The #1 Call Center Myth

This is the greatest call center myth of all time: Providing great service increases average call time.

Front-line CSRs, supervisors, QA coaches and call center managers alike believe this line. When our group talks about soft skills like apologizing for unmet customer expectations, offering to help with other needs, or consistently using courtesy – we regularly hear the great call center myth rise out of the mouths of clients like the slimy neck of the sea monster rising from the murky waters of Loch Ness.

"We don’t have time!" they say. "We have to keep our handle time down! Doing all that would increase our call time!"


Over the past seventeen years we have occasionally run the statistics, looking at the average call time of CSRs who have the highest Service Quality Assessment scores and comparing their average call time (ACT) to the center average. It’s never been statistically greater than the center average but is, quite often, a bit less. In fact, we have also found the opposite to be true, as well. CSRs who have the highest call times are often among the worst performers when it comes to soft skills.

So what’s behind the myth?  To perform well in soft skills requires desire, conscious effort, and attention to detail. This means that the best soft skill performers generally do well in the hard skills of the call, as well. CSRs who focus on, and improve, their soft skills will generally improve in the other areas of the call too. Stretching to provide great service, even the soft skills, will usually make you more efficient – not less.

Creative Commons photo courtesy of Flickr and LynG883

6 thoughts on “The #1 Call Center Myth

  1. We have one CSR who does an awesome job: but her talk time/handle time is higher than most others. She makes sure that the customer is taken care of, and that all their questions are handled before she hangs up. There is also no idle chat: the calls are all strictly business. Should we be concerned? Should we try to get her handle time down, and if so, how?

  2. Here are the questions I would ask, Ann. How much higher is her ACT? If she making sure “all their questions are handled” – does that mean that she may be handling legitimate questions that other CSRs wouldn’t touch because they’re rushing the customer off the phone? After listening, what would you say is the reason for the increased talk time?

  3. All good questions. Let me see if I can answer them.
    Her handle time averages between a minute to a minute and a half longer than the average CSR: the average is about four minutes right now. She is extremely thorough: she takes her time, explains to the customer exactly what she is doing, and does not rush the customer off the phone like a lot of reps do. She does more than just the bare minimum: she makes sure that the customer is satisfied when they hang up.
    She has a loyal following. You’ve seen it, I’m sure: when you do something right, especially when others have messed everything up, people will call back and only want to talk to you. She has several customers like that.
    She’s a great rep: her QA scores are always the highest in the center. Her handle time, however, has hurt her in the past as far as an incentive program that they have in place. That’s why I’m concerned. In my opinion, she is more deserving of the incentive than a lot of people who get it: but her handle time keeps her from getting it.

  4. Actually, the #1 myth is that call centers exist for the purpose of customer service.
    Call centers are about maximizing shareholder value–in the short terms (who cares about long-term stability??), period. It’s about saving money. It’s about packing as many calls into the least period of time, and using up what talent can be randomly found, in drift-net fashion, to be predictable burnt out and replaced with a new crop of overworked, undertrained suckers (this, of course, also saves on payroll and insurance costs).
    Obviously, the more competent employees, the quicker they will be able to resolve certain issues. Duh. But any but the most mundane knowledge domains will not fit within this brainless cookie-cutter mentality. Mathematically, one variable–call time–will reduce with experience, but issues that require extra time will continue to require just that, and cannot be predicted in such a rigidly statistical fashion.
    What idiocies like AHT guarantee is that most employees will forsake quality to keep their precious numbers in the green zone. It’s at best a lazy way of judging performance, and utterly ludicrous.
    I found your link–to your own site, no less–amusing, and just as free of empirical substance as the original claim. It’s nothing but a vapid advert! You’re not even asking the right questions. But then, if you did, you might realize that call centers an indefensible concept from the get-go, and we can’t have that, can we?
    In the not-so-distant past, communication technologies were design to mediate callflow between the public and the employees, to try to make it functional and relatively unpleasant experience for both. In short, we were using technology to improve the human experience.
    Call centers flip the standards: the machine rules, at the expense of both customers and employees.

  5. Call centers exist for one reason: to shield companies from their customers. A call center is a punching bag for angry clients. Call centers do NOT exist to assist customers, they exist to absorb the anger and frustration of unhappy customers. Call center reps understand this and this is why so many reps do their best to get off the phones as fast as they can.
    If call centers were really designed to assist customers, there would be no such thing as Average Call Time and all the rest of those meaningless, often contradictory, metrics.

  6. Everyone is entitled to their opinion. I have worked with call centers of all shapes and sizes in companies of various industries. While I’ve certainly encountered call centers that produce the type of jaded thinking like that in the last two comments, I have also experienced call centers who really do exist to serve the customer, serve them well, and do not even pay attention to average call times or average handle times. Our research team has even quantified situations in which the service customers receive in the call center has resulted in higher overall customer satisfaction and higher revenues. In addition, they have CSRs with lengthy tenures who like their jobs.
    The notion that all call centers exist for the same reason, that they are managed the same way, that they are structured the same way, or that they are managed by the same corporate motives is simply foolish.

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