“Answer My Call!”

Technology helps utilities get customers off hold

by Eric Camulli

Customers tolerate very little from their utilities when it comes to poor performance. Energy delivery is so reliable, in fact, that customers take it for granted–and they expect all other operational aspects of their utility company to run just as smoothly. When customers call for customer service, they expects their calls to be answered immediately.

A virtual queuing solution educates and empowers customers with respectful options for managing time.
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But that’s not always the case. Utility customer service centers are faced with unpredictable peaks in call volume and the need to meet mandated Service Level Agreements (SLAs) without costly overstaffing. These issues may cause customers to be subjected to extended hold time.

Waiting on hold is arguably the worst customer experience a company can give its callers. Just think of personal experience. If the 30-second continuous loop of New Age music doesn’t drive you crazy, then the repeated statements about how “your call is very important to us” will. If our calls were truly important, then we would be offered an alternative to this painful and predictable condition. Through new technology, a viable alternative does exist: virtual queuing.

When the expected hold time exceeds a set threshold, customers will hear a message that tells them the expected wait time and gives them the option to “continue to hold or request a callback” in the same amount of time they would have waited on hold, without losing their place in line.

A virtual queuing solution educates and empowers customers with respectful options for managing time. Utility customers who have experienced virtual queuing indicate that it is the “next best thing” to being answered immediately by an agent because it allows them to be productive while a virtual placeholder saves their place in the queue. One caller said, “It was great, you told me how long the wait would be and you kept your word. It worked exactly as it was supposed to.”

While it may be true that virtual queuing does not eliminate hold time, it certainly changes its perception. Waiting in queue for just a few minutes can feel like an hour. Making the situation worse is the fact that customers generally have a serious issue when they call, and waiting on hold just intensifies the anger. For instance, when a customer’s meter reading is messed up and the bill is off the charts, the customer is probably upset before even calling customer service. Selfservice Interactive Voice Response strategies are wonderful for scheduling a tree-trimming service, but in other situations, customers want to talk to somebody, personally express their concern, and get human acknowledgment that the company will take care of the issue.

Waiting in a virtual queue feels much, much different. Customers are not tied to a phone listening to hold music, they are free to go about their lives, getting work done. Time passes very quickly and before they even realize it, the company is calling them back, just like they had been waiting on hold all that time. And instead of the dialogue starting off with a remark about the long hold time, it begins with, “Thank you for respecting my time.”

Atmos Energy, a natural gas distributor, found that a virtual queuing system reduced call times 10 percent because customers were less likely to vent their frustrations on the agent. Other utilities using virtual queuing have reported similar agent efficiencies and lower rates of agent turnover.

When offered a choice between virtual queuing and waiting on traditional hold, customers will choose virtual queuing approximately 50 percent of the time. Every virtual queuing call translates into saved toll costs and saved customer time. For example, in 2006, Kansas City Power & Light saved its customers approximately 1,500,000 minutes in unproductive, wasted hold time by implementing a virtual queuing solution. That’s like putting more than 1,000 days back into customers’ lives, and $300,000 back into the utility’s bottom line.

Many state Public Utility Commissions monitor and regulate hold times by using a metric called the “service level,” which requires that the majority of all calls entering the contact center are answered within a tolerable amount of wait time. Why does the PUC impose huge fines on utilities that fail to meet their service level targets? Because the pain associated with waiting on hold is unbearable for most people, and it is usually logged as one of the top complaints.

Every time a customer hangs up after waiting on hold for too long, the utility knows the customer was dissatisfied. However, virtual queuing turns the hold-time paradigm upside down. A negative situation is turned into a positive experience, resulting in a greater ability to meet service levels. While virtual queuing will never replace the need to staff your contact center adequately, it will certainly help you manage the peaks in call volume, increase operational efficiency and increase customer satisfaction.


Eric Camulli is the director of technology at Virtual Hold Technology. VHT has more than 12 years of industry leadership as a dedicated innovator of virtual queuing solutions. Visit www.virtualhold.com for more information.

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