Automatic Call Distribution: Overview & Call Routing Examples

March 11, 2023 8 min read

Dominic Kent

Dominic Kent

What Is Automatic Call Distribution?

It’s not surprising that your customers want to resolve their concerns the first time they call you. And no one wants to wait on hold for what seems like ages or be bounced around multiple call center agents.

One of the best ways to prevent this is to set up an automatic call distribution (ACD). This phone system feature helps your agents better manage each call that comes in and boost your customer satisfaction rate.  

Let’s go over what an ACD does, how it works, and its key benefits. 

What is an automatic call distribution system?

Automatic call distribution (ACD) is a call management feature within a business phone system. ACD answers incoming calls and routes them to an available agent.

You can distribute calls based on caller ID, business hours, support level, and IVR selections. As a result, inbound calls reach the right agent or department quickly and without the caller having to dial a different number.

Automatic call distributors prevent unnecessary transfers by getting inbound calls to the appropriate agent with skill-based routing or other distribution methods. And since it reaches the right agent, handle times can remain low with improved customer satisfaction.

What is the difference between IVR and ACD?

An ACD system is sometimes confused with interactive voice response (IVR). An IVR refers to the series of menu choices or prompts given to an incoming call to reach a specific department. An example of an IVR menu prompt is, “Press 1 for sales. Press 2 for customer support.”

IVR menu prompts callers to press the key on their phone that corresponds to the department they’re trying to reach or the purpose of their phone call. Once the customer presses a key, ACD routing automatically connects the call to the appropriate agent.

To summarize the difference between IVR and ACD, IVR determines the intent of the incoming call. ACD then connects them to the right agent with the best skill set to handle it.

FunctionInteractive Voice Response (IVR)Automatic Call Distribution (ACD)
Data sourceCustomer data such as location, local time, and caller ID.Employee data such as department, skillset, and available agents.
Self-serviceYes, self-service options reduce call volumes.No self-service options are available.
Typical useObtaining caller intent and connecting them to the right queue.Directing incoming calls to available agents.

How does automatic call distribution work?

To route calls properly, ACD performs the following steps with each phone call. 

Step 1: Determines call purpose

Determining the nature of the incoming call is essential for getting it to the right person. This is done either through:

  • IVR: Callers can indicate why they’re calling by pressing the corresponding number on their phone provided by the IVR menu.
  • Dialed Number Identity Service (DNIS): This call center feature helps contact center agents see the phone number dialed by the incoming call. It can also be useful for ACD routing.

Step 2: Manages the call queue

Next, ACD places each phone call in the correct call queue. A call queue is a “waiting” area for calls to sit until the next available agent answers them. If customers wait on hold, they are in the queue.

The automatic call distribution system determines the order of the call queues based on factors like:

  • Agent availability (also known as CTI status)
  • Caller wait time
  • Agent skills
  • Customer data from a CRM integration

Sometimes, a contact center agent needs to fast-track a call to another department. Rather than transferring a phone call to the bottom of a call queue, they use call conferencing to reach the top. 

In addition, the ACD employs active call monitoring to anticipate the availability of the next customer support agents throughout the day. It tracks computer telephony integration (CTI) states, such as available, after-call work, idle, or unavailable

Step 3: Connect calls

The final step of the ACD routing process is call handling and termination. Simply, that means it connects the caller to a live agent.

But the phone system might offer a callback option if they’re unavailable. This feature saves their place in the call queue but lets them carry on with other tasks. Then, when an agent is ready to accept an incoming call, the ACD places an outbound callback.

While configuring an ACD algorithm might sound daunting, setting up ACD is straightforward. In addition, you can customize your routing strategy based on your business needs.

hosted contact center directs your calls based on your rules and criteria. Next, we’ll get into the types of incoming call routing options you can use with an ACD.

Types of ACD distribution methods

The best ACD routing option for your business depends on three things: 

  • What your call center software provider is capable of 
  • Which customer experience is most important for your business
  • The number of available agents and possibly the time of day 

There are five ACD distribution methods to choose from.

1) Round-robin

Round-robin call routing is the simplest way to distribute phone calls. Inbound customer calls are distributed in a fixed queue within your team.

Example: If five agents are available, the first incoming call will go to the first agent. After they accept that call, the next one goes to the second agent. Finally, after the fifth agent is busy, the first agent receives a call, and the process starts again.

2) Talk time-based

Talk time-based call distribution aims to ensure that agents talk to callers for the same amount of time of day, so no one agent is taking on more calls than the others. It works similarly in practice to round-robin distribution.

Example: When a call comes in, it will be routed to the agent with the least handle time. When the next call comes in, the same process repeats, and so on. 

3) Fixed order

Fixed order call distribution, sometimes called regular ACD routing, needs a specified order to be determined. That is, calls will be connected to specific agents in the order that you specify.

Example: The policy always insists on routing in hierarchical order if three agents are assigned to the call center. If agents one and two are unavailable, customer calls will be directed to the third agent.

4) Uniform

Uniform call routing sends the inbound call to the agent that has been available the longest. Once they accept a call, they return to the queue until they have the longest available time again. This divvies the call volume to be fairer among staffers, especially for those with a low average handle time.

Example: If you have five agents on your team and agent one took a call seven minutes ago, and agent two received a call 16 minutes ago, the next incoming call will be directed to agent two.

5) Simultaneous

Simultaneous call distribution rings all the available agents’ phones ring simultaneously, thus shortening the call queue. Routing calls this way is ideal when speed is essential to your business. In addition, this minimizes the odds that calls will go to voicemail.

Example: If you have three members of a call group, all of their phones will ring when a new call comes in. The one who answers it first takes the call.

6) Weighted

A weighted call routing plan lets managers set a portion of calls to be routed to specific agents, adding up to 100%. This approach is similar to a sales pipeline for new leads.

Directing calls this way is great for onboarding new employees or routing calls toward your best-performing agents.

Common use cases for weighted routing include weighing calls based on the following: 

  • Expertise and skillsets: the agent with the deepest level of expertise will be weighted the highest
  • Language skills: agents with certain language skills will get more calls than others
  • Customer satisfaction: agents with higher customer satisfaction scores will speak with more callers

Example: You have 100 customer calls coming in and three available agents. The first agent has a 40% weighted call distribution, the second agent has 25%, and the third agent has 35%. Therefore, the call routing policy will deliver 40 calls to an agent one, 25 calls to agent two, and 35 to the third agent.

Benefits of ACD systems 

Underperforming contact center agents often need more authority to resolve an issue, even when the solution is obvious. They might also need to gain the experience or skills to handle customer calls effectively.

Imagine how it feels to reach the wrong person for your issue. It happens on customer calls every day. Then, consider the customer service agent’s impact on the overall customer experience.

ACD aims to manage large call volumes and increase the efficiency of contact centers. In turn, this raises the importance of customer satisfaction across the call center.

Everybody wins when they can reach the correct agent in the shortest amount of time.

Almost 90% of customers that reach a call center expect their issue to be resolved in one call. SQM Group, an analytics software company, found that each unavoidable follow-up interaction costs the brand a 15% drop in customer satisfaction.

These aren’t numbers you want to overlook.

Especially not when you know that first call resolution (FCR) is one of the most critical call center metrics. When you measure the resolution rate well, it allows you to optimize many other things, such as:

  • Lower operating costs
  • Decrease customer churn
  • Higher employee engagement
  • Improve customer experiences
  • Real-time analytics and dashboards
  • Boost customer referrals

Optimizing your contact center’s call routing is not only better for improving your customer and employee experience, but it’s also better for the bottom line. 

When to update automatic call distribution rules

There are a few signs you should update your ACD call routing:

  1. Agents are manually placing calls into a different call queue.
  2. Call recordings suggest incoming calls reached the wrong live agent.
  3. Significant business changes where the underlying automation no longer applies.

How does ACD improve a caller’s experience?

Speed matters to customers. Two-thirds of consumers will only wait on hold for up to two minutes. In an omnichannel world, delivering a consistent customer experience across interactions is crucial.

There’s simply no excuse for having call wait times of over two hours like the below real-life example. 

Fact: Fewer customers tolerate poor customer experiences. A 2022 study by Salesforce found that two-thirds of customers said they often have to repeat or re-explain information to different contact center agents.

When you optimize your inbound call routing, it has a massive impact on your customer experience. Automatic call distribution software can lead to:  

  • Shorter wait times 
  • Fewer customer callbacks
  • Improved customer resolution rates
  • Reliable data tracking in CRM
  • Positive word of mouth on social media

Aside from these core benefits, ACD increases customer satisfaction differently, according to Charley Dirksen, Chief Wellbeing Officer at Nowatch.

“By implementing an ACD system, we’re able to convert our generic customer support agents into experts. This had an immediate impact on employee satisfaction as the agents were able to specialize on certain topics. This kept their jobs challenging and exciting, instead of mundane and predictable. The direct result? Happy employees and happy customers. A true win-win situation.”

Charley Dirksen

Where can I get an automatic call distributor?

We have good news if you have a small business phone system like Nextiva. You don’t have to get separate automatic call distribution software because you likely have some ACD built-in functionality. In addition, select contact center solutions include advanced automatic call distribution.

For those using an older PBX, you’ll have to begin a search for compatible hardware, software, and experts to configure automatic call distribution. The upfront pricing could be pretty high.

Or you can choose a ready-to-use call center solution to handle all calls with the call routing you want. Customer service agents don’t need desk phones; you can launch within weeks, not months. And, the monthly or yearly pricing is significantly lower than it would be with an on-premises system. 

With a seamless IVR and ACD system, you can achieve the ultimate goal for your contact center: keep your customers and agents happy.

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Dominic Kent


Dominic Kent

Dominic Kent is a content marketer specializing in unified communications and contact centers. After 10 years of managing installations, he founded UC Marketing to bridge the gap between service providers and customers. He spends half of his time building content marketing programs and the rest writing on the beach with his dogs.

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