Contact Center Call Routing Methods

What You Need to Know


  • Customer service call routing methods use rules-based decision engines or algorithms to route each caller to the best fit customer service representative.
  • Intelligent call transfers improve customer satisfaction while lowering customer service costs.
  • An optimized call distribution system can increase agent productivity by 5 to 7 percent and lower contact center costs by 2 to 4 percent.
Johnny Grow Revenue Growth Consulting

Intelligent call distribution increases customer satisfaction while addressing business imperatives for higher efficiency and lower cost to serve.

There are different techniques to place incoming calls in queues and forward them to an agent or customer support representative (CSR) based on defined rules. They essentially define the best path to send each caller to the CSR that is best suited to resolve their inquiry.

The two overarching goals of are to achieve customer satisfaction and call center efficiency. Many times, a balanced objective for the two goals is pursued. But every time customer service call routing must manage fluid customer demand and the influx of call volume within the confines of limited resources.

Benefits and Payback

When optimized, call center call routing delivers significant and sustained payback. Benefits include the following:

  • Improved customer service and better customer experiences. By applying intelligent rules to route each caller to the best available resource, key measures such as first contact resolution (FCR) and speed of answer (SoA) are improved, which directly drives improvement to customer satisfaction (CSAT) scores and customer retention rates.
  • Reduced caller wait time, which also lowers the call abandonment rate. Routing also queues inbound calls to reduce dead-air periods between calls, which improves CSR utilization.
  • Increases in agent productivity created from higher fit case work and more balanced workloads. This further lowers cost-per-contact and drives down overall operational costs.
  • Improved sales conversions to drive revenue growth.
  • More contact center management options, such as increased coverage from linking multiple sites or virtual resources, or using transfer capabilities that forward and distribute select calls, prioritize high value calls and use customer self-service channels.

Call Routing Methods

Most call centers simply route callers to agents based on sequence or availability and without regard to criteria that can improve CSAT and lower cost to serve. These basic call routes don't consider historical or real-time characteristics of callers and agents in order to connect the optimal combinations. That's a missed opportunity.

A better approach is to use historical, real-time and even predictive analytics in a decision engine to dynamically route calls in ways that achieve improved results and business outcomes.

Designing intelligent call routes is based on a combination of methods and technologies.

Call Routing Methods

See the customer service call routing methods and technologies that improve customer satisfaction, increase agent productivity and lower contact center costs.

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Here we share the top call transfer and routing methods, starting with the simplest that achieve incremental benefits and advancing to more sophisticated methods that drive bigger payback and more strategic business outcomes.

  • Direct Routing
    Also called Hunt Groups, this routing method most commonly connects callers to company departments. For example, click 1 for Sales or click 2 for Customer Service. Different departments may have different phone numbers. Direct routing works for very small customer support groups but falls short for companies pursuing performance improvements.

The problems with direct routing are that when different phone numbers are used, the customer is expected to remember which numbers to use for each type of call, calls are routed based on sequence so when lines are busy can incur long wait times, it doesn't apply intelligence to match callers with agents and it doesn't scale.

  • Availability-based Routing
    This is a common method among small support groups. It often uses an ACD (Automatic Call Distribution) system to distribute the longest-waiting calls to the longest-waiting advisors. When resources are at capacity, the system holds callers in a queue until the next CSR becomes available.
  • Cascading Calls
    A variant of the direct routing method, this method routes calls to a sequence of prioritized CSRs. It's most often intended to route the most calls to the most qualified agents. Agents with more experience or skills are prioritized ahead of the lesser experienced. It can be effective for small support teams as steering more calls to veteran agents will improve customer outcomes and call center performance metrics.

However, these performance factors are quickly negated during peak periods. More so, because the more experienced agents generally cost more and this method doesn't maximize agent utilization, it increases the single biggest contact center cost of labor.

  • Skills-based Routing
    This method uses caller intent or similar data to pass the caller to an agent with the specific skills to resolve the type of service requested. This may be as simple as passing callers based on their spoken language or based on more sophisticated criteria such as product knowledge or identifying at-risk customers that should be forwarded to customer retention specialists.

Skills-based routing may also be used to respond to marketing campaigns or sales inquiries to increase offer conversions or sales close rates. ACD or IVR systems may gather the customer needs, or the CRM software system may use the customer case history, to determine the caller's need.

The challenge with this method is defining and measuring skills. Sometimes skills are specific to products or services, other times they are related to processes (i.e., orders, billing, returns or customer support) and often they are combination of multiple factors. A cross matrix hierarchy is generally the best tool to designate and score skills.

The upside of skills-based routing is that when customer needs are matched to agent competencies, key metrics such as call transfers, FCR, SoA and cost per case decline while CSAT rises. When cases are resolved faster, wait times decrease.

  • Priority-based Routing
    This method assigns calls to CSRs based on the urgency of the call, importance of the call or value of the customer. Urgent, important or high value calls may be forwarded to an accelerated queue staffed with the most senior agents while all other calls are distributed to a universal queue. Or alternatively, priority-based calls may be sent to the same group of agents as all other calls but prioritized so they are responded to first.
  • Least Occupied Call Center Routing
    Least occupied routing connects the next inbound call to the CSR with the least amount of calls that day. It often uses an occupancy rate calculation, defined as the percentage of time that an agent spends on the phone over the course of the day, to determine call distribution.

This method helps achieve more equitable agent utilization, prevents individual agents from becoming overworked and avoids the back-of-the queue game where agents who do not want to take calls alter their status to show themselves unavailable.

The downside is that it really doesn't maximize agent time or utilization and it leads to wasted time as it doesn't send callers to agents who are specialized to deal with the callers' request. Novice agents will receive calls for which they are not familiar and tenured or specialist agents will receive basic calls that could have been resolved by less experienced agents.

  • Location-based Call Center Routing
    Location or geographic-based routing identifies a caller's location using the telephone number, account identifier, Interactive Voice Response (IVR) prompt or Automatic Number Identification (ANI) and routes the call to an agent based on proximity or location.

This method can use a single telephone number but forward callers based on their location. It may escalate to alternate locations if the first destination is busy. It's popular when language is a criteria item to select among agents or when using offshore locations to deliver customer service across multiple time zones.

The downside of this method is that caller location may be inaccurate for first time callers or callers using mobile phones with varying service areas.

  • Time-based Routing
    Time-based routing applies time of the day to route callers to agents. This method is sometimes referred to as 'follow the sun' and most often used to deliver customer support across time zones or 24 hours per day. Where support operations reside in multiple countries it may be adjusted for holidays.
  • Round Robin
    Round Robin is one of the most popular call center call routing best practices. This method dispenses incoming calls across agents so that calls are evenly distributed. It sometimes sets a maximum number of rings for each recipient before advancing to the next designated person. Round Robin routing is frequently used with inside sales reps to ensure that every rep receives an equal allocation of inbound sales leads. This method increases the likelihood of calls being answered timely and ensures an equitable distribution of calls.
  • Customer account-based routing
    Customer-based routing, also called account-based or value-based routing, considers the actual or potential value of the customer when prioritizing the call. High value customers may be assigned to accelerated queues and more experienced agents.

Another option is to review the prior customer experience, and if the CSAT score was high, route the caller to the same advisor. This practice enhances the customer relationship and preempts a common customer complaint of speaking to too many different reps. Agent continuity also improves FCR and SoA for customer issues related to installations, troubleshooting or open cases. Other options include using account-based routing to identify customers near renewals or to flag customers at risk of churn so they can be forwarded to agents trained in customer retention.

Customer-based routing requires integration to the CRM system to access case history, determine if there are open cases, identify if the caller is a high value customer, or other conditions such as whether the customer is at risk of churn.

Customer-based routing can be proactive or interactive. Proactive routing considers customer-specific value criteria such as those items mentioned above while interactive routing alters the flow based on what's learned during the call. The Customer-based routing method is the most effective in protecting and growing customer revenue and retaining the company's most valuable customers.

  • Campaign-based Routing
    This method forwards calls regarding specific promotions, offers or other marketing campaigns to agents or insides sales reps charged with converting those offers to sales. Callers responding to campaigns may be identified based on tags from digital ads or specially designated telephone numbers. When integrated to CRM software, the inbound screen pop may include whisper tones or campaign scripts to aid agent conversation.

This method is effective in maximizing sales conversions and measuring marketing campaign performance. One caution with method is that when individual telephone numbers are assigned to campaigns, those numbers are eventually recycled or retired after the campaigns end.

That can create customer and agent confusion when late responses arrive. Especially when renting a toll-free number that may be forwarded to a different company in the future. This issue is best managed by using a limited set of toll-free numbers and retaining campaign profiles for an extended period.

  • Call Center Swarming
    This technique is an alternative to traditional call distribution or a multi-tiered support model. With swarming, tiers of support are replaced with a flat, cross-functional, multi-team collaboration. Instead of a defined multi-tier escalation path, teams of people apply their collective knowledge to quickly resolve the issue.

Contact center swarming is built on the three principals of team collaboration, a flat hierarchy and no escalations. A swarm may kick in when a case is not immediately resolved, and the incident is designated to a swarm. For small contact centers, the swarm may include every agent. For larger contact centers, swarms may be defined by skills, severity or other criteria.

This method was made popular by Cisco, who proved its viability and authored a white paper, titled Digital Swarming. The method was further popularized by the Consortium for Service Innovation, who evolved into what they call "Intelligent Swarming". This method is a bit unorthodox but when properly implemented is very effective in reducing bounces among support groups and accelerating FCR and SoA.

The Point is This

Based on our experience of implementing these methods and systems for more than three decades, we've learned the most effective method is a combination of multiple methods. Each has something to offer and a mix will deliver the highest performance metrics.

Part 2: Call Routing Technologies