Why 80/20 is Probably the Wrong Service Level for Your Call Center

Why 80/20 is Probably the Wrong Service Level for Your Call CenterMost call centers have a “service level” that they try to meet. This level is defined as a pair of numbers: a percentage value and a time value in seconds. So, for example, an “80/20” service level means 80% of calls answered in 20 seconds.

For many call center managers, maintaining these service levels is a top priority. For some outsourced call centers (BPOs) financial penalties — or even loss of the contract! — can result if the service level isn’t met.

With so much riding on this metric, it’s shocking to see how many call centers choose their service level arbitrarily, or with minimal consultation. What’s the right process?

80/20 is NOT an industry standard!

In speaking to numerous experts in this field, two things are clear. First, the most popular service level is 80/20. And, second, no one knows where this standard came from!

Lawrence Whitaker, a 25-year call center veteran, now with Bell Canada, told me that he suspects (and I agree) that the 80/20 “standard” gets a false boost in validity because it sounds like the Pareto Principle. You know, that old saying about “20% of the work will take 80% of the time”. But clearly that’s a completely spurious connection.

Putting aside this quirk with “80/20”, Lawrence still feels strongly about the value of the metric:

It’s still the best one for measuring interval and overall performance… it ties the resources you need to the results you want to achieve.

Another long-time veteran, Kevin Brown, said that he had done some research into the origins of 80/20 and similarly came up empty handed. He added, “In the end, I think it was picked arbitrarily and now everyone is used to it.”

So How DO You Set the Right Service Level?

Kevin, Lawrence and the others I consulted, all agree that a call center’s service level should be based on what that call center can reasonably achieve given its resources and given the expected call volume. Coming up with this figure requires deep analysis and hard work. And it’s work that most call center managers don’t have the time or tools to do. So if you’re currently operating under 80/20… odds are good those numbers are not the right ones for your call center, and the proper analysis was never done!

To do the analysis, you have to balance your company’s desire to deliver customer satisfaction (or customer engagement or Net Promoter Score) versus the cost you’re willing to bear to achieve it. Industry consultant Stuart Crutchfield from Genesys suggests starting by asking these three questions:

  1. How do I want to prioritize my customers’ wait time? (This often can reflect Customer Lifetime Value or Propensity To Buy, where customers of greater actual, or potential, value are prioritized for a prompt answer.)
  2. Having segmented my customers by some measure of importance, after how many seconds in queue does their Abandonment Rate start to materially increase?
  3. What is the impact of increased Abandonment Rate on our customers’ satisfaction (compare higher abandonment groups to a control group)?

Another approach to take is to look at the standards guides published by COPC which some in the industry use as benchmarks. They have separate guides for internal operations, outsourced operations, healthcare and vendor management.

COPC report

An Informal Industry Sample

A recent discussion in the LinkedIn group Call Center Experts focused on this question and quite a few people from various industries shared the service level target at their call center. You can follow the whole thread here.

In scanning the comments you can see that 80/20 is popular, but there are quite a few other service levels in use: 60/60, 90/10 and 75/20.

Many comments also stressed that service level, in isolation, does not provide a complete picture. Other metrics such as Average Speed to Answer (ASA) and Abandonment Rate (AR) are just as important to track.

As a whole, the comments made one point quite clear: Choosing the target service level is complicated and has to be done in context of overall business goals.

Join the Conversation

We’d love to hear from you in the comments. Does your call center operate with a target service level? What is that level? How was the level selected?

Call Center 101: The Golden Rules of SLAs

Call Center 101: The Golden Rules of SLAs

Learn how to become an expert in Service Level Agreements (SLAs).


What’s Inside:

  • SLAs in Nutshell
  • How to Set a Winning Service Level
  • Meeting the Industry Standard of Service Level
  • Plus so Much More!