Do Virtual Queues Work?

Many contact centers continue to struggle with labor shortages, increased or highly variable workloads, or some combination of these. Resource mismatches lead to long wait times and frustrated customers, as well as high occupancy and burnout for agents. More serious implications include employee turnover, lost customers, and damage to your organization's reputation and results.

Virtual queue technologies allow customers to hang up and receive a return call without losing their place in line. (Yes, calls still make up a significant portion of the workload for many contact centers.) This prevents the need for customers to leave a voicemail or wait on hold. For agents, there's little difference between handling an inbound call and a callback—the system places outbound calls and delivers connected calls to agents similarly to how it handles inbound calls.

The often-cited potential benefits of virtual queues include the following:

  • Improved customer experience. Customers appreciate not having to wait on hold and can continue their activities and receive a call when an agent is available, making the process more convenient.
  • Reduced abandonment rates. Customers are less likely to hang up if they know they will receive a callback, leading to fewer abandoned calls.
  • More efficient resource management. Callback systems can help distribute call traffic more evenly, reducing peak-time congestion and improving service levels. And agents can handle calls without the pressure of long hold queues.
  • Better brand perception. Implementing this customer-friendly approach, vs. letting customers languish in queue can reflect positively on the organization's reputation.

However, virtual queues are not a panacea for chronic staffing mismatches. As their use has become more common, several significant challenges have emerged, including the following:

  • Complex reporting. System reports on workloads and service levels become more difficult to interpret. Real-time variables, such as callbacks, transfers, and changes to routing or work assignments, add complexity, making data needed for planning less clear. With callbacks, you need data on when offered calls arrive, the time to callback, and whether you successfully reached customers.
  • Higher average handling time. When customers make the initial contact, they are usually ready to engage. However, when they receive a callback, they might not be immediately available (e.g., they might be in a meeting, in their car, or on another call).
  • Customer Availability Issues. If customers are not available when return calls arrive, the resulting message cycle can heavily tax resources and test customer patience. Further, callbacks often indicate that service levels are struggling and occupancy during these periods is 100 percent, which, if sustained, can burn out agents.

Virtual queues can work well when used sparingly and in situations where customers benefit from not having to wait on hold. Examples include the following:

  • Airlines during service disruptions, such as a weather event.
  • Utilities during storms and outages.
  • Financial institutions during market fluctuations.
  • Retail sales and service during the holidays.

There's a saying in contact center management: Nobody calls you now because they want to talk later. Customer willingness to use callbacks should not be mistaken for satisfaction with delayed service. They would much prefer the organization to be available when it's first convenient for them.

And remember that the laws of supply and demand remain unavoidable. You need a certain level of resources to manage the workload. Virtual queues can alleviate some of the pressure of crowded call queues while offering more convenience to customers.

Will virtual queues work for you? It depends. My advice is to use callbacks strategically. Some trial and error will be necessary, and you'll want to gauge customer acceptance, impact on your agents, and the ability to manage workloads that get pushed to later timeframes.

I once heard a contact center manager refer to virtual queues as hot sauce: effective when used for the right reasons in the right amounts. That's a good way to see it; a little bit goes a long way. As a rule, handling customer interactions promptly and accurately is the most convenient for customers and generally the best approach for most organizations.

Brad Cleveland is an author, speaker, and consultant. He was founding partner and former CEO of the International Customer Management Institute, where he now serves as senior advisor.>