Average Handle Time (AHT) is one of the most used, and often most misused, metrics in a call center. AHT is generally calculated with this formula:

(Talk Time + Hold Time + After Call Work)/(Total Calls)

AHT is an important metric because it directly relates to call center cost, staffing, and forecasting. If you can lower the overall AHT of your contact center, you can lower costs. A good intentioned manager might do some average handle time analysis and try to incentivize lower AHT by offering bonuses to agents with the lowest AHT. Some managers might also start penalizing agents who don’t meet AHT goals. Often after the implementation of these types of incentives or disincentives, managers will start seeing lower customer satisfaction (CSAT), lower first call resolution (FCR), increased transfers, and lower quality scores. The not so secret reason: aggressive AHT management.

So, the dilemma for managers is what do we do with AHT without adversely affecting call quality and other metrics?

Improved Average Handle Time Strategy

AHT is necessary for understanding how many agents you need to staff at any given time. Many workforce management (WFM) systems can actually forecast this for you. These systems look at your forecasted call volume and determine how many agents you will need at any given time based on the average time it takes an agent to complete a call. Accurately forecasting staffing levels should be the primary use of AHT. If your organization is still managing this forecast manually, it may be time to upgrade your WFM solution.  Additionally, successful contact centers usually leverage AHT in the following ways:

  • Do use AHT as a complementary metric: for example, use AHT in conjunction with Quality and FCR. If you are seeing lower than average quality scores, analyze the AHT of the calls. Are the agents finishing too quickly or do you see your agents taking too long because they don’t know how to handle the situation? Similarly, if you see low FCR combined with low AHT, your agents might be rushing through issues without solving your customers’ problems.
  • Don’t use AHT as a requirement for promotions or raises: this practice goes back to how agents will naturally react to AHT requirements. Agents will prematurely transfer calls to lower their own AHT, or they might feel rushed and miss key process requirements on calls. AHT can be used as a tie-breaker in shift bids, promotions, etc. but it should not be a primary measure of success for your agents.

Setting Average Handle Time Targets

An AHT target is a guideline for agents and managers, but shouldn’t be the main measure of success for a contact center. When you set a target for AHT, there needs to be a discussion of values first. Is your business one that values customer satisfaction and success, or do you value cost savings above all else? The answer to this question will drive how you analyze and set targets for AHT. Most organizations value customer satisfaction and realize that contact centers are the front lines of customer engagement and retention. Successful organizations understand that it takes time for agents to develop a relationship with their customers and understand their customers’ needs. Below are some best practices when performing average handle time analysis and setting targets:

  • Do set different targets for different call types: Some contact centers set an average target of 500 seconds for all calls. This is a misunderstanding of how agents handle calls, and how managers can coach agents. A general information call might only take 100 seconds, and a technical question might take 900 seconds. Having data and setting targets based on call type will give your coaches more flexibility in how they train and prepare agents for success.
  • Don’t overreact if you don’t meet your AHT target: AHT should be a secondary measure of success. If you aren’t meeting your AHT target, but you are still exceeding in quality, CSAT, and FCR, your contact center can still be considered successful. If you are consistently missing your target for AHT, don’t go after your agents to solve the problem, look at what you can automate and what processes take longer times to complete.
  • Do consider eliminating the AHT target for your agents: Many successful organizations don’t set targets for AHT for their agents because they want their agents’ main focus to be solving customer problems. While this technique can be beneficial for some organizations, it doesn’t fit for every business; however, it should be part of the discussion when you begin to set targets. Another hybrid approach would be to identify teams that shouldn’t have a target such as sales and retention teams, and only eliminate AHT targets for those teams.

AHT is a tricky metric and one that has been around since the dawn of contact centers. Love it or hate it, AHT is a metric used by all contact centers in some capacity. How your organization uses AHT however, can define your contact center’s success. Contact centers are the front lines of your business, and developing a robust strategy around how your agents handle calls is necessary for success. Additionally, understanding the implications of AHT targets, WFM optimization, and the use of AHT as a complementary metric is imperative to the development of an industry leading call center.

Contact our experts if you have questions about metrics and insight into your contact centers.