What makes a good customer experience? Is it the same as what makes a productive call center? There’s a lot of overlap, but some call centers place too much importance on call volume when call quality carries far more weight. Just because you reduce average handle time (AHT) in your call center doesn’t mean your customers are suddenly going to be more satisfied.
While AHT is an important data point, it shouldn’t be the end-all metric for performance. It’s quite limited in its scope and influence. Let’s take a look at the power of average handle time in a call center, when it’s valuable, how to use it, and what to keep in mind.
What is Call Center Average Handle Time (AHT)?
Average handle time (AHT) is one of the most common call center service metrics. It measures the average amount of time your agents spend to resolve customer service calls. It covers all time spent handling the customer, including holds, delays, transfers, and follow-up actions. And it doesn’t just work for phone calls; it can also be used for chat and email.
Measuring AHT is incredibly simple.
(Talk + Hold + Delay + Follow-Up) / #Calls = Average Handle Time (calculated in minutes or seconds)
For example, let’s say your call center had 200 calls that lasted a total of 2,000 minutes. And for those calls, hold times totaled 500 minutes and another 200 minutes in other delays (dropped calls, transfers, etc.). On top of that, your agents spent 300 minutes in follow-up actions. Your call center average handle time is 15 minutes.
(2,000 + 500 + 200 + 300) / 200 = 15 Minutes AHT
Chat can be measured the same way as phone, including measuring the wait time to speak with an agent on chat. However, if you measure email, there’s no hold time, but probably more follow-up. Adjust the formula as needed for each platform.
What are Industry Benchmarks for AHT?
So, how does 15 minutes per call stand up to the industry standard AHT? It’s way too high.
According to Call Centre Magazine, the global industry benchmark for AHT (regardless of industry and team size) is 6 minutes and 3 seconds. A separate study by Cornell University measured AHT across industries, and here’s what they found:
- AHT Telecommunications = 528 seconds
- AHT Retail = 324 seconds
- AHT Business & IT Services = 282 seconds
- AHT Financial Services = 282 seconds
So, what does this all mean?
Pros and Cons of Measuring AHT
Are you failing at customer service and call center productivity if your business falls short of the industry standards? Do you need to rework everything to improve this one metric? No.
Average handle time in the call center is a lazy metric that overly simplifies a very complex issue—customer experience. If you change all of your focus to chasing quicker calls and higher call volume, quality will inevitably suffer. It is not a winning strategy.
Instead, you need to look at AHT as just a piece of the puzzle—a valuable but limited piece.
How to Use Average Handle Time Correctly
Trends Over Time
Average handle time in the call center is valuable when you use it to measure productivity in the call center over time. Compare AHT month-over-month to see if your times are trending up or down. This can give you an idea about the efficiency of your call center, how your agents respond to peak times, or what happens to call center productivity when a new product or service is released.
When it comes to hold times, those should be extremely short. Experts agree that agents should pick up the phone within the first 20 seconds. Using AHT to track your hold and wait times can be extremely helpful if you want happy customers. Look at your average hold times, and instances where it peaks, to figure out why it’s so high.
Call Routing and Distribution
Customer flow is essential to productivity, and poor workflow can kill your average handle time. If your AHT is high, check to ensure that your calls and chats are being routed and distributed appropriately. By sending customers to the right teams and agents who are best suited to answer their problems is one of the easiest ways to improve productivity and ensure conflicts are results on first contact.
AHT can be greatly affected by your comprehensive knowledge database. If you’re getting a lot of quick calls about simple questions because that information is not easily available online, a short AHT is not actually indicative of good customer experiences because you could cut out many of those customer interactions with a better knowledge base online.
At the same time, an internal knowledge base for your agents can reduce average handle time by making it easier for your agents to answer even the most difficult questions. If they have immediate access to important information, then less time will be spent searching for a solution, ultimately improving customer satisfaction.
Compare with Other Metrics
As we said, AHT is a lazy metric that cannot be observed in isolation. There are many other call center performance metrics for both productivity and customer service that should be reviewed in conjunction with average handle time. It’s how all these metrics look together that will give you the best understanding of your call center.
Some call center metrics to consider include:
- Abandonment rate
- Average time in queue
- First call resolution rate
- Adherence rate
- Average after-call time
- Cost per call
- Annual turnover rate
- Customer satisfaction (CSAT and NPS)
Combine with Call Monitoring and Quality Assurance
A long AHT does not mean poor customer service and a short AHT doesn’t mean great productivity and customer experiences. If you want to know why your average handle time is as long as it is, you need to do some in-depth research.
Using a call monitoring software, and listening to calls that are both long and short to figure out what contributed to the AHT. Then review QA scorecards to ascertain how the agent felt the interaction went. By carefully observing what’s happening in your customer interactions, AHT can become a more valuable metric.
Did the customer have a complicated issue? Did a transfer happen during the call? Was the customer placed on hold for a long time? Was the call center script not followed?
The Impact of AHT on Customer Experience and Agent Performance
Customers want efficiency. In every interaction with your call center, they want to feel that their request was handled quickly, carefully, and personally. If your only goal is to get them in and out the door as quickly as possible, you’re going to fail. But that doesn’t mean you have to abolish average handle time to provide high-quality customer experiences.
When average handle time in the call center is compared with other metrics, combined with QA, and reviewed for those areas where it provides the most value—trends over time, hold times, and workflow—it can be a valuable tool for productivity. The key is to understand when AHT indicates weakness and when it doesn’t match up with the customer experience. It’s all about context.