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"Our call centre is very busy due to unexpected demand, please try later"

Updated: Feb 1

How often do we hear this today from banks to local authorities, insurance companies to the NHS? It is highly irritating for customers and adds pressure to the exhausted front-line agents and managers. More shocking is that this seems to be a problem in 70% of UK call centres which are short of heads.

What are the real causes and how to go about fixing them?

  1. Unexpected demand - if this message is on your call centre voice recorder for more than a few days, it's time to ask some serious questions. What has changed demand? Did you launch a new product? Did you change the prices? How engaged are the call centre team in the business planning process or are they clearing up the mess of unplanned decisions while getting the blame? Have customer behaviours and patterns changed? Is there a technical problem?

  2. Supply problems - are you at the headcount required to deliver the entire contact demand ie calls, web, WhatsApp, emails, and social media? Often there is a lack of understanding of multi-channel impact e.g a backlog in email response causes a swift increase in phone traffic causing failure demand

  3. Failure Demand loops - this is one of the most misunderstood areas of contact centres. Anyone who knows call centres knows how long it takes to get an out-of-service call centre back to normal it's up to 6 times as long as it took to go out of service in the first place. The issue is failure demand, customers not getting through and trying multiple channels, and agents feeling under pressure to complete calls so first-call resolution goes down. Managers and team leaders are on the phones instead of training and leading their people.

So where do you start?

  1. Accept this as a business-impacting issue - get the voice of your customers in the room, complaints, cancellations, and lower sales. Leading the action from the top is hugely empowering for the teams who love to see the big boss getting involved.

  2. Don't ask who's to blame for this. Dear CEO, it's you! There is rarely a single cause and unless the management team is incompetent there are often multiple impacting reasons. A lack of attention to data and listening is often a problem.

  3. Get the data - if the management info the Exco is seeing data showing that everything is ok, here is the start of the issue. If you are being told it was unexpected, ask for the data that proves it. Don't just look at the call centre, look at all operational activity - has something changed? e.g. has there been a change in the field engineers' work where the consequences are not thought through?

  4. Dig out the plan - volumes expected v demand, heads in budget v actual. Did you decide to make a knee-jerk Exco decision to halt hiring to 'save cost'? In my experience, this is often the cause, short-term cost savings implemented but the demand is still there!

  5. People - engagement, sickness, absence, turnover and productivity will tell you the data view of the issues, and the front-line agents and their team leaders will tell you the rest. Remember, productivity is efficiency and effectiveness combined, not one or the other.

  6. Expect to invest - if there are backlogs, measuring yet not providing additional resources to clear them is not going to work. However, don't hire permanently, you will end up over-resourced.

How long does this take?

Expect a long haul! Miracles you might be able to do at once but the impossible takes a little longer! Unless you can magic up well-trained resources by waving a wand, the time it takes to hire and train is your constraint. Be patient and keep your customers informed but don't make promises you can't keep!

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