Hanging on the Telephone

Paul Stockford is Chief Analyst at Saddletree Research, which specializes in contact centers & customer service.

In 1978, new wave band Blondie released its third album, entitled “Parallel Lines.” The release marked the band’s transition from an underground group to a more mainstream, radio-friendly band. Blondie was fronted by platinum blonde and former Playboy Bunny Debbie Harry, who many mistook as being the Blondie persona, but the band name actually came about in 1974 when a group of truck drivers called out, “Hey Blondie” to her as they drove by.
The second single released from the “Parallel Lines” album was a song called “Hanging on the Telephone.” The song failed to chart in the U.S. but eventually reached No.5 in the U.K. by November of 1978. Since the release of the song over 40 years ago, it has gradually received critical acclaim as one of the first power pop songs of the new wave music movement that gained momentum in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Before we go further, I’m concerned that the lyrics of “Hanging on the Telephone” may be somewhat confusing to our younger readers, so it may be instructional from a historical perspective to dissect the first couple of lines of the song’s first verse:
I’m in the phone booth, it’s the one across the hall
If you don’t answer, I’ll just ring it off the wall
Back in the olden days, if you weren’t at home and wanted to make a phone call, you didn’t reach into your pocket for your smartphone, you had to find a phone booth. According to Wikipedia, a phone booth is a tiny structure furnished with a payphone. Once inside the phone booth, the user pays for the call by depositing coins into a slot on the telephone. Which brings us to our second instructional point.
The public telephone inside a phone booth was typically mounted in a vertical fashion, as if hanging on a wall. Likewise, most homes of the era had only one phone in the house, and it was typically mounted on a kitchen wall. Thus, the reference to the “Ring it off the wall” song lyric describes the possibility that a caller could make the phone ring for so long that it would eventually fall off of the wall. There was no voicemail in 1978, so a caller could let a telephone ring away to his or her heart’s content. Unless the caller got a busy signal to begin with, there was no limit to how long one could let the telephone ring.
And that, boys and girls, concludes today’s history lesson.
“Hanging on the Telephone” could be the theme song for what has been going on in the contact center industry since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. At that time, the effect of the pandemic on customer service and contact center operations was unknown. As business slowed and incoming revenues did likewise, many contact centers had to furlough workers in order to keep the doors open. This slowdown in business, however, was not universal and many businesses and contact centers found that demand for customer service had not only remained steady, in many cases it actually increased.
Each year my company, Saddletree Research, conducts a survey of contact center professionals in partnership with the not-for-profit National Association of Call Centers (NACC). Despite the pandemic, the survey was conducted again in late 2020 and remained open until May 31, 2021.
Among the questions we asked in this year’s survey were a few regarding call volumes during 2020 and into 2021. Our suspicion was that after the initial pandemic pandemonium and industry slowdown, people turned once again to contact centers as a substitute for in-person commerce. So, we asked our 168 survey respondents how their call volume to date compared with their call volume in 2019: the last full year of normal business. The result is illustrated in figure 1.

Figure 1: 2020-21 Customer Contact Volumes
Source: Saddletree Research

The data indicates that over half of the North American contact center industry experienced more customer contacts in 2020—2021 than they did in 2019. But there’s more at play here than just an increase in call volumes that are impacting the length of time callers are hanging on the telephone.

Mark Pereira, On-Site Call Center Supervisor and Trainer at Briljent, LLC, has seen a combination of factors affecting his customers’ wait times. “We have seen some increase in wait times due to call volumes at certain days of the month,” Pereira noted.“But the greatest factor impacting our wait times seems to be average handle time (AHT), which is increasing because callers want to talk for a little while about things unrelated to the calls. We’re working on call control to try to reduce AHT and, by extension, reduce wait times.”

Jim Lavery, Vice President of Sales and Service Contact Centers at Desert Financial Credit Union, is also taking action to gain control over increased wait times at his contact centers. “Wait times for our members have been much higher than usual during the pandemic, and there are a limited number of remedies available,” Lavery said. “We can’t just go out and hire more people like we used to. Hiring today is a challenge so we’re tackling the issue from multiple angles – hiring new team members and leveraging technology to help with this problem.”
“During the first several months of the pandemic our members gave us what I refer to as ‘Pandemic Grace,’” Lavery continued. “Members were much more forgiving when it came to long wait times, but as we crawl out of this crisis, I believe long wait times are not going to be nearly as acceptable, especially as competition increases.”
Of all contact centers experiencing an increase in customer contacts and AHT over the past year, 73% said that the telephone was the channel that saw the greatest increase in volume. Despite this obvious customer preference, however, many contact centers are exploring methods of migrating customers to other channels.
“We’ve started highlighting and marketing our chat feature,” explained Desert Financial Credit Union’s Lavery. “Chat is much more efficient for the member, and for us. Our average wait time for a chat today is 30 seconds while the telephone wait time is still closer to five minutes, so chat makes a lot of sense for us, and for our members.”
Desert Financial Credit Union isn’t the only contact center looking at chat as an alternative to voice channels. According to the Saddletree Research 2021 survey, chat ranks number three on the top five solutions that have been funded for purchase this year. At the top of the list is Intelligent Virtual Agents, or chatbots.
While the telephone remains the most widely supported and widely used channel for customer communications, circumstances are forcing the industry and the customer population to change preferences. Web chat has the potential to eliminate hanging on the telephone and revolutionize wait times. And let’s face it, a song called “Hanging on the Online Chat” just doesn’t have the same “ring” to it.

Paul Stockford is Chief Analyst at Saddletree Research, which specializes in contact centers & customer service.
– Republished with permission from Contact Center Pipeline, http://www.contactcenterpipeline.com

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