The “Problem” Of Call Waiting Times

A McKinsey Quarterly article called Maintaining the customer experience caught my eye. It discusses scenarios where companies were trying to figure out the design point for a couple of customer experiences, one of which was the call waiting time for a call center. Here’s how the article sets up the problem:

Consider service levels, specifically average time-to-answer, which is one of the most common metrics used in call centers. Service levels-often based on regulation or historical precedent-are set by call-center managers and then used to calculate staffing requirements. But service levels are challenging to maintain and costly to improve: raising them by 10 percent requires much more than a 10 percent increase in staff

My take: This is an area where companies can make a lot of costly mistakes if they don’t understand what drives customer satisfaction. So I sent the following comment to the McKinsey Quarterly editors…

Conceptually, the Kano Model does a good job of helping dissect thinking in this area. In particular the model’s focus on three types of attributes: Must-be, One-dimensional, and Attractive.

Must-be attributes need to deliver a minimum threshold of value or the customer will be extremely dissatisfied. But the customer does not notice if that threshold is exceeded. Think about the brakes on a car; you expect them to work, but don’t notice much more than that.

One-dimensional attributes are those that continue to increase the value to customers. Think about price; the lower the better.

Attractive attributes are unexpected aspects of the experience that dramatically increase the value perceived by a customer. Since they don’t expect them, there aren’t any negative consequences if they are not there. Think about a call from the CEO of an airline after you’ve had a service problem; wow, that could make a significantly positive impression.

Using this model, we can better understand the mistake that companies often make about attributes like call waiting times. In most cases, I’d classify call waiting times as a must-be attribute. It’s a problem if the waits are too long, but there’s no lasting perceived value by customers if you shorten them under that threshold. So companies shouldn’t invest in dramatically shortening waiting times, but should figure out how to minimize the number (or impact) of people that experience a wait that goes beyond the threshold.

You may have noticed that offered up the option of either solving the problem (customer who have a wait time above the threshold) or lessening the impact. It may be very expensive to eliminate all customer waiting times that go beyond their must-be threshold. So companies may be better served to try another approach: like an apology from the call center rep or some more substantial service recovery option (maybe even some “attractive” options).

By understanding these differences, companies can focus their energy and investments in the right areas to drive up customer satisfaction. This is particularly important in these times when companies are cutting back; they need to make every investment count.

The bottom line: Figure out what’s must-have, attractive, and one-dimensional.

About Bruce Temkin, CCXP
I'm an experience (XM) management catalyst; helping organizations improve results by engaging the hearts and minds of their employees, customers, and partners. I enjoy researching and speaking about these topics. I lead the Qualtrics XM Institute, which is the world's best job. We're igniting a global community of XM Professionals who are inspired and empowered to radically improve the human experience. To achieve this goal, my team focuses on thought leadership, training, and community building. My work is driven by a set of fundamental beliefs: 1) Everything starts and ends with human beings, so you need to understand how people think, feel, and behave; 2) XM is a discipline that needs to be woven throughout an organization's entire operating fabric; and 3) Building the XM discipline requires a combination of culture, competency, and technology.

9 Responses to The “Problem” Of Call Waiting Times

  1. Lewie says:

    Here’s another example of choosing an alternative solution where it’s not cost effective to address direct customer complaints. Take the example where a small hotel was getting a lot of negative feedback about how long it took for the elevator to arrive to move guests between floors. The solution – mirrors in the elevator lobbies on each floor. Give them something to do and the wait time isn’t as much of an issue.

  2. Andy Green says:

    There’s nice result from psychology that tells us that occupied time feels shorter than unoccupied. The Disney folks are geniuses at getting people to wait 30 minutes for a 3 minute ride by making the line almost part of the experience.

    One quibble with the McKinsey Study. Mileage may vary depending on a specific customer service center load pattern, but in theory, the standard Erlang model tells us that even at moderate utilization, you’ll get pretty good bang for the buck A small increase in staffing, will result in a disproportionate decrease in average waiting time.

    • Bruce Temkin says:

      Andy: Yes, there can be a big difference between PERCEIVED wait time and ACTUAL wait time. My wife actually did a study for her Master’s thesis that looked at this dynamic in bank teller lines. The inclusion of a video monitor decreased the perceived wait time of customers. The same dynamic is why many elevators are equipped with mirrors. So this lesson is key: The experience measured by a company may be different than the one that’s perceived by a customer. I think we all know which one is most important. Thanks for commenting!

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  5. peter jackson says:

    nice post- we had similar problems in my company and were surprised by the cost associated to a decrease in waiting times. eventually we found an affordable solution which was to use click to call (see

  6. Tom says:

    What are you calling a call center? the examples where Disney land and a Motel what about actual call center changes or adjustment’s, And what criteria is used to set thresholds? Are there any studies showing what thresholds are to aggressive? What industries were looked at and studied i.e online retail? sporting goods and so on.

  7. Chris says:

    One solution to call center wait times is for customers to use a service like WeQ4U which calls you back when an agent is ready to handle your call. More info can be found at their website

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