How Long Should a Call Take?

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Peter DeHaan, Publisher and Editor of Connections MagazineMy wife and I recently moved. There were the typical myriad of details to attend to, including arranging for utilities. I had three calls to make: one for natural gas, one for electricity, and one for water.

I called the electric company first, as I assumed this would be the easiest. They had provided us with natural gas at our prior home for a quarter of a century, so we had an existing relationship with them and an excellent payment history. Pulling up our account and tying it to our new location would be easy – or so I reasoned.

After navigating a slew of options on the automated attendant, I was finally routed to a person to begin my quest. One of his first questions seemed most promising: “Have you ever done business with us in the past?”

I was ready. “Yes!” I gave them the address, the dates, and our old account number.

He typed on his computer, mumbled a lot, and finally asked me to repeat the information. The fact that our old service was for natural gas confused him. “We don’t provide natural gas at your new house,” he said.

“I know that, but you do provide electrical service. That’s why I’m calling.”

I’m not sure if he gave up looking for my records or actually found them, but he eventually launched into a string of questions as if he was setting up a new account. I watched the clock as the call dragged on: five minutes, ten minutes, fifteen minutes, and climbing. He also put me on hold a few times. As the call reached the twenty-minute mark, he announced he was done.

Whew! I needed to psych myself up before making the next call, one I was sure would be much more involved. Summoning my resolve, I bravely called the natural gas company, one I’d never done business with.

For the gas company, the call started out much the same. There was an IVR tree, and one of the first questions the rep asked was, “Have you used us in the past?”

I braced myself. “No, we haven’t.” I expected to hear a sigh. I did not. She asked my name, address, and social security number. Before I knew what was happening, my account was set up. It only took a couple of minutes.

I then called the township who handles the water. A person answered the phone and transferred me to the “water department.” The person there was out, so I left a voicemail message with my name, address, phone number, and reason for my call. When I didn’t hear back by the next day, I called again. This time he was in. “Oh, I set it up yesterday when I got your message; you’re all set.”

Setting aside the township, my experience with the electric and gas companies are in contrast. Why was it so easy to initiate service with my natural gas provider and so time-consuming with my electricity provider?

Both are large concerns. I’m sure they track the efficiency of their call center reps, including average call length. Though one call took about ten times longer than the other, I’m sure the rep wasn’t ten times more efficient. I’ll place the blame on agent training, the technology infrastructure, and operational processes, all which add up to about ten times less efficient.

Though the rep might be criticized for his long call time, the real blame resides with the call center management and its technology.

Make sure your reps aren’t at a similar disadvantage.

Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of  Connections Magazine. He’s a passionate wordsmith whose goal is to change the world one word at a time.

[From Connection Magazine Mar/Apr 2015]