Taking Relationships off Hold

by Eric Camulli, Virtual Hold Technology

We wait for things every day: the coffeepot to finish brewing; the light to turn green; our popcorn to finish popping, and we aren’t bothered. When customers call utilities and have to wait on hold, they perceive that companies don’t care.

A 2008 Lightspeed survey found that waiting on hold was the second-biggest customer frustration. Customers don’t know how long they’ll be on hold. As time keeps ticking, customers’ emotions escalate from annoyed to aggravated to insulted. By the time service representatives come on the line, customers are ready to vent–if they’re still there.

Often, the anger is justified. Electricity and gas are essential. Customers who call utilities are often in dire straits. They might be sitting in the dark with refrigerators full of thawing food, and they can’t find out when the power will come back on. Even billing questions can create anxiety for customers who are tethered to their phones.

The New Consumers

People’s patience has grown shorter in the Internet age. Online social networking and mobile communication have created a cultural shift. These new media are creating more demanding consumers who expect immediacy, convenience and transparency. The community aspect of social media fosters strength in numbers. No utility wants an army of disgruntled customers who will rise up when they are unsatisfied.

Self-service IVR strategies are suitable for paying bills or cancelling service, but customers don’t want to wait for prompts in urgent situations; they want to talk to a human about specific issues and hear that companies will take care of them. They also want to speak with someone immediately. Customer complaints already have led many state public utility commissions to regulate hold times and to dictate that utilities must answer most calls within a certain time.

Make the Most of Customers’ Time

Technological advances also have created new ways for utility companies to keep their customers satisfied. A virtual queuing solution educates and empowers customers with respectful options for managing time. When a customer calls and the expected hold time is longer than a certain limit (generally two minutes), the customer hears a message that reports the expected wait time and gives the caller a choice of continuing to hold or requesting a callback. The callback comes in the same amount of time the customer would have waited on hold, without losing his or her place in line.

With virtual queuing, callers still must wait for a response, but the experience is different than holding on the line. Sitting on the phone for just a few minutes can seem like an hour, but when a caller is able to hang up the phone, it’s almost as if time has been added back into his or her life.

More than 70 U.S. utility companies already boast this technology. Hawaiian Electric Co. Inc. and Pepco Holdings Inc., for example, have been ahead in employing the technology to make the most of their customers’ time.

Hawaiian Electric prides itself on outstanding customer service, but 2008 price increases and service delays stressed the contact center, resulting in higher-than-normal call volumes and, consequently, long hold times. Virtual queuing made it possible to manage the call volumes without keeping customers on hold. During the first three months, Hawaiian Electric helped customers avoid years of hold time without over-staffing its contact center. An additional, unexpected benefit was the impact the virtual queuing solution had on employee morale: Instead of conversations beginning with complaints about waiting on hold, conversations are starting with compliments on the virtual queuing option.

On the other side of the United States, Pepco in Washington, D.C., has offered virtual queuing options since 2003. In that time, it’s become a mission-critical application in the contact center, saving 2 million minutes per year and boosting the efficiency of its agents. When the contact center experiences high call volume, the virtual queuing solution intercepts calls, informs callers of the estimated wait time and offers callers the virtual queuing callback. Typically more than 50 percent of callers join the virtual queue. The ones who choose to hold are less likely to hang up because they know how long they’ll wait. Reconnection rates with top-tier virtual queuing solutions typically are more than 90 percent, and Pepco usually sees a 94 percent successful reconnection rate.

Generally when Virtual Hold Technology treats calls, utilities companies saved their customers 5.7 years of hold time in one year and improved other contact center metrics, including:

  • a 60 percent boost in average answer speed,
  • a 56 percent improvement in service level, and
  • a 57 percent improvement in abandon rate.

It’s About Time

Because utility services are essential and call volume to utilities changes with the weather, there’s no ideal staffing level in call centers. That is why many utility companies are turning to call center technologies to take customers off hold and make better use of everyone’s time.

Companies using virtual queuing technology can offer customers a more predictable experience, regardless of the situation. This increases customer satisfaction and includes added benefits such as increased operational efficiency and improved agent morale.


Eric Camulli is vice president of marketing at Virtual Hold Technology. Reach him at ecamu@virtualhold.com.


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