Issue 37 | April/May 2021

Can your customers reach the services they need, when they need them? Many organizations are grappling with severe labor shortages—a combination of the waning pandemic and economic resurgence. In fact, as I write, I am in a virtual queue for a callback from an airline (the expected wait, according to the system, is six hours).

The work from home (WFH) arrangements that are still largely in place have helped in many cases. But we expect challenges to continue for some months.

This is a great time to revisit an age-old topic in customer service generally and (if your organization has them) contact centers and support centers specifically: managing customer wait times.

I hope you enjoy this issue.

Warm Regards,

Brad Cleveland

It’s Time to Revisit Service Level

Managing customer wait times—keeping them within reason and within expectations—is a perennial focus in any customer service environment. Service level—ensuring customers get to the right place in a reasonable amount of time—is central to that effort. Yes, the quality of service delivered is what ultimately matters most. But you can’t even get started until customers get to the right places at the right times.

The following are important principles of managing service levels. (I use contact centers as a focus here, but these principles apply to any environment characterized by customer queues—retail, restaurants, security lines, and others.) Revisiting and building them into both strategic and day-to-day operational decisions can help you navigate this challenging season. They’re key to ensuring your organization is both efficient and accessible.


  1. Categorize contacts correctly. Service level has a specific definition: “X percent of contacts answered in Y seconds,” e.g., 90 percent answer within 20 seconds. It is a concrete and stable objective for contacts that must be handled when they arrive, e.g., calls, chat, walk-in customers, and others. Response time is the related objective for interactions that don’t have to be handled at a specific time, e.g., email, social posts that do not require immediate attention, and others.

    Differentiating between service level and response time is essential for two reasons. One is, base staff calculations vary for these two major categories of contacts. Second, deferring work that doesn’t have to be handled as it arrives can provide much needed breathing room. Yes, you have to manage it well and within customer expectations. But categorizing work and being smart about when you handle it can lead to much better results.
  1. Apply appropriate staff calculations. Because of random arrival, base staff requirements for those contacts that must be handled when they arrive must be predicted by using either a queuing formula that takes random arrival into account (e.g., the widely-used Erlang C formula) or computer simulation. To calculate the staff required for contacts that do not have to be handled when they arrive, you can generally use a more traditional approach to planning. For example, if you have 60 customer email messages to process, and they require an average five minutes handling time, you have 300 minutes of workload to fit into staffing requirements.
  2. Ensure service levels are in parity across contact channels. Being in parity in this context doesn’t necessarily mean being equal—e.g., it doesn’t mean you need to respond to email as quickly as you answer calls. But it does mean operating within general customer expectations across channels. A customer who expects a reply to an email or social media post within a few hours but doesn’t get it may call. Similarly, if a customer gets stuck in an endless telephone queue, they may send an email or contact you through another channel. Assessing and meeting expectations across channels will keep your operations in balance.
  3. Manage service levels by increment (interval). Consistent performance by interval (e.g., half hour), is one of the telltale signs of a well-run customer service operation. Daily, weekly and monthly summary reports often conceal problem areas. Teach your team to think, plan, report and manage in terms of what’s happening throughout the day. This is key to consistent performance.
  4. Don’t force occupancy to unrealistic levels. A well-worn principle is that when service level gets better, occupancy (the time employees spend helping customers versus waiting for them to arrive) goes down. Therefore, average contacts handled per individual also will go down. But remember, this “unproductive” time is sliced into 12 seconds here, two seconds there, and so on—the result of random arrival. Don’t try to force occupancy within an increment to be higher than what base staffing calculations predict it will be, or you will jeopardize service level.
  5. Ensure that budgets reflect workload dynamics. Today’s customers demand user-friendly self-service systems and the means to reach well-informed and capable representatives when and as they need them. Yes, it’s important to do everything possible to provide and encourage customers to use automated support alternatives where they make sense. Even better, prevent contacts all together through better, simpler, products and communication. But be realistic about demand for human-assisted services.
  6. Support service levels with effective workload planning. Effective planning involves the totality of forecasting, staff and system calculations, scheduling, and real-time management. The most successful organizations have an established, systematic planning process. They revisit scheduling options often, involving their employees in the process. And good planning provides benefits far beyond schedules—it is a catalyst for collaboration across the organization that effective customer services require.

Service level does not guarantee a great customer experience. But it is an important enabler to delivering services your customers need and expect.

Recent Issues


20% to 40%
A majority of service leaders indicate that nearly 20% to 40% of today’s live volume could be resolved in self-service channels. (Source: Gartner)

82% of consumers say the number one factor that leads to a great customer service experience is having their issues resolved quickly. (Source: ICMI)

47% of respondents would pay more for a product or service after engaging in a more personal customer experience. (Source: 2021 CCMC Customer Delight Study)

To Do's

Establish a small, cross-functional team to discuss each of these principles. Note where there are improvement opportunities, and build an action plan that identifies next steps.

  • Categorize customer interactions correctly
  • Apply appropriate staff calculations
  • Ensure service levels are in parity across contact channels
  • Manage service levels by increment (rather than a daily average)
  • Don’t force occupancy to unrealistic levels
  • Ensure that budgets reflect workload dynamics
  • Support service levels with effective workload planning


Recent articles:


Brad’s new book, Leading the Customer Experience, will be available in the U.K. on May 6 and the U.S. on May 25. Some early reviews:

“Brad’s book lays out the road map for any leader who wants to make a difference for the customers they serve.”
Seth Godin, author of This Is Marketing

“The directives in the book are very clear and based on a deep understanding of worst or best practices that lead to either dysfunction or sustainable success.”
Blair Clark, President, Canyon Bicycles USA, Inc.

“Read it, swallow it up and use it to advance your course!”
Jeanne Bliss, author, Chief Customer Officer 2.0 and cofounder, Customer Experience Professionals Association


*Brad delivers private keynotes, workshops, and executive briefings to organizations and associations. For more information, contact

Brad has devoted his career to maximizing the value of customer-facing services. As a speaker, consultant, entrepreneur, executive, and president/CEO, he has seen change from many perspectives and has a deep understanding of the critical importance of customer service delivery to an organization's success. He has worked across 45 states and in 60 countries, and has been privileged to assist in the evolution of service delivery for clients such as American Express, Apple, Coca-Cola, USAA, and others, as well as for governments across the globe. Brad serves as a senior advisor to the International Customer Management Institute (ICMI), and is an in-demand speaker and consultant.

To inquire about consulting or speaking, connect through any of the channels below.

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