Automatic Call Distribution (ACD) Explained

Graphic representation of the automatic call distribution process.

We have all experienced automatic call distribution (ACD), sometimes also called automated call distribution, when calling our favorite (or not so favorite) companies.    

Here’s what ACD often sounds like: “Please hold… All our agents are assisting other callers”

But what is ACD, or automatic call distribution, really? Let’s dive a little deeper into the meaning and definition of this common call center technology term.

What is an Automatic Call Distribution System?  

Automated call distribution (ACD) is simply a fancy word used to describe a feature of business phone systems, known more commonly to the general public as “call queuing” for inbound phone calls.

According to the TIA automatic call distribution is a device that distributes incoming calls to a specific group of terminals. 

In other words, ACD systems offer advanced functionality to queues to route inbound callers to the appropriate person or department in the most efficient manner to optimize the callers’ experience.   

Well-managed ACD systems offer  a variety of call distribution techniques, to eliminate distractions that can overwhelm agents or employees answering these phone calls, resulting in happier employees and improved customer engagement.   

How Do Automatic Call Distribution vs. Interactive Voice Response (IVR) Differ?

By now, hopefully, you’re beginning to understand the meaning of ACD. What about interactive voice response, or IVR? 

Interactive voice response (IVR) technology is often a part of the automatic call distribution process. What is it? According to IBM IVR is “an automated telephone system that combines pre-recorded messages or text-to-speech technology so callers can provide or access information without a live agent.

IVR technology is helpful in weeding out what a caller’s reason for calling is and, therefore, what kind of help they need, or who they need to be re-routed to next. 

ACD & Skills-Based Routing

If automatic call routing is the overarching process of routing inbound callers to available agents, then skills-based routing adds another layer to that process: ensuring that the person answering the caller is sufficiently knowledgeable about the topic or reason the customer is calling. 

This makes it so that customers don’t get routed around in circles to try to speak to the right person (Ever been there? Us too – it’s why we incorporate intelligent skills-based routing to our clients here at Vaspian!)

How ACD Impacts the Customer Experience

ACD systems that effectively implement IVR and offer good first-call resolution (FCR) rates (more on that very soon) can make or break the customer experience … Callers want: 

  1. To speak to a representative as quickly as possible
  2. Their call handled by the best possible person available

To be provided with options that simplify and optimize their overall experience 

ACD & First Call Resolution (FCR): A Case Study

Recently, one of our founders here at Vaspian had to change travel plans for his mother, who was coming into town for a Christmas visit. A major snowstorm was affecting the northeast and she had booked her flight on Airline #1. Knowing that she would be frustrated with the experience, he volunteered to call and make the necessary changes to move her flight and make sure she wasn’t going to be stranded somewhere for Christmas. Here is the transcript of that experience:

Airline #1 Call Attempt 1: 

“Thank you for calling; our call center is experiencing high call volume. Please visit our website for faster service. Please tell me what you are calling about?”

“Speak to a representative”

“Okay I understand you would like to speak to a representative. Please tell me a little more about why you are calling. You can say things like book a flight, cancel a reservation, change an existing reservation….”

“Change an existing reservation”

The system then placed the call-in queue and they continued to wait on hold, listening to hold music for 15 minutes until it ended and then an awkward silence making them wonder if the  call had been answered by an agent or if they were lost somewhere in the abyss. Several minutes later hold music came back on and after 27 minutes, they were  greeted to the harsh sound of a fast busy signal for 15 seconds resulting in the call being disconnected.

Airline #1 Call Attempt 2: 

This was more of the same, except now they were able to use their previous experience to navigate their menu system more promptly. The system then routed them to the queue, where they waited another 34 minutes before finally being answered by an agent.   

During the second wait on hold, they became frustrated with the experience, wondering if the system was going to disconnect again. While waiting on hold, they started shopping for alternatives.  This prompted them to call Airline #2 from another phone while on hold.

Airline #2 Call Attempt 1:   

“Thank you for calling Airline #2 …. (Pause). Welcome back, Greg.  (Pause). Please tell me why you are calling so that I can better assist you?

“Book a flight”

“Okay, you would like to book a flight – let me get you to a representative that can help (Pause).  We are currently experiencing high call volume. Your estimated wait time is 10 Minutes – instead of waiting on hold, we can call you back when an agent comes available.  You will not lose your place in line; would you like the system to call you back or continue to wait on hold?”


“Okay, would you like the system to call you back on the number you are calling from”


“Thank you for calling… You may hang up at any time and an agent from Airline #2 will call you back in 10 minutes…. ”

They hang up and go back to the wonderful music on hold with their second attempt to reach someone at Airline #1. About 8 minutes later, an agent finally answered the call. The representative is very helpful. She asks a series of questions to provide the confirmation number and itinerary and then tried to offer options to move theirmother’s flight.   

She then asks to put them on hold to research other travel options.

The second phone rings with a caller ID from Airline #2.  They answer and a representative by the name of Alexandria picks up and asks: 

“Hi, is this Greg?”.  

To which they answer “Yes” and provide her some background on theirmom’s travel situation and provide her with a few flights to look at. Alexandria quickly pulled up the flights and quotes them $380 less on a route that avoids the snowstorm and safely gets theirmother here on time for Christmas. She asks if theyI would like to book the travel, to which they quickly say “YES PLEASE!”

Why This Story Is Important

Both calls were handled by ACD systems, and both delivered completely different customer experiences, resulting in differing outcomes

One company lost business through not being able to handle my call within a single attempt.  In the call center world, this is known as First Call Resolution (FCR)

First Call Resolution is a key performance indicator (KPI) for all call centers large or small. By resolving issues on the first call, employers save money by being more effective, reducing overall labor costs, and by improving customer satisfaction, resulting in less customer churn.  

Airline #2 on the other hand, won new business by providing a simpler experience, faster customer service and by providing a better set of tools to optimize the call. 

Final Thoughts

Understanding automatic call distribution’s meaning and its significance to call centers can help your business earn more revenue and increase customer loyalty. 
If you’re looking for a business phone system that works for you by incorporating cutting-edge ACD processes and technologies, start with Vaspian!

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