Proven ways to deal with high call volume

High call volume doesn’t have to result in long wait times for customers or untenable staff additions for companies. Here are tips for recognizing and resolving high call volume before it harms the customer experience or the bottom line.

By Mark Smith, Content Marketing Manager

Published August 25, 2020
Last updated August 25, 2020

Long call queues. Frazzled customer service agents. Frustrated customers.

When unexpectedly high call volume hits a company—especially smaller ones with fewer resources on hand—the effects can be far-reaching.

From customer satisfaction rates dropping to an overall impact on the customer experience, high call volume can pose a significant challenge to contact centers scrambling to satisfy customer inquiries. And as Zendesk’s research has shown, when it comes to phone calls, customers demand a response in no more than five minutes.

However, there are clear ways to ensure that a call center provides good customer service during periods of greater-than-usual inbound calls.

Whether that’s being able to identify a permanent change in customer activity or taking proactive steps to reduce the amount of incoming calls through deflection, call center managers and agents have a host of tools they can use to keep those call queues manageable.

What does a high call volume mean?

Let’s start with the basics: high call volume is when the amount of phone calls a contact center receives arrives in bursts that are significantly higher than the predicted volume.

It’s important to note that to be defined as high call volume, a spike in calls must persist over a sustained period of time, which, depending on your business, could be two to three weeks.

In general, the industry standard for high call volume is a 10 percent increase from the normal level. However, for small- and medium-size businesses, that figure can be significantly higher, depending on available resources.

Ways to identify high call volume

Identifying high call volume isn’t as simple as saying, “It seems like we’re experiencing more calls than usual.”

This is where prediction, or forecasting, comes into play. Leaders of support teams must have a clear idea of trends in past call volume, which is highly dependent on the type of business.

For example:

  • Is it a retail business that regularly sees upticks in calls after sales promotions or during the holiday season?
  • Are Mondays typically the busiest day of the week at the call center?
  • How many calls does the support team typically field everyday?
  • What are the average wait and resolution times?

All of that information helps managers establish a baseline rooted in data, which in turn plays a critical role in decision-making about staffing and other resources.

And remember: forecasting isn’t the exclusive domain of enterprise businesses with thousands of employees and large support teams. It’s just as essential for small- and medium-size businesses to crunch the data.

Tips on handling high call volume

First, think about forecasting on a quarterly basis so you can make informed decisions about adding headcount to your support team—and then establish data-driven forecasts that enable your team to drill down to monthly, weekly, daily, and even hourly rates.

For example, according to Zendesk’s 2020 Covid-19 Benchmark Snapshot:

  • Since the beginning of the pandemic, nearly 15 percent of surveyed companies have seen a 10 percent increase (or more) in ticket volume since February 2020
  • That bump in traffic has resulted in 25.3 percent of companies solving more tickets over phone, which has in turn led to a 15.2 percent increase in agents working the phones

By leaning on forecasting, these companies have been able to quickly pivot to ensure their customers get the help they need during unprecedented times.

One of the most powerful tools to build accurate forecasting is leaning on an analytics tool that will provide both historical and real-time data.

How to deflect calls

For many companies, dealing with high call volume isn’t as simple as adding headcount and moving on.

And it's not just private industry that faces this issue: think about all of the state agencies in the United States dealing with huge influxes of callers asking about securing unemployment assistance in the wake of Covid-19 shutdowns. Budget and logistical factors can make it difficult to add additional customer support, especially during a crisis.

However, some common tactics can blunt—and in some cases, resolve entirely—these troublesome spikes in phone calls.

Here are some tried-and-true deflection methods to deal with high call volume:


One of the most powerful tools at a call center manager’s disposal is self-service.

By creating easily accessible and accurate articles in a help center—most often written by agents themselves—a company can reduce the need for customers to get on the phone in the first place. This tool also aligns with what customers want anyway: the means to help themselves.

In 2020, as companies have dealt with pandemic-related spikes in calls:

  • 61 percent have added at least one new article to their help center
  • Nearly 16 percent have increased the number of self-service agents

Those investments can help improve call center service.

Encourage customers to move to chat when things are busy

Another valuable tool to consider is adopting chat, another channel that customers have increasingly gravitated toward.

Nearly instantaneous, chat enables agents to share self-service content with customers, which enables customers to help themselves while the agent moves on to other issues. 

Because chat can be embedded in a company's app or website, companies can make chat easy for customers to find, making it more likely they’ll choose that option over phone interactions.

Give agents the right tools

Support managers also should think about making the most of current headcount. One of the most effective ways to do so is by giving agents better workflow tools such as an omnichannel ticketing system.

Crucially, an omnichannel system provides visibility into past conversations with customers, which helps agents resolve calls faster and more efficiently.

Let the caller know what’s up

While self-service, chat, and workflow tools—all features of contact center software—will help support teams do a better job of handling or even eliminating high call volume, sometimes a company will still face more calls than its organization can handle.

If that’s the case, be up front with your customers:

  • Tell them how long they can expect to wait in a call queue
  • Point them to other channels

The callback

Another effective tactic is to provide customers with the option of receiving a return phone call from a call center representative.

One study showed that 75 percent of customers prefer a callback to waiting on hold, and providing that choice offers a host of benefits: 

  • Lower call abandonment rates
  • Decreased costs
  • Most important, a better customer experience

That said, be sure that callbacks happen in a timely manner.

Make a plan, but be ready to adapt

With forecasts in hand and an arsenal of deflections tools—a software solution that includes self-service, live chat, and workflow apps—support managers can prepare their teams to gracefully handle unexpected high call volumes.

And by meeting the challenge of high call volume with proven, data-driven tactics, businesses can set themselves up to manage the expected—and the unexpected.