In general, if you can transfer the caller, do so immediately
If a caller has requested a transfer and an agent is available, go ahead and transfer the call immediately (after a suitable, concise transfer message, e.g., "Transferring your call"). Attempting to force callers to self serve by denying access to agents rarely improves self-service rates and often backfires by causing callers to (1) hang up and call back or (2) hang up and give up (Leppik, 2012).

If the system has determined a transfer is necessary, either on the basis of a caller's choices or a apparent caller difficulties with the application, and an agent is available, play a suitable transfer message (e.g., "OK, transferring to the fraud department"; "I'm sorry, let me get you to someone who can help") and then transfer the call. The location of the caller in the call flow can help determine which department to drive this caller to. For example, callers who are listening to a list of claims and then choose to transfer out should be transferred to the Claims group.

An exception to this are callers who request a transfer early in the call flow, before it's clear which skill group in the call center can best handle the call. For more details and strategies for dealing with this situation, see Zero-Outs.

Before placing the caller on hold, provide an estimated wait time
Most IVRs provide callers with an expected wait time, especially if the estimated wait is over some criterion, such as 30 seconds. Knowing an expected wait time decreases anxiety during the wait. Furthermore, knowing the expected wait time helps the caller decide what to do while waiting. Although the system should provide audio to fill time while the caller waits (next section), many callers on hold pay minimal attention to the system while waiting, and typically pursue secondary time-filling activities such as talking with others in the room, working on email, watching television, etc. (Kortum & Peres, 2007). So, as long as the system can provide a reasonably accurate expected wait time, it should do so.

Note that wait-time calculations are typically fairly complicated, and if the system cannot provide an accurate wait time, it should NOT do so. It's better to under-promise and over-deliver than vice versa.

Before placing the caller on hold, provide choices
Market research in service science generally supports the finding that customers appreciate having choices, especially for service recovery (Bittner et al., 2002; Chang, 2006). It isn't exactly a service failure to place callers on hold, but current technologies provide the opportunity to give callers choices when they are on the verge of getting put on hold.

If the call center is open, provide a choice between waiting for service or selecting a call-back option.

If the call center is closed, let callers know when the center will be open and offer a call-back option.

Use CTI to optimize the agent's handling of the call
CTI (Computer Telephony Integration) refers to technologies that take data collected during a call and transfer that data along with the call to the agent, using the data to do a "screen pop" on the agent's computer.

Populating the agent's screen with information related to the call (when available) helps to accomplish several goals that can improve caller satisfaction, including:
  • The agent can refer to the caller by name
  • The agent can quickly start helping the caller, reducing the agent's average handle time (AHT)
  • The agent does not have to ask the caller for information already gathered by the IVR -- callers hate to have to provide the same information multiple times during a call

CTI can be expensive, so some applications do not have it available. Its benefits, however, especially with regard to caller satisfaction and reduced AHT, can make it worthwhile.If the system you're designing for has CTI, use it. And, remind the call center stakeholders that they may need to train their agents to use the "screen pop" data. Sometimes agents fall into bad habits of disregarding the screen pop and simply ask for the identifying information again, which naturally will lead to decreased caller satisfaction.

References

Bitner, M. J., Ostrom, A. L., & Meuter, M. L. (2002). Implementing successful self-service technologies. Academy of Management Executive, 16(4), 96–108.

Chang, C. (2006). When service fails: The role of the salesperson and the customer. Psychology & Marketing, 23(3), 203–224.

Kortum, P., & Peres, S. C. (2007). A survey of secondary activities of telephone callers who are put on hold. In Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society 51st annual Meeting (pp. 1153–1157). Santa Monica, CA: HFES.

Leppik, P. (2012). The customer frustration index. Golden Valley, MN: Vocal Laboratories. Downloaded 7/23/2012 from http://www.vocalabs.com/download-ncss-cross-industry-report-customer-frustration-index-q2-2012.