• September 1, 2014
  • By Leonard Klie, Editor, CRM magazine and SmartCustomerService.com

Call Handling Time Continues to Rise

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Despite increases in head counts and improvements in technology and business processes, calls to contact centers take 16 percent longer today than they did seven years ago, according to a report from ContactBabel.

The research, presented in the firm's 2014 "U.S. Contact Center HR and Operational Benchmarking Report," showed that sales calls often take longer than service calls because of the extra time needed to explain products, relay legal disclaimers, run credit checks, and process payment information. The average sales call across industries is six minutes and 48 seconds in duration; the average customer service call lasts six minutes and 21 seconds.

The retail and distribution sectors saw the most agent talk time, with agents averaging 38 minutes of every hour on the phone.

Steve Morrell, an analyst at ContactBabel, defines call length as the amount of time that the agent spends talking to the customer. And though the customer would likely disagree, it does not include time spent waiting in the queue before reaching an agent or time spent with an interactive voice response (IVR) system.

According to Morrell, the added call length "is almost certainly a result of the general success rates of self-service and the fact that so much more self-service is happening on the Web and mobile." Calls that are now handled by live agents, he explains, "tend to be more complicated," and in some cases might involve more than one issue.

The increase in call length does not reflect on the agents, who Morrell says are more capable today than they used to be. "They rarely get simple queries anymore," he says.

It also has nothing to do with agents being overwhelmed by the number of calls coming in. "Average speed to answer is a good indication of this, and there has been little to suggest that contact centers are keeping callers waiting longer," Morrell points out.

While some contact centers are adding employees, it's not enough. Existing employees must be well trained and equipped to handle calls. "It is not about having warm bodies to answer the call, but making sure that those agents and systems are appropriate and optimized," he says.

That can be accomplished, Morrell argues, by managing agent occupancy and reducing the amount of wasted time during calls, such as the 20 or 30 seconds its takes to identify and authenticate the caller. That can be done more efficiently with an automated voice biometrics solution. Also considered wasted time is the silence that can occur when the agent has to wait for systems to deliver needed information.

In addition, the report suggests that an increasing use of automated payment collection systems could shave about eight seconds off some calls.

Furthermore, the report states that call centers could reduce call handling time by using call recording and speech analytics to identify training needs among agents, failures in IVR routing, or a need to update information on the company Web site or mobile app.

And while reducing call lengths might seem like a worthwhile goal, Morrell says many businesses are downplaying it as a metric. Because call handling time is easy to measure and can easily be correlated with cost, it's always been a concern for management outside the contact center. Within the four walls of the contact center, though, "forward-looking organizations have been placing less and less emphasis on [call length] over the years," Morrell states. "With the increase these days in concern about customer satisfaction, [Net Promoter Score], etc., it's fallen away in importance."

Similarly, management is coming to realize that each call is different and that calls should take as long as needed to reach the desired outcome.

Additionally, many businesses are now seeing that phone conversations with customers provide a good opportunity for cross selling and upselling, collecting data about the customer, and building brand loyalty, according to Morrell, and all of that takes time.

Morrell says that by spending more time on the phone with customers, agents "almost certainly" are bringing in more sales and repeat business.

Conversely, a call that is cut short could mean a worse experience for the caller and lower first-call resolution rates, which could lead to higher costs in the long run, he concludes.

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