If you’ve put in a call to your bank’s customer service line any time since March, you’re probably well-acquainted with the words “higher-than-normal call volumes” and “extremely long wait times.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has overloaded many banks’ 1-800 lines, frustrating customers who are trying to get a live person on the phone.

In a survey by J.D. Power, one in four respondents said they’ve waited 10 minutes or more to speak to a live rep in 2020, versus one in five the year before. The average wait time in April 2020 was 6.87 minutes, versus 4.59 minutes in April 2019.

Anecdotal accounts suggest customers have had to wait much, much longer. Some customers have taken to social media at various points during the pandemic to report sitting on hold for anywhere from 30 minutes to over four hours.

Why are customer service wait times so long?

A perfect storm of factors have coincided because of COVID-19, and the result has been unusually long wait times for banking customers on hold.

Money problems

People facing job and income losses are turning to their banking institutions for guidance on how to qualify for assistance or better manage their finances. Banks are trying to keep up with the influx.

“They’re getting a lot of questions they weren’t getting before just because of the impact of the pandemic on people’s financial well being,” says Rose Polchin, senior consultant for the International Customer Management Institute.

Banks are fielding more requests to set up different payment arrangements for house notes and car loans.

“Before the pandemic, banks didn’t have millions of customers who couldn’t pay their bills or make their mortgage payments,” says Emmett Higdon, director of digital banking for Javelin Strategy & Research.

Remote work logistics

Customer service reps are among the legions of people who have suddenly found themselves working remotely.

Banks have faced the monumental task of having to mobilize employees to start working from home in a short amount of time, and they’ve had to equip people with connectivity, headsets, chairs and anything else reps might need to do their jobs.

The human factor

Customer service reps may be caring for an ill spouse or loved one, or they may have children doing virtual school work at home. Some employees may have even been affected by this year’s hurricanes or wildfires.

“These employees are dealing with their own stressors,” Polchin says.

Ways to get help

Although it might be tempting to pick up the phone and call for help, there are plenty of other options to explore.

“Too often customers will a little too readily call the call center when, in fact, there may well be an answer available elsewhere,” Higdon says.

Live chat

If your bank offers it, live chat may be your best bet to avoid sitting on hold. Ally, Citibank and U.S. Bank all offer a live chat feature.

“It’s better if you’ve got a simple question, but they can handle some pretty complex things,” Higdon says.

And if the chat can’t help you, it may be able to transfer you to a live agent or have one call you back.

Social media

Your bank’s social media page can be a powerful tool for getting someone to answer you. “If someone goes to their bank’s Facebook page and puts up a question about fees or posts about being unhappy, more often than not, banks have people monitoring those kinds of social media posts, and they’ll respond,” says Paul McAdam, senior director of banking and payments intelligence for J.D. Power.

Social media is also a useful way to get the latest updates, as banks tend to post their most up-to-date information on their social pages.

Mobile app

Banks are regularly adding new tools to their mobile apps, including functions that used to require a phone call. “More banks are giving customers the option to turn off their debit or credit cards if they have a concern about security or need to freeze their spending,” McAdam says.

Some banks will also allow you to cancel checks or dispute transactions on the app, as well as on their site.

“A lot of customers simply don’t realize these things are available through digital channels,” Higdon says. “Part of that is we’ve all been trained to call and have become a little lazy.”

Do some digging

Finding out what you need could be as simple as searching your bank’s site or mobile app to see if you can resolve your issue online. The frequently asked questions section of your bank’s site may have the answer you’re looking for, too.

Visit your nearby branch

Bank branches have upped their customer service game during the pandemic. If you’re comfortable going into a branch, it may make more sense to visit a bank then to sit on hold indefinitely. Branches have made masks available to customers and have posted signage for social distancing. Many branches will even allow you to set up a secure virtual appointment with a financial adviser or banker.

Time of day

Morning tends to be the busiest time for the customer service line; however, some banks provide estimated wait times so you can determine whether you still want to call.

Schedule a callback

Banks including Bank of America and BBVA Compass will allow you to schedule a time to talk to someone.

“The nice part is you’re scheduling at your convenience,” Higdon says. “You also have the ability to put in notes about why you’re calling.”

Secure message

Some banks provide the option of sending a secure message via their website or app, which allows you to attach a document or screen shot of the issue in question. “Talking to a rep won’t allow you to say, ‘Take a look at this,’” Higdon says.

Bank of America, Chase, Orrstown Bank and Umpqua Bank are a few institutions that offer this function.

Bottom line

Getting answers to your banking questions doesn’t have to be a hopeless pursuit. The trick is knowing how to navigate the system.

It’s also important to remember that the people you’re talking to are people, too, and they’re working to help you and plenty of other people, Polchin says.

“Unpack your patience,” she says. “This is a difficult time for everybody.”

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