Call times; A call centre obsession

Call times. Two words guaranteed have anyone who has ever worked in a call centre holding their head in their hands whilst loudly groaning.

In the call centre call times are a management obsession and the bane of agents who can suffer anything from a rap on the knuckles to losing their job for not dealing with calls quickly enough.

As the Dilbert cartoon points out call-times seem to take a much higher precedence over the quality of call handling.

How could such a situation come about?

Well, we have to look at call-centre managers, in my experience these aren’t the smartest bunch of people (firmly inhabiting the stupid/evil quadrant of Vroom’s matrix)

Thanks to the technology available they have very little to do in terms of collecting data on call-times, this is done automatically. If they had to time each agent manually with a stopwatch then see how quickly call-times would lose importance.

In terms of analysis, to call-centre managers the average call-time is seemingly a simple and objective measure enabling the manager to make an easy comparison between agents. This is of course a mistake, any agent will tell you that average call times are affected by many things; the day of the week, the client you are working on, computer glitches, and just plain luck  – anyone could have been landed with that long and complex query that took you over 20 minutes to deal with, but it was your phone which rang.

Monitoring quality on the other hand takes time, lots more of it. One single manager can glance at the call time charts produced by the phones, but to measure quality would mean listening-in to calls –  even if a manager spent an entire day listening in they would only hear a small selection of calls.

If an agent knows they are being listened-in to they can also simply adapt their behaviour (a well known phenomenon known as the ‘Hawthorne effect’ ) Of course this effect can be overcome by using various methods however, these take more time and effort on the part of the manager.

Quality is also a much more problematic concept to define far less objective. Who decides what good quality means? – say for example an agent bends the rules to help a customer and that customer leaves the call delighted… Is that a good, or bad call?

There is also with such a qualitative measure no simple way of ranking agents. Assigning a quality ‘score’ would be regarded with suscpicion. Therefore the feedback process is also more involved. Feedback about quality involves a 1-1 conversation which again thakes up more time.

The main reason, of course, for the emphasis on call-times is simply (and perhaps unsurprisingly) money. In my case the call centre received payment per-call so the more calls we could get through the more money. Even if it’s not on a per-call basis the more calls a single agent can handle the lower the number needed to meet demand.

It’s a very short-term way of thinking. The problems of which are best summed up by my old colleague T-J.

T-J routinely topped the monthly call time chart. Like a cyclist on a breakaway she posted a way out in front average time of just over 2 minutes.  A couple of others in a chasing group trailed just behind T-J and would maybe try to mount the occasional challenge, but would always fall back. T-J was a one-off.

(Personally I was happy to be just a domestique in the main peleton which ran from somewhere around 2.30 to 2.50. I reasoned that was the best place to keep my head down. In the end I chose a deliberate strategy of apathy – I just stopped looking at the monthly list.)

How did T-J do so well?

I realised the answer one shift when we were both taking calls for our flower delivery client. We were heading towards a bank holiday which added an extra day to delivery times however, we handled this in very different ways;


Me: Hello Flower Delivery Ltd

Customer: Hello, I’d like to order some flowers for Tuesday please.

Me: I’m afraid as its a bank holiday that means the card won’t be delivered until Wednesday at least.

Customer: Oh..

Me: If you choose the express option we could just about get it there for Tuesday.

Customer: How much is that?

Me: It will be an extra £3.50

Customer: No, that’s too much, I’ll go with the ordinary delivery please. Wednesday will be o.k.

(What I’ve done here is by offering the customer options Ive actually increased my call time).


T-J: Flower delivery Ltd

Customer: Hello, I’d like to order some flowers for Tuesday please.

T-J: You do realise they won’t get there until Wednesday.

Customer: Oh ok…


Customer: Bye



One thought on “Call times; A call centre obsession

  1. I can relate soooo much!
    Actually, in my first call center, we didn’t have any objectives in terms of call times and the operators could manage their call times themselves, which was really cool. Sometimes, we let the call time go up on purpose just because we were having a nice chat with the customer or because they were being very funny and nobody would complain about it unless this was happening for every call. The managers would however start to get stressed out if we were taking too long to wrap-up a call after hanging up.
    But at the tech support center I’m working right now, it’s a completely different story. As I told you on another article, first, the calls will be automatically interrupted by the call managing system after a while, and second, some managers are monitoring our call times as the same time as we’re handling the calls rather than just having a look at the average stats at the end of the month.
    At some point, seeing that it was too hard to monitor simultaneously more than one hundred persons at the same time (no kidding!), the managers even started to… delegate this task to the call center’s operators! Which means… our own colleagues, doing the same job as we do.
    So once in a while, you’d get an instant message coming from one of your colleagues, awkwardly trying to tell you that you should finish the call you’re handling ASAP… so you’d immediately figure out that your call was being spied on by some poor call center guy or girl like you who was forced to do that dirty work by the management!

    Because of those managers, I’ve seen some colleagues deliberately hanging up without even warning the customers when they saw their average call times getting too high. If the customer calls back, as they will probably end up with another agent who will handle the issue until complete resolution, they just think that something went wrong on the line and if they have the same agent online, then they’ll probably get told that “something went wrong on the line” or “a technical error has occurred”.
    That’s very sad and unethical and I wish to never have to resort to this… 😦

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