Off Center
While waiting for a live agent, callers on hold can become easily frustrated.  At FirstEnergy, callers on hold simply get on with their lives. 

Thanks to its strategic use of “virtual queuing”, which enables customers to request a callback without losing their place in the phone queue during the call center’s busy periods, FirstEnergy has managed to  enhance service levels and the customer experience while lowering operational costs and improving agent morale.

“We implemented Virtual Hold in our multiple locations back in mid-2008,” says John Falvy, FirstEnergy’s Director of Contact Center Operations. “We just felt that at times, especially during peak periods like Monday mornings, some of our customers were waiting in queue way too long. Increasing customer satisfaction was our primary goal.” 

Soon after implementing the virtual queuing solution, FirstEnergy followed up with customers to gauge their opinion of the new service option. A sampling of the results included:

·      The vast majority of customers surveyed believed that FirstEnergy should continue to offer the virtual queuing solution. Moreover, 75% of customers who used it had a more favorable opinion of FirstEnergy because of the  virtual queuing.

·      Customers who used the virtual queuing option were more satisfied with their contact experience than those who waited on hold.

·      The median wait time virtual queuing users found “unacceptable” was 20 minutes, compared to just 10 minutes for those staying on hold.

Virtual Queuing Success Driven by Solid Planning & Processes

FirstEnergy’s success with the Virtual Hold solution required careful planning, proper implementation, daily testing/monitoring of the system, and a solid understanding of the art and science of call center workforce management, says Falvy.

“It’s just one tool among many in the call management toolkit. It’s a vital tool, but you also have to have  good forecasting and scheduling systems [and processes] in place, as well as some other enabling technologies in order to augment what Virtual Hold offers.”   

In other words, call centers that invest in virtual queuing expecting it to automatically solve all their call-handling and on-hold headaches are going to be disappointed – as will their customers.

But for companies like FirstEnergy that already do an impressive job of calculating call volume and staffing accordingly to ensure that service level objectives are met, virtual queuing can be a helpful solution.

One of the keys, according to Falvy, is to not become overly reliant on the system. “Generally speaking, we offer Virtual Hold if the wait time for the customer is greater than 120 seconds. It doesn’t make sense to offer [callbacks] if you are already achieving a 30-second average speed of answer.”

Falvy adds that it doesn’t make sense to use virtual queuing
at all in the midst of a particularly dramatic spike in call volume, such as during a widespread power outage. “We don’t offer it on outage- or emergency-related calls. During a very large outage, we can get 30,000 calls in a half hour. We just don’t have the port capacity for that.” Instead, the center provides information about power outages (including areas affected, estimated time to recovery, etc.) via its IVR system. Such proactive messaging keeps affected customers in the loop and virtually eliminates their need to speak to a live rep. 

On average, a little over 50% of FirstEnergy callers who are offered the option of being called back rather than waiting on hold accept the offer. “We’re generally in the 52%-54% range, and we’re seeing it get more accepted,” says Falvy

Enamored Agents and a Bolstered Bottom Line

Because of its ability to reduce the number of customer complaints, the call center agents have grown to appreciate virtual queuing.

“Customers can become irate if they have to hold for a significant amount of time,” Falvy explains. “The agent must then diffuse the customer right off the bat.”

That can take a big toll on agent motivation and morale. But now that far fewer FirstEnergy customers enter a call feeling like they’ve just had precious minutes taken from their lives, agents receive far fewer verbal complaints. 

“Customers [who opt for a callback] are not nearly as annoyed or angry,” says Erin Badger, an agent at FirstEnergy’s call center in Akron, Ohio. “They have had time to focus on something other than waiting.”

Of course, cutting down on customer rants also helps to reduce call handle times. That’s not a bad combination – higher customer satisfaction AND lower costs.

"We used to hear complaints on how long people had to wait on hold,” says Megan Engleman, Senior Customer Service Associate at FirstEnergy’s call center in, Reading, Pa. “Now we hear compliments on how nice it is to have the service."

FirstEnergy – the Big Picture:
Location: Akron, Ohio; Toledo, Ohio; Reading, Pennsylvania; Fairmont, West Virginia
Hours of operation: 24/7 for emergency and 911; 8 am to 6 pm for all other customer service contacts
Number of agents: Over 600
Products/services provided/supported: Start/end electric service, outage reports/questions, emergency/911, billing/payments, credit, and new construction
Channels handled: Phone, IVR, email, web self-service  
What’s so great about them? The call center has greatly enhanced the customer (and agent) experience while reducing operational costs via virtual queuing. 

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