Technology Explained

Why Call Centers Always Make You Wait Forever

Derek Walsh 26-07-2016

Nobody really likes call centers.


Most companies that have them only have them reluctantly. The people who work in them would often rather be anywhere else. And the people who have to call them — which includes just about everybody — find them frustrating.

But they’re a fact of modern life and won’t be going away any time soon. So why do they annoy us so much and what can we do about it?

The Workings of a Call Center

When you dial into a call center, you may think you’re calling a branch of your bank, or your internet provider, or the manufacturer of your computer, but you’re probably not.

More likely, you’ll end up talking to someone who works for a Business Process Outsourcer (BPO) — a company that specializes in the unpleasant business of dealing with unhappy customers.

For economic reasons, many companies use offshore call centers, and while they may answer your call more quickly than a local one, that doesn’t mean your call will be shorter or less frustrating. Quite the opposite, in fact.


View of a call center

If you aren’t used to accents, or if you have a strong accent of your own, you may find talking to someone in India or the Philippines an extremely trying experience, and you won’t have much choice in the matter beyond switching service providers.

Offshoring has become less popular as companies realized the frustrations of navigating Interactive Voice Response (IVR) and getting complex instructions over the phone from agents who can’t speak well or understand you. Some companies even use their local call centers as a selling point.

But the thing about call centers is that they’re highly goal-oriented with an emphasis on throughput. This means X% of calls must be answered within Y seconds. (It’s more complicated than that, obviously, but that’s the basic idea.)


So if they’re so focused on answering as many calls as possible as quickly as possible, why are you sitting there listening to Opus Number One for 20 minutes every time you need an issue addressed or a question answered?

The Reason Why We Have to Wait

Call centers, especially those providing technical support, drain company resources. There’s a delicate balance between how annoyed a company can allow its customers to be and how much the company is willing to pay to mollify those customers.

So call centers use historical data and fancy algorithms to forecast the number of calls they expect, and then try to staff as closely to that as possible. This means that staffing is always tight. Too many staffers? They’re throwing money away. Too few? Calls start to back up.

Call center forecasts usually work in fifteen minute intervals and can be amazingly accurate, but that doesn’t always mean staffing will be what it should.


Exasperated man on phone

Firstly, it’s not always possible to staff to the forecast accurately, and as long as service level can be met for the day, some intervals will simply be sacrificed for the greater good.

And then there are the actual staffers, who tend to be young and, depending on the economic climate, can be horrendously unreliable. A certain amount of absence is built into the forecasts, but sometimes this is exceeded.

And sometimes the forecast is just way off. A long weekend, a new product launch, a service outage, or just unexplained statistical clustering can mean that expected call volumes are exceeded — which means you’ll be waiting longer than expected.


When Is the Best Time to Call?

There’s no single best time to call a call center. Generally, you call when you need to. There are too many factors at play to give a definitive answer, but the following guidelines can prove useful if your call isn’t urgent.

Avoid Mondays. Mondays in a call center are almost always busier, especially if the call center is closed on weekends. Staff absence can be higher on Mondays too, due to the propensity of young people to develop “food poisoning” or other ailments over the weekend. And staff can be less friendly. Nobody likes Mondays, right?

Conversely, Sundays can be a good time to call, but only if the center you need to call is open on a Sunday. It’s worth checking as people often assume they will be closed. It’s also a day when people tend to kick back and relax, and not make stress-inducing phone calls (except to their parents).

A call center that opens at 8 AM probably doesn’t get busy until after 9 AM, but may also be understaffed during that first hour. Calling as soon as the lines open is worth a shot, but if you leave it too long, you’ll probably end up waiting until the reinforcements arrive.

Multiple exposures of clocks at different times

The period between 10 AM to 12 PM always tends to be busy on weekdays. People at work are calling during their breaks, parents are calling after dropping their children off at school, and people who are unemployed are just waking up. It’s also before the “overlap time” for most call centers.

Many call centers have an overlap during which they are overstaffed to an extent. Full time staffers normally work eight hours, and call centers are usually open for longer than eight hours but shorter than sixteen, meaning that at some point most full-time staffers are present.

That overlap is probably the best time to call. It’s the period when they will be trying to recover service level from a busy morning and to protect it against a possibly busy evening, and therefore when your call is most likely to be answered quickly. A call center that’s open from 8 AM to 8 PM likely has an overlap between 12 PM to 4 PM, but avoid the lunch rush if you can.

So, with the caveat that this is a very general rule with too many exceptions to make it reliable, the best time to call most call centers is probably between 2 PM and 4 PM on a Wednesday (nobody takes Wednesday off).

The Best Way to Hasten Your Call

As tempting as it may be, don’t ignore the IVR — that delightful recorded voice that guides you through a maze of options. You may be able to press * or 0 to talk directly to an agent, but that doesn’t mean you should.

You’ll still have to hold until someone’s available. Then you’ll have to explain your issue to whoever answers and most likely have to hold again as they transfer you to the right department — or quite possibly the wrong department.

Pay attention to the IVR. It may give you information about service outages or other known issues that can save you from continuing the call. Write down the options you select so that if you have to call back, you can just punch them in right away. (The system is usually responsive as soon as the voice starts speaking.)

Person with smartphone, cup of coffee, notebook etc.

You may also be able to use an app like FastCustomer FastCustomer: Skip Long Hold Times on Customer Service Helplines Read More  or LucyPhone that will do the waiting for you. They won’t work for every company, and the time it takes to download the app and figure out how it works may be longer than the time it saves you, but if you find yourself on hold a lot, an app like that may be worth the effort.

Make sure to have as much information on hand as you can for when you do get through: your account number, phone number, PIN, the model of your product, the exact text of any error message, or anything else that’s relevant to your query. Have a pen and paper handy in case you need to take down instructions, a reference number, or another number to call.

Be polite to the person you’re talking to. The issue you’re having is not their fault and they are mostly trying to help you. The more likable you are, the more they’ll go out of their way to assist you. Being nasty or self-important will only encourage the agent to do the absolute minimum for you. And if you swear, the agent is often permitted to end the call.

Calling Should Be a Last Resort

The best way to avoid long calls is to avoid calling at all. If you’re having a technical problem, check all the connections and power-cycle everything. If you get an error message, search the web for a solution. It may be something simple that you can handle yourself.

Even if you can’t find a solution, you’ll probably learn more about the problem itself, allowing you to speed up the call by skipping over unnecessary steps.

Where appropriate, check the company’s website or Twitter feed for information about service outages, upgrades or other issues. There may be alternatives to calling, such as web chat or email support.

Response times tend to be faster on web chat than on the phone and, particularly if it’s a simple query, may be just as good. Email is obviously slower but you don’t have to actively wait for a response. Contacting the company via social media 5 Ways To Get Customer Service To Notice You On Social Networks Your favorite company has dropped the ball, and that $80 subscription you paid for didn’t exactly match its description. Worst of all, its website’s “Contact Us” link is a complete and total lie. All it... Read More may be an option. Amazon is a great example The Best Amazon Customer Service Tips That Make You a Better Shopper We've all heard horror stories about customer service gone wrong, but with these Amazon tips and tricks your next shopping experience can be a positive one! Read More of a company with multiple ways to contact customer service.

When All Else Fails

Sometimes you just have to call. You can’t avoid it, you can’t delay it and you can’t shorten it. All you can do is prepare and hope that the call goes well enough to solve your issue and leave you satisfied Are You Getting The Most Out Of Your Customer Service Experience? Have you ever called customer service, only to end the call frustrated, disappointed and without resolution? Or perhaps there was a resolution, but it was unfavorable and certainly not worth the time you spent on... Read More .

So, relax. Make sure to have all the relevant information to hand, and a pen and paper. Keep a book handy so you have something to do — nothing too taxing or engrossing. Put your phone on speaker or use a Bluetooth headset The Beginner's Guide to Buying the Right Bluetooth Headset The dirty little secret to buying the perfect Bluetooth headset is that there is no "perfect" headset. Read More  so you can walk around, do chores, or whatever else.

And remember, your call is important to us!

What’s the longest you’ve ever been waiting on hold? Do you have any other tips for shortening your wait time? Let us know in the comments section below.

Image Credit: call center by 3D_creation via Shutterstock, Call center chainarong06 via Shutterstock, Man waiting on phone A and N photography via Shutterstock, Overlapping clocks janonkas via Shutterstock, Prepared caller TrotzOlga via Shutterstock

Related topics: Customer Service, Troubleshooting.

Affiliate Disclosure: By buying the products we recommend, you help keep the site alive. Read more.

Whatsapp Pinterest

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Ronny
    May 22, 2017 at 3:34 am

    From a (not young) customer service consultant of many years experience, here are a few thoughts - we know how long you've been waiting as it pops up on the screen, so you really don't have to tell us; we know it's annoying to be waiting so long but we were occupied with the caller before you and the one before that and not on a break (and no it's not funny to say this even as a joke); if you start shouting you are prolonging the call and if you start swearing you will be hung up on; there is nothing wrong with making a complaint but please do so politely; the absenteeism in call centres is more likely to come from stress and the fact that any illness once in will go right through the place, and NOT from the reasons stated.

    • Rob
      February 26, 2019 at 8:12 pm

      Or the call center could put customers first. Its funny how when you call over a billing issue, there is NEVER a wait. So they dont use that same process???

  2. Gee Deezy
    August 10, 2016 at 7:47 pm

    1) They hope while you are on hold, you will Google search a solution and resolve it on your own, either via their website, or a third party website.
    2) They hope you get frustrated and hang up. Although that does not reduce their wait times, it it is one less support ticket they have on the books to get resolved.

    • James
      January 12, 2017 at 2:38 am

      Actually most contact centres have a target to keep abandoned calls below a threshold - and this is generally seen as an important metric to meet - companies do not want you to hang up and consider it a black mark against the contact centre when you do.

  3. Anonymous
    August 10, 2016 at 1:35 pm

    It seems to me that call centers have their people work with more than one caller at a time.

    I do agree with all the positive suggestions above. I had one experience (can't remember the product/service) where the young man (in the Phillipines) and I had a very nice conversation and he gave me a direct number. I never used it.

    • James
      January 12, 2017 at 2:39 am

      Chat agents will generally deal with 2-3 chat sessions concurrently - but not phone agents. The systems used (called an Automatic Call Distributor or ACD) will only deliver a call to an agent once the previous one is completed.

  4. Anonymous
    July 28, 2016 at 6:28 pm

    If you are calling about a technical issue make sure you aren't using it a the device at the same time. When you say your phone isn't working and your caller ID says you are you are, you are off to a bad start. The agent then asks are you talking on the phone you are trying to fix and you say no. First step, take out the battery, call drops. That happens more often than you think.

  5. Ferry Jacobs
    July 28, 2016 at 7:23 am

    I think you do hit the spot and forget 1 thing, social media, most company's are already active on twitter and facebook, that way you can get help to and you dont have to wait ;) You can just check your phone ones in a while to chack if there is a awnser already :)

    • Derek Walsh
      July 28, 2016 at 11:32 am

      I did mention social media briefly although it wasn't the focus of the article. You're absolutely right that you can just make your complaint and then go about your business. The problem is if you're in a hurry. You might have to wait hours or even days for a response, although the fear of negative publicity usually drives companies to respond quickly to complaints on social media.

  6. Mike
    July 28, 2016 at 3:45 am

    I am teaching English to people who want to work in call centers in a Central American country. They are young and keen to make a better salary than what is generally available in this part of the world, and their English will hopefully be adequate by the time they get hired. They also keep costs down for the companies you are calling, so if you get a foreign accented person on the line, at least you are getting some degree of service.
    Personally I would rather be unemployed than work 9 hours a day, with two non-consecutive days off for US$5-600 a month, but that's just me.

    • Gee Deezy
      August 10, 2016 at 7:50 pm

      How elitist of you! In some countries, making $600 a month is an upgrade, and they are happy to take it.

      But I bet you are making much more than that teaching English. "Personally I would rather be unemployed than teach English to a bunch of foreigners, but that's just me."

  7. MS doesn't care
    July 27, 2016 at 8:56 pm

    Worst ever experience I constantly have with... guess who.... yep, Microsoft!

    And absolute nightmare and a master piece of inefficiency, arrogance and customer hostile behavior.

    Another reason to stay away of M$ products.

    • SamG
      July 29, 2016 at 2:20 pm

      Their online forum help is no better.

  8. Leah
    July 27, 2016 at 5:44 pm

    I called customer service, for what company I can't remember, and had the rep transfer me because he couldn't understand me! I have a normal nondescript American accent but I do talk softly (sounds loud to me).

    • Pravin Kumar S
      July 27, 2016 at 10:00 pm

      It could be because the person on the other end was from Asia.

  9. George Corrigan
    July 27, 2016 at 3:43 pm

    What ever happened to avoiding poor product design, poorly written (or none!) accompanying product /service documentation, or shoddy, unfriendly service as a business model?

    If your product or service is designed and documented well, gee! you might decrease your calls by some significant percentage. How's that for cost effectiveness?

    And don't get me started with abysmally designed web applications!

    • Derek Walsh
      July 27, 2016 at 4:27 pm

      No argument there! Companies can massively reduce the amount they spend on providing call centers by spending more on quality control, documentation and so on. Often the best people to advise them where to make changes are the call center staff who find themselves dealing with thousands of identical and unnecessary calls.

  10. Eb
    July 27, 2016 at 1:48 pm

    I manage a call center for a B2B software company. This is a pretty good look in the back end of call centers. However, there are differences between companies based on the mission, functionality and resources available to the department. For instance, my company does fund us well and YTD, we have answered 91.7% of all offered calls in less than 20 seconds and have maintained a 98% Satisfaction rating.

    So, remember, not all centers are equal.

    • Derek Walsh
      July 27, 2016 at 2:17 pm

      Wow! Those are some impressive numbers. It's certainly true that not all call centers are equal and, particularly for business customers, the quality of the call center can make a world of difference. Before committing to a product or service, it may be worth calling their support line -- not their sales line! -- a few times to see how easy it is to get through.

    • Anonymous
      August 10, 2016 at 12:25 pm

      I'm more impressed by the satisfaction rating than by the response rating! That's pretty difficult even if you have the customer support reps front-load the results by suggesting the best rating.

      I worked for several call centers after college and hated it with a passion, even though I was a terrible phone customer myself.

      That's why I recommend the following additional ideas for callers:

      1) Understand that every single person you talk to, even the supervisors and THEIR supervisors, likely works from a script, or at least has very limited options for providing assistance. This is likely controlled by someone you will never get to talk to who wears very expensive suits and never actually talks to the people who talk to the customers. They probably also wear expensive suits.

      2) Try not to take any bad experiences personally. This is a hard one for me. Especially do your best to be nice to the people you're talking to. They're likely just as frustrated as you are, at least until the combination of idiotic policies and fluorescent lights destroys their souls.

      3) Accept that most corporations are set up to make money, especially Class A corporations in the United States, where their priority LEGALLY is the shareholder uber alles. The fact that your coffee maker has begun to dispense glowing ectoplasm may be a major problem, but it pales in comparison to that extra .05 cents per unit the company saved by removing the psychokinetic energy sensor from the original design.

      • Eb
        August 10, 2016 at 1:09 pm

        I agree on all 3 points. We strive to make our contact center as unrestricted as possible. Agents have access to knowledge and training and other than some verbiage macros and call opening guidance, we do our best to let the agents' personalities come through. Overly restrictive policies and scripts dampen the customer experience and limit agent knowledge growth.

        As an inbound caller, please realize that the person answering the phone most likely really wants to assist you. If they are unable to, they will get your question to the right person. Some things just can't be solved on the phone and demanding a manager won't necessarily speed up the resolution. Be patient and work with your agent. It will be more pleasant for both of you and the outcome will be similar to the one you would have if you were yelling.

  11. Steve
    July 27, 2016 at 12:31 pm

    My support lately has been through twitter. I avoid calling call centres. Last resort. Majority of companies now have a twitter support account. Works very well and if you are able to work with twitter it can be more enjoyable since most times the other side seems to be fairly technical. Don't forget the social media options. You will be surprised on the options that are available.

  12. Brent
    July 27, 2016 at 7:40 am

    I found a bottle of scotch does the trick while speaking with them.

    • Derek Walsh
      July 27, 2016 at 9:35 am

      Haha, I understand the temptation. But it's harder to follow instructions when one's brain is clouded by alcohol, and it's unpleasant for call center staff to talk to someone who's been drinking. Best to save the Scotch for a post-call celebration!