Customers trying to get through to call centres are getting impatient and quicker to hang up, a survey suggests.
"...the next available representative will be with you shortly..."
Once past the welcome message, callers on average hang up after just 65 seconds of listening to canned music.
The drop in patience comes as the number of calls to call centres is growing at a rate of 20% every year.
"Customers are getting used to the idea of an 'always available' society," says Cara Diemont of IT firm Dimension Data, which commissioned the survey.
However, call centres also saw a sharp increase of customers simply abandoning calls, she says, from just over 5% in 2003 to a record 13.3% during last year.
When automated phone message systems are taken out of the equation, where customers have to pick their way through multiple options and messages, the number of abandoned calls is even higher - a sixth of all callers give up rather than wait.
One possible reason for the lack in patience, Ms Diemont says, is the fact that more customers are calling 'on the move' using their mobile phones.
Do more, train less
The surge in customers trying to get through to call centres is also a reflection of the centres' growing range of tasks.
"Once a call centre may have looked after mortgages, now its agents may also be responsible for credit cards, insurance and current accounts," Ms Diemont says.
Problems are occurring because increased responsibility is not going hand-in-hand with more training, the survey found.
In what Dimension Data calls an "alarming development", the average induction time for a call centre worker fell last year from 36 to just 21 days, leaving "agents not equipped to deal with customers".
This, Ms Diemont warns, is "scary" and not good for the bottom line either.
Poor training frustrates both call centre workers and customers.
As a result, call centres have a high "churn rate", with nearly a quarter of workers throwing in the towel every year, which in turn forces companies to pay for training new staff.
Resolution rates - the number of calls where a customer's query is resolved to mutual satisfaction - are running at just 50%.
When the query is passed on to a second or third person - a specialist or manager - rates rise to about 70%, but that is still well below the industry target of an 85% resolution rate.
Suggestions that "outsourcing" - relocating call centres to low-cost countries like India or South Africa - is to blame are wrong, Ms Diemont says.
More people are making calls 'on the move'
There are "no big differences in wait time and call resolution" between call centres based in Europe or North America and those in developing countries around the world.
"You can make call centres perform anywhere if you have good management and the right processes in place," she says.
However, companies that decide to "offshore" their operations are driven not just by cost considerations.
Only 42% of them say that saving money is the main consideration when closing domestic call centre operations.
Half of them argue that workers in other countries offer better skills for the money.
But not everybody believes that outsourcing and offshoring are the solution.
Nearly two-thirds of all firms polled for the survey have no plans to offshore their call centres.
They give three key reasons for not making the move:
call centre operations are part of their business "core function", they are worried about the risk of going abroad,they fear that they will damage their brand if they join the offshoring drive.
The survey was conducted by Synovate on behalf of Dimension Data, and is based on in-depth questionnaires of 166 call centres in 24 countries and five continents.
What are your experiences with call centres? Are you happy to listen to Vivaldi or Greensleeves, or do you want an immediate response? And if you work in a call centre: did your training prepare you for your job?
The debate is now closed. The following comments reflect the balance of opinion we received:
I say a company with outsourced customer support only proves to me that it tolerates providing poor service. On top of that they are willing to delegate their relationship with me to a third party. I am amused by the pull quote in this article. Yes, "You can make call centres perform¿", but not simply with good practices. To perform WELL you need loyal employees who care about the products they are supporting and care about their customer's success with those products. They need to have the talent to be empathetic and resourceful with access to the necessary resources. This is difficult to attain as a business if you work hard at it. It is next to impossible to attain by putting a middleman between you and the customer in the service chain. Then toss in a different culture and dialect ensuring communication problems and you have sealed the deal! I gladly take my business to someone who cares about meeting my needs.
Andy, Woodinville, Wa. USA
My experience of call centres has been mixed, but my experience of off-shore call centres is uniformly bad. In one case - that of a major bank - I couldn't understand one word in three. In other cases, anything slightly outside the norm completely puzzled the operatives. While I rather like paying my bills over the phone by multiple choice, it is impossible in some cases from a mobile as the screen runs out of room for the choice digits. You are also at the mercy of advertising, and are quite often greeted by a time-wasting plug. As for the musak... spare me.
The report doesn't surprise me - I am a training consultant to the Call Centre and Help Desk industries and have worked with many of the major UK 'blue chip' companies. It is a real effort to convince some organisations that training is an investment that can improve productivity, customer satisfaction, morale and staff retention.
One major call centre company asked me to develop a technical training programme for some 80 staff and we recommended an absolute minimum of 2 weeks training on top of the in-house 2 weeks of soft skills (customer service) training, plus a week of working closely with a team leader - a total of 5 weeks' induction. In the end, the company decided they wanted the technical part cut down to a single 5-day workshop!
Another eye opener is the cost to recruit a new Call Centre agent - around £2700 for the entire chain from interviewing, through training to initial lower productivity. If a 200-agent call centre has a staff turnover of 20% per annum, that's around 40 times £2700 in new agent recruitment costs per year - a whacking £108,000! 'Best practice' Call Centres have a staff turnover figure of around 5-7% - do the maths and see how much can be saved by investing a small amount of extra time and money on staff training and development!
N Kendrick, London, UK
Most companies that I call have excellent call centres; calls answered within a few rings with well spoken, polite and bright personnel; some though, are absolutely atrocious. Where possible, I will not deal with companies that outsource their call centres or back office jobs abroad; and as such, I have altered who I bank with, where I shop and who I insure through.
With a mobile it is worse. A call to a normal geographic number can come free out of your time allocation of free minutes that you get each month, with calls to 0870 numbers there is no such luxury and you pay for every minute of selecting numbers and listening to music. Even 0800, 0500, 0808, 00800 free calls are not free from mobiles, and so if you are lucky enough to have a toll free number you still pay for the call!
I have seen this situation from both sides of the fence, as a customer and once as a call center worker. My own personal view is that companies simply don't spend enough money on keeping customers happy once they have them and far to much money on trying to get customers in the first place.
There is nothing worse than spending one minute working your way through automated messages with button presses or voice just to be greeted by a message 'all lines are busy, please try later'. Its not so bad if the call is free but when you have to pay for it the story changes, esp when the line operator has minimum rate call charge.
Basically the technology is there that if all lines are busy that the automated system can log your caller ID and then automatically call you back once an operator is free. Of course this transfers the call charge from the customer to the company. That's the simple truth.
Raz, Turku, Finland
As a call centre team manager, I empathise with the issues faced by customers calling in. One handy tip for you though ! When you do get through, be polite, be calm, don't shout, swear, make "demands" or scream for the call to be escalated to a manager. Calmness, politeness, please and thank you and lack of rudeness generally means that nine times out of ten, you will get what you want. Remember that it is human beings that work in call centres, not skivvies. If you shout and swear at me, my barriers go up and I wont want to help you.....
I'd much rather get an engaged tone. If someone isn't available to take my call why frustrate me by trying to waste my time and money being held in a queue. As for automated services - if I phone someone, it's because I want to speak to someone!
Grahame, HerefordI have worked on an IT Help Desk, similar to a Call Centre and unfortunately people often do not explain things correctly, making it very hard to understand their problem in the first instance, however, to become frustrated on either side just does not work, you just have to be patient and get them to describe their problem bit by bit. When responding to them, you also have to ascertain their level of expertise. There is nothing worse then "going over their head" and having to repeat yourself or "assuming they are IT illiterate" - check them out.
It isn't always possible to resolve a problem instantly, but I maintain that by keeping the customer informed this will alleviate frustrations and they usually appreciate it. If you say you are going to call them back, DO so, even if you haven't yet got a resolution. At least they will know you haven't forgotten them.
My tip of the day is to try and find out if the Call Centre or Help Desk have an email address, then you can email them the problem, and hopefully they will respond in a reasonable time with the answer. Cheaper for you and probably quicker for them.
Mimi Alderman, Broxbourne, Hertfordshire, England
I work in a call centre for a mortgage company, and you wouldn't believe the absolutely atrocious things people will say when they're not face to face with you. I've been called every name under the sun, been told I don't know how to my job, and worse- all for trying to help customers pay their arrears. But I suck it up and move on to the next call, just as cheery as I can be. I always deal with call centres as politely as possible, because I know what it feels like to be on the other end of that phone. Try putting yourself in our place before you kick off, eh?
Victoria, West Yorkshire, England
Well I know its frustrating at times trying to get through to a person , but it's an awful lot worse on the other end of the phone. I worked in a call centre for over 3 years and what you had to listen to day in and day out was nothing short of scandalous. If people had talked to you like that in the street, you would have done very well not to hit them. Been called an idiot or worse, when you are in the right and your calculations are right and it's the customer who is wrong is really hard to stomach. The worst offenders for this were clergymen and teachers , their condescending attitude was infuriating.
Ballymena Northern Ireland
Another good reason for people abandoning calls is the rise of call centres moving to 0870 numbers, meaning holding on is costing you money. Have they compared abandonment rates of call centres on 0800 numbers with those on 0870 ? Some call centre numbers I have seen are even 090 numbers, thus costing you even more to call them and hold on....
The trouble with waiting to be dealt with on the phone is that you're more or less stuck with the handset at your ear or close by. You can't really concentrate on doing anything else at the same time - and you've no idea of the size of the queue or when you're about to be next, as you have in a shop or bank.
John, Solihull, UK
My bank incorrectly cancelled a direct debit. Two separate calls to the call centre produced the same claim that the operator could not help. A letter to the branch produced a gent who solved the problem at once but he was apoplectic that the call centre two had failed.
Robert, Inverness UK
Every company you call involves some time spent holding and waiting for a service or sorts. Mind you having worked in an IT support call centre I have some tips for getting connected to a person faster than usual. In some cases do not indent any key when prompted and the system assumes you are using a pulse phone thus routes you to an operator. Selecting the lost or stolen option is a high priority line so It gets answered more speedily - the final tip if the day is use a hands free phone, putting a call you have on hold via hands free makes a world of difference to your frustration levels.
I simply do not give my business to any organisation that has offshored its call centres. These call centres can't cope with anything that doesn't appear on their limited check list in front of them. In short they don't add any value to me as the customer. When you consider time delays in the call and the fact that they can't understand my Ayrshire accent, it all becomes pretty pointless and extremely irritating. My bank has a call centre in Leeds and they provide a first rate service.
Johnny, Ayr, Scotland