What Service Level Objective or Average Speed of Answer should we set?

by Connor Bourke

How do you determine the right service level objective or ASA target for your contact centre? Speaking with many contact centre managers on this topic at a recent event I discovered the following:

  1. Numerous different service level objectives existed but by far the most common I was quoted was 80% of calls answered in 20s, or an ASA of 20s

  2. Approximately half of those quoting 80/20 or 20s ASA as their target referred to it as “industry standard” and/or “global best practice”

  3. Other than this almost nobody could give me a reason WHY they set the service level or ASA target where they did.

So, is there any such thing as an industry standard ASA/SL target? And if not, how do we go about setting the right one for our centre?

Let me start by shaking things up a little. THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS AN INDUSTRY STANDARD/BEST PRACTICE with respect to speed of answer. Customer expectations and needs will be different depending upon all sorts of factors. I have worked with emergency services lines and phone betting lines. Whether you need an ambulance or want to bet on the next race, 20, 30, 40 seconds might be too long to wait. On the other hand a customer calling with a technical problem may well find that hearing common trouble shooting tips while waiting to be answered can help resolve the issue and eliminate the need to speak to someone altogether. Customers contacting you via chat may have a different expectation than those calling. What constitutes good service can vary dramatically depending upon what your customers need and expect.

Setting an ASA/SL target.
If we were to ask our customers a direct question I am sure we would be told we should staff our centres to such a point that all calls are answered instantly. If we ask the money men, they would tell us to maximize Occupancy up to just short of the point of agent burnout. If we were to ask our agents I am sure they would tell us agent burnout sets in at about 70% occupancy. So how do we set the right ASA/SL target for our centre?

The answer is look at what works. A company’s intention for every call should be to satisfy, even WOW the customer. Now doing so depends upon a lot more than how quickly we answer the call, but we also know that making a customer wait too long can result in abandonment (and so we lose the opportunity to satisfy the customer) or in a customer who is cranky and much harder to please.

As such to set our speed of answer target right, we should look at these metrics alongside our historical speed of answer data. The point at which abandonment becomes an issue or the point at which customer satisfaction falls away sharply is the point at which we have already made our customers wait too long.

Measuring ASA/SL impact on customer experience.
Consider the following two charts taken from two separate contact centres.



The first tells us the impact speed of answer (as measured by ASA) has on abandonment. This is not difficult to understand, the longer we make customers wait, the more customers will simply give up. They may try an alternative channel to reach us, or they may hang up and contact a competitor. In this example we see that abandonment picks up dramatically where our ASA is above 30. This is customers telling us that 30s is too long to wait for the service they will recieve when answered. (I have seen some centres use average time to abandonment to give themselves an indication of what customers will put up with. This is not a good measurement.

ATA does not tell us how long customers are prepared to wait. If we are answering calls quickly, then ATA will also be low. This is simply because the customer who would hang up after 60, 90 or 120 seconds is answered before they abandon. ATA has told us more about our speed of answer than it has about our customers’ expectations.)

Based on this data we would look to set an ASA target of at most 30s.

The second tells us the impact speed of answer (this time measured as % of calls answered in 60s) has on Customer Satisfaction results. Again we see that customer satisfaction drops off dramatically at a point, this time as SL falls below about 70%. Calls anwered in an interval where SL was 70% answered in 60s or higher had a 78% satisfaction rate (measured as 7 or higher) while calls answered in intervals where SL was lower than 70% only had a 30% satisfaction rate. Customers are again telling us what is a satisfactory SL to aim for. (This may not be a direct result of the wait – when service level is low, occupancy is high and so agents get burned out and will provide a lower level of service once the customer gets to them, but either way, the result is that customer satisfaction is impacted by our ability to staff the centre to answer calls in a given amount of time).

Based on this data we would look to set a SL target of answering 70% of calls in 60 seconds.

I used ASA in the first example and SL in the second. This was merely to show that either can be a used, not because one fits the other better (although bear in mind swapping ASA for SL will make the graph slope in the opposite direction). Nor should anyone look to the results of these two cases as an answer for their centre. The point is no matter which measure we use, we are looking for a point at which abandonment blows out, or at which customer satisfaction drops off dramatically.

Capacity based ASA/SL targets.
So this is all very well, but often we suffer from capacity or budget constraints that prevent us from staffing beyond a certain level. I have seen arguments that the SL target we wish to achieve should be set to fit within this capacity constraint. I understand this thinking – there is no point setting a target that cannot be achieved. But this is short term thinking (and so is fine for applying to next week or even next month) but should not be allowed to impact your ability to deliver service to your customers, and so your share of whatever market you are in, in the long term. Setting a long term SL standard based on what you can do in the short term, rather than what the customer expects will result in

  1. a self fulfilling prophecy. If we have worked out that we can only achieve 60/30 service level given our current volume and capacity should we be surprised or patting ourselves on the back when we consistently achieve that standard?

  2. higher abandonment meaning we lose the opportunity altogether to wow that customer

  3. lower customer satisfaction despite supposedly meeting our metrics

  4. agent burn out

All of these will cost the business, most likely far more than increasing capacity and staffing to the levels our customers expect.

So ask yourself – “how did our speed of answer metric come about?” Are we just following a mythical industry standard (that may be lower or even higher than your customers expect and demand) or did we really think it out. Even if the answer is that it was set for a reason, reviewing that standard periodically is a good idea, customer expectations can change, with time.

Connor Bourke is the Chief Executive Officer of Optima WFM.