Off Center
Show me a call center that does not bother to measure Service Level – and do so correctly – and I’ll show you a call center that likely struggles in practically every key area of customer contact management. Service Level is THE metric for gauging accessibility, and as such it is tied to and has an immense impact on customer satisfaction, workforce management decisions, call center budgeting/costs, and agent sanity.

Service Level (SL) is defined as X% of calls (or chat sessions) answered in Y seconds. A common (but NOT an industry standard!) SL objective is to answer 80% of all customer calls in 20 seconds – typically stated as “80/20”. This means that out of every 100 calls, the call center aims to route at least 80 of them to a live agent within 20 seconds. If the agent to whom a call is routed is not alive, its best to dispose of the body immediately before it affects the health and/or morale of others on the team.

So why doesn’t every call center strive to answer 100% of calls in 20 seconds (or 15 seconds, or 10 seconds)? Well, while doing so would positively delight customers, they would not remain delighted for very long, as the company they are calling would likely go out of business. To deliver on a 100/20 or 100/15 SL objective, a call center would require a daily staffing budget bigger than the CEO’s country club dues. (The exception, of course, is emergency services call centers – e.g. 911 centers – which must answer 100% of calls in a very short period of time by law, and are thus staffed/funded accordingly.)

Such infeasible SL objectives aren’t even necessary; most customers don’t mind waiting 20 or 30 seconds or even a little more before reaching a live agent – especially if they are informed beforehand of the expected wait. That’s why many of the best call centers implement a “visible queue” tool – an automated attendant that tells callers the estimated time until an agent will be available. Studies have shown that call centers with visible queues are 74% less likely to be burned to the ground by a disgruntled customer, and 26% more likely to not be burned to the ground by a disgruntled customer.

Now, an 80/20 SL objective does not indicate that the center ignores or doesn’t care about what happens to the 20% of calls not answered in 20 seconds; it simply means that those callers may experience longer wait times and be given a chance to sing or hum along with the call center’s on-hold music. Top call centers focus on side metrics such as Longest Current Wait Time and # of Customer Curse Words per Hour to ensure that no callers are being avoided like the plague, and to stay abreast of call volume trends that may require real-time action to evade an accessibility crisis and/or customer revolt.

Selecting an SL Objective

So, what is the right SL objective for your call center? I have no idea – and neither does anybody else outside of your organization (except perhaps for an experienced consultant familiar with the ins and outs of your operation). The best SL objective depends on several variables specific to your center: Your average call volume; your customer’s expectations and tolerance levels; your staffing budget; as well as the SL objective of competing call centers in your industry (though, still, you don’t want to just play copy-cat, as other key variables may differ).

That is not to say that there aren’t some common SL objectives shared by many centers – e.g., 80/20, 80/30, 90/20, 90/30. However, just arbitrarily picking one of these objectives without first conducting careful analysis of your call center’s resources and your customers’ expectations will often lead to either very angry callers (and agents) or very angry executives (and stockholders) – or both.

Keep Quality in the Equation  

Of course, no conversation about SL is complete without mentioning quality. You could take the time to carefully select a solid SL objective and consistently achieve that objective (without going too far over, as that indicates costly over-staffing), but it won’t mean jack squat if those calls that are routed quickly are being handled sloppily. Accessibility means nothing without quality. Getting seated immediately at a trendy, popular restaurant is great, but not if the maitre d' laughs at your tie, the waiter spills your wine, and the cook burns your steak.

Leading call centers understand this, and therefore never let efficiency supersede proficiency and professionalism. From the moment a new agent is hired, these centers indoctrinate them into a customer-centric service culture where things like empathy, accuracy and not comparing customers unfavorably to microorganisms are strongly emphasized and coached to. When such behaviors and values are encouraged and embodied, fewer mistakes are made, fewer call-backs are required, and fewer agents and customers burst into flames – thus making it much more likely that the call center (assuming good forecasting and scheduling has occurred) will meet or even exceed its SL objective.

Marina Magalnik
4/19/2011 06:19:53 am

thanks for this article.
you are absolutely right: I am ready to wait several days to my dentist instead of immediately service with good cup of coffe in the public clinic.
I prefere to wait more in the queue when I am sure that on the end I will receive the needed flight ticket and not some smiling girl with proposal to callback/ to call later or with explanation that the "Russians " agents are busy so may be she could help me in Hebrew (result of the skills extension into routing) etc
First call resolution seems some fantastic goal like total high education...

4/19/2011 06:49:25 am

Yup, varying levels of caller tolerance and motivation will certainly impact how long people will wait and what their mood will be if/when they ever make it to an agent.

Nice line about FCR -- like that!

Thanks for your input!


5/26/2011 11:02:18 pm

Do you have a statistics on Government Call Centers such as 311 non-emergency numbers.

5/26/2011 11:27:37 pm

Hi Donna. I actually just delivered the keynote presentation at the American Government Contact Center Employee (AGCCE) annual conference a couple of weeks ago, and can put you in contact with the conference organizer -- who works in the Hampton, Virginia 311 operation. She'll be able to speak specifically to your question. I just emailed you her contact info.

Best of luck!

6/19/2011 10:06:53 pm

Greg: I have a health care customer (Hospital) who is demanding that I provide them "the industry standard service levels for a hospital" (ie) 80/20 90/20 etc. They dont get what you have written above. How do I get through to them ?? Frustrated in Albany NY...

6/19/2011 10:29:35 pm

Carl, what you are facing is all too common in our industry: Execs who think there exists a "standard" SL objective that will neatly fit all call centers.

To help disabuse them of this erroneous notion, show your senior management team not only this blog post but also similar articles (perhaps some that are not so tongue-in-cheek, in case your execs are a bit too buttoned up). ICMI ( has several good articles on Service Level and why a "one size fits all" approach doesn't wash. You might also want to get a copy of Brad Cleveland's book, "Call Center Management on Fast Forward" -- also available via ICMI.

If none of these resources get through to upper management, have me come in and rough them up a little. I'm the reigning Call Center Fight Club champ. Don't let the suit and glasses in my photo fool you -- I'm tough. ;)

Best of luck,


7/18/2013 01:43:39 am


Our contractual service level requirement is 80/30 for the quarter. We meet or exceed this goal daily, however, my COO (who btw has no call center experience) thinks we should never miss an interval. We have 120 reps and handle roughly 5K calls/day. staffing shrinkage ranges 15-20% including attendance and offline activities. He thinks we should have all 120 reps on the phones at all times, no prescheduled breaks, no off line activities like coaching, QA monitoring, team meetings, etc). Basically, he wants me to run a sweat shop. How do I get him to see that it doesn't make good business sense (financially) to staff for 80% every 15 minute interval and that his thought process would increase attrition, demotivate staff, and basically have me running for the hills at some point? Thanks for your insight!

7/18/2013 02:00:48 am

I feel your pain, Marty. So do MANY others in the contact center profession, unfortunately. Few execs get the dynamics of contact center management and thus place unfair demands on managers. I recommend you have your COO (who is COO-COO if he thinks his suggested strategy will be effective) read the following two articles, written by legends in our industry:

If he still doesn't get it, then adopt his plan -- within a week most of your agents will have quit or lost consciousness, so he'll see the errors of his ways.

Best of luck!



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