Putting Abandonment in Perspective

In many contact centers, abandonment rate is viewed as a key measure of how adequately the center is staffed. I often get questions like, what is an acceptable rate of abandonment? What is abandonment in such and such an industry? Are there any studies on how long customers will wait? What should our service level be to keep abandonment under X percent?

shutterstock_298711070 hang upThe usual assumptions are: a) There must be industry standards for abandonment; and b) abandonment is a good indicator of contact center performance. But neither is true.

For one thing, abandonment is tough to forecast accurately, at least on a consistent basis. To do so would require predicting the impact of the seven factors of caller tolerance. But because the conditions that drive them are constantly changing, there are an almost unlimited number of variables that can have an impact on abandonment.

Further, abandonment can be a misleading measure of performance. The conventional wisdom is that longer queues translate into higher abandonment. But the seven factors can help to explain apparent paradoxes:

  • When financial markets swing significantly, mutual funds and others in the financial sector get a surge of contacts. Even though service level may drop, abandonment also often goes down because customers have a higher degree of motivation and are willing to wait longer, if necessary.
  • When utilities or cable providers have network outages, customers (though not happy about it) are generally willing to wait longer than under normal circumstances. Service level may drop, but abandonment will often be lower than usual.
  • If callers encounter busy signals before they get into the queue, they will almost always wait longer if necessary. The psychology is, “At least I’ve made it into the system. I’d better hang in there.”
  • Callers who are waiting on hold may be simultaneously using the Web or other alternatives to search for relevant information; abandonment could mean they found what they needed.

While these may be obvious examples, what about the more subtle day-to-day shifts in tolerance? It can be baffling. Sometimes, when people have to wait a long time, they wait. Other times, when service level is really good, abandonment is higher than expected. If you don’t believe it, construct a scatter diagram of service level versus abandonment by half hour for a few typical days. You are not likely to see an exact correlation, at least not consistently.

Organizations that maintain high levels of service — shipping companies or mutual funds committed to quick response — see abandonment rates of generally no more than one or two percent. No organization has zero abandonment for long — not unless they are answering every call immediately (something even emergency service centers don’t always do). Most contact centers have a queue at least part of the time. And any time there is a queue, there is opportunity for callers to abandon.

In the final analysis, you can’t control how customers will react or the myriad circumstances that influence their behavior. But you can control how accessible you are — how many agents are handling workloads, and the system resources you have. Concentrate on accurately matching resources with workload and abandonment will take care of itself.

Excerpt from Call Center Management on Fast Forward by Brad Cleveland.