What Is an Acceptable Call Centre Waiting Time?


In this article, we explore what is an acceptable call centre hold time, also known as wait time.

As discussed in our article “What Are the Industry Standards for Call Centre Metrics?“, the traditional wait time for contact centre customers is 20 seconds. This gives the metric for the Average Wait Time (AWT).

In fact, it is conventional for call centres to aim to answer 80% of their calls in 20 seconds. But should we perhaps start to think about shortening or perhaps even lengthening this wait time?

Let’s investigate this further, to help you find the ideal wait time and service level in a queue for your contact centre.

Should Wait Time Vary From Industry to Industry?

Despite the “industry standard” of answering 80% of calls in 20 seconds, this average wait time may not be applicable across all industries. Customers of one product/service may be more willing to wait longer than others.

In our article “How to Bring Down Your Call-Abandon Rates“, we compared the abandon rates at a sales contact centre with those at technical support contact centre. The results are highlighted in the graphs below.

Sales Contact Centre Abandon Rates

In this contact centre, over 50% of callers abandoned after 45 seconds of waiting.

Technical Support Contact Centre Abandon Rates

In this contact centre, over 50% of callers abandoned after 95 seconds of waiting.

What Do Your Abandon Rate Metrics Tell You?

As evident from the two graphs above, your abandon rates may help to inform you when is best to set your target wait time.

In fact, some contact centres like to set an “abandon ceiling” at somewhere between 3% and 5%. Once decided on a percentage,  you can deduct an appropriate queue time from that, specific to your customer base. You can do this by plotting your percentage of abandoned calls against time – like in the graphs above.

Some contact centres like to set an “abandon ceiling” at somewhere between 3% and 5%. Once decided on a percentage,  you can deduct an appropriate queue time from that.

So, if you chose 5% as your “abandon ceiling” you can find the average time when 95% of customers are still waiting in the queue.

Kevin McAteer, one of our readers, also believes that the key to finding an acceptable average wait time for your contact centre is in your abandon rate metrics.

Kevin says: “Take a look back at your abandon rates and work out what the Average Time to Abandon is. That may give you a starting point to address the core problem for your own environment – an abandoned call is an unhappy customer and potential lost revenue.”

However, you also need to factor in Customer Satisfaction (CSat). Look to see if there is any correlation between CSat and wait time, by plotting the two metrics against one another on a separate graph.

If you find CSat is higher when queue time is based on an abandon rate of 3% instead of 5%, reduce it further. However, if the difference is minimal, it might not be worth the extra resources required to meet that service level.

For more on this topic, read our article: Is There a Correlation Between Queue Time and Customer Satisfaction Levels?

It Is Also Dependent on Your Brand Identity

Some organisations use customer service as a competitive differentiator, and if you belong to such a contact centre, you may want to consider shortening your call center hold time standards.

It all depends on what image you want to give to your customers and whether you want to differentiate yourself from the competition through service.

Jannette Coulthard

As our reader Janette Coulthard says: “It all depends on what image you want to give to your customers and whether you want to differentiate yourself from the competition through service.”

“Personally, if it takes more than three rings before someone answers my call I start wondering whether I have placed my business with the right company.”

“While I’m not seriously expecting you to meet every call in three rings, what really counts when it comes to service is: keeping wait times and abandonment rates to a minimum, keeping levels of IVR to a minimum and that the customer gets to speak to someone who is professional and trained to help them with their enquiry.”

So, if you are part of an organisation that prides itself on outstanding customer service, consider lowering wait times from the average hold time in your call center to 20 seconds. Or, if you use abandon rates to deduce a wait time, consider lowering your abandonment rate “ceiling” to below 5% and find your new wait time in that way.

Making the Case for Relaxing Service Levels

So, that’s the case for shortening queue times, but why would you consider relaxing them? The obvious benefit is to save resources, but some also believe that it could be in the best interests of the customer.

While this may sound counterintuitive, doing so can relieve the strain on advisors and encourage them to go the extra mile for the customer.

Stuart Lambert, a contact centre consultant, says: “In general, we’re seeing Average Speed of Answer (ASA) and service level targets actually increase in a lot of organisations, from the previously typical 20 seconds to 50 or 60 seconds.”

“These organisations have found that the difference in dissatisfaction levels between somebody who is answered in 20 seconds compared with somebody who has to wait 60 seconds is negligible, while the cost of achieving the former during peak times is significantly higher.”

Stuart Lambert

Stuart Lambert

While this could offer some organisations plenty of savings in resources, many would question whether it damages customer service by increasing abandon rates. However, Stuart is a fan of reducing abandon rates in other ways.

“Providing callers with an accurate expectation about how long they should be expected to wait, along with respectful alternatives to waiting on hold – such as offering call-backs to those waiting in the queue – all help reduce abandon rate.”

Research Shows Little Correlation Between Wait Time and Satisfaction

While many will still question whether lengthening wait time is in the best interests of the customer, research from Vocalabs indicates that acceptable hold time customer service have a minimal impact on CSat, as long as they aren’t too long.

In fact, Vocalabs’ survey into contact centres in the banking industry found that customers were willing to wait for up to 2–3 minutes and that CSat was not significantly impacted until wait time surpassed 4–5 minutes.

These findings have been backed up by an Australian call centre, which decided to prolong its wait times massively, from <15 seconds to 240 seconds. In doing so, it saved 15% in resources and saw no negative impact on its NPS scores.

Discussing the account, Mike Murphy, a Senior Account Executive at Genesys, says: “You don’t have to go to such an extreme, but consider relaxing a little bit around the traditional 80/20 service level, as it might not be the right ambition to achieve. Taking the time to route customers to the right skills would seem to have a greater impact on satisfaction and NPS.”

Offering Different Wait Times for Different Customers

Adding flexibility to contact centre wait times has another benefit of ensuring high-value calls are answered more quickly than others, according to Stuart Lambert.

Stuart says: “From the contact centre’s point of view, queues can be good: they keep staff occupied and afford the opportunity to offer a differentiated level of service to those customers you value the most by answering them more quickly than others.”

If your contact centre segments its customer base into high-value and low-value customers, having different wait times and routing strategies is an interesting idea.

Mike Murphy

Mike Murphy says: “If you have VIP clients, we should remember that they are VIP clients for a reason and they should be treated accordingly. But if you relax a little bit around the rest of the contacts and instead focus on routing calls through to the right skills, through predictive routing, you can improve CSat in that way.”

“Don’t feel that you have to drive for the 80/20. If you do, you’re putting stress on yourself and you may route the call incorrectly, and while that might meet your measure, you’ll more likely create a poor customer experience, as the most appropriate advisor is less likely to take the call.”

As always, the key here is to try to match your level of service with the overall experience your customers expect. Decreasing wait times for high-value customer is certainly an interesting approach to take.

What About Channels Other Than Voice?

Wait time does not only apply to inbound calls. However, for live chat – another channel where the customer has to wait in a queue – the same principle of setting a target wait time that is based on abandon rates applies.

For other channels, such as email, letters and social media, a delayed response is to be expected. This delay will likely vary across different industries, though.

So, we’ve done our research and found service levels across these three channels, which seem to be the average across different industries.

  • Email – 95% of emails answered within four hours (the better contact centres are aiming to respond to 80% of emails within 15 minutes)
  • Letters – 95% of letters answered within three days
  • Social media – 80% of contacts answered within 20 minutes
  • Live chat – 80% of chats answered within 40 seconds
  • SMS/messaging apps – 80% of messages responded to within 40 seconds

In Summary

Relaxing service levels seems to be ideal in terms of resourcing, while not significantly impacting customer satisfaction. However, there is a risk of increasing abandon rates, which may impact satisfaction in an unmeasurable way.

So, there seem to be three clear options for contact centres to take. These are:

Option 1: Stick to the traditional 80/20 measure – It’s conventional for a reason, right?

Option 2: Use your abandon rates to guide you – Deduce the most appropriate wait time from when a certain percentage of callers are still on the line.

Option 3: Relax your service levels – Perhaps stretch to 80/50 or 80/60, as long as you are confident you can reduce abandons in other ways, e.g. offering call-backs and using engaging IVR messages.

For more articles on wait time and service levels, here’s some additional reading:

Author: Robyn Coppell

Published On: 26th Nov 2018 - Last modified: 13th May 2022
Read more about - Call Centre Management, , , , ,

Follow Us on LinkedIn

Recommended Articles

Pink phone with cat waiting by it
Industry Average- Acceptable Wait Time?
A clock is sat on a desk in front of a bored looking lady
Omnichannel - What Is an Acceptable Waiting Time?
A photo of someone on the phone and checking the time
Waiting Time: What Is Best for Your Customers?
A photo of hung-up phones representing call abandons
How to Measure Call Abandon Rate