twiddling their fingers for the rest of the week. As a result, responsible companies have to predict how many calls they will receive and then plan to answer, in my company’s case, 70% of calls in under 30 seconds, while also trying to make the shift patterns tolerable. Something we did more than 90% of the time. That also meant that every so often it took a lot longer to answer a call. Staff are just too expensive to carry loads of excess capacity.
Lesson: where possible call after 11am and before 3pm, Tuesday to Thursday. acgingersnaps

Current significant other on the telephone to a major insurer today after 11am. Held in a queue for over an hour. Lesson: There is no “good time”. DungFlinger

Many years ago, my first job was a planning officer in a local council. For people who couldn’t come in to the office, there was no other option other than the phone. We officers were encouraged to always answer the phone as a priority and our individual numbers were always publicly available. Even our chief planner picked up the phone if he happened to be walking by a desk and no one else was there to answer it. Today, few councils have that attitude and getting an answer of any kind from any officer via any system is practically impossible. The workload of planning officers has not significantly changed over 40 years, so call/contact volumes have not changed much. It’s the attitude about wanting to be helpful that has changed. It has led to telephone numbers being hidden, poorly scripted call handlers crap websites, closed offices, fewer staff and a lack of training. Alec1961

I agree that many call centres are understaffed but, having worked in IT supporting customer service environments, I think the systems they are using are also often pretty poor. I have seen people writing stuff down “to put in later” because they can’t navigate the process. Add to that the high turnover of staff and paucity of training and you have a good recipe for staff and, therefore, customer frustration. rgilyead

There is confirmation bias. When you call a company and someone picks up the phone and asks how they can help you, do you put a tally in a pad by the phone? redleader

I spent seven years working in call centres for well-known companies. The simple fact is that they hire the bare minimum amount of staff that they think they can get away with. And when you add the staff going on the sick, staff holidays and other leave, it all just falls apart.

Targets are designed to be ridiculous and borderline unattainable which creates an inordinate amount of stress on staff, who then need to go sick; some of these staff never return or are “performance managed” out. Targets are not related to customers satisfaction, but link to time spent in certain “modes”. My last call centre job we were given a maximum of five minutes personal time over a 10-hour shift. Personal time was anything from getting yourself a glass of water to going to the toilet. Then you have “after call” mode, which is where you leave file notes or speak to a manager about a particular issue. Again, we had a maximum amount of time we could use. Do you ever wonder why you ring a company and there no notes related to a previous call you made? Some badly paid worker is probably getting harangued by their manager for taking 22 more seconds than the computer says they need to leave a file note.

SlipperyNitWit

There’s very much the attitude (observed from the call centre end) that customers who need a lot of hand holding, making many calls about changes, asking questions they could look up online, unresponsive to add-ons or upselling are costing a lot to deal with. If those customers get poor service and look elsewhere, that’s not always a bad outcome. leadballoon

It really ought to be an offence for a company to make itself de facto uncontactable by its customers. Why doesn’t consumer law cover this? Blanny

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