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Target shoppers faced long waits post-security breach

Frustrated customers who fell victim to Target's massive credit card breach this holiday season didn't get much relief in terms of wait times on the company's phone lines.

According to data from StellaService, which rates retailers on customer service, wait times spiked after news that the accounts of 40 million customers had been breached, as panicked consumers reached out to the retailer for answers.

(Read more: Customers paying the price after data breach)

Following news of the breach, which broke on Dec. 18, StellaService callers were disconnected from the line during three separate calls it made on each of two days. In two other instances, the caller waited on hold for 20 minutes before ending the call.

This follows StellaService's protocol. Every day of the year, the company's representatives place one call, send an email and live chat with retailers to gauge their responsiveness. If the call is disconnected, the line is down or the caller gets a busy signal, they abandon their efforts after three tries.

A Target customer prepares to sign a credit card slip.
Getty Images
A Target customer prepares to sign a credit card slip.

In Target's case, on each of the four days StellaService failed to get through, the average wait times for other mass merchants maxed out at 5 minutes and 6 seconds on Dec. 20, and they collectively posted their quickest average time of 1 minute and 20 seconds on Dec. 22.

StellaService was attempting to reach Target on its standard customer service number, which is posted on its website. However, affected customers also had access to a hotline set up following the breach, and StellaService did not test that line.

Target also saw spikes in its email support, particularly from Dec. 18 to 25, with the longest response time being two days and 18 hours on Dec. 23. By comparison, the retailer's average response time over the past three months was below eight hours, according to StellaService.

(Read more: Target faces problems with gift cards sold over holidays)

"This is just a major lesson to retailers that if they don't have a fire drill policy in place for this type of event, Target is a great example of how things can catch you by surprise," said Ty McMahan, StellaService's director of content.

Despite the long wait times, McMahan commended the company for making an effort to staff up and connect with customers.

The company says it experienced significantly higher volume at its call centers and online, which caused delays. "We worked hard to resolve this issue by adding hundreds of team members and system capacity as quickly as possible," a Target spokewoman said. "We apologized for the inconvenience and appreciated our guests' patience as we built capacity hour by hour until we met all our guests' needs."

The discount retailer announced on Dec. 26 that it had tripled support at its call center, after which McMahan said wait times dropped "significantly." After three disconnected calls on that date, which were made after the announcement, wait times were reduced to between 1 minute 30 seconds and about 14 minutes, while email responses came in at less than two hours.

However, he noted that an email on Dec. 30 required more than three days for a reply.

(Read more: Analyst: Target sales trends better despite breach)

McMahan said it's important to keep in mind that despite the data breach, December is a busy time for retailers, who can be inundated with concerns from holiday shoppers.

He noted that it was also difficult for the retailer to keep its head above water as the story continued to develop, including news that shoppers' PIN numbers were stolen. The company later said that PIN number information was kept safe.

"They're trying to be reactive but again, they kept having very public things happening," McMahan said.

"All you can really do is look at how they tried to communicate with customers," he said. "What we do know is that they made a pretty tremendous effort to spread the message to all of their customers who could have been affected."

StellaService does not yet have data on wait times for the month of January, due to a time lag in gathering the results for quality assurance.

—By CNBC's Krystina Gustafson. Follow her on Twitter @KrystinaGustafs.

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