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Average Handle Time (AHT) is a productivity measure that call center agents are often encouraged to reduce or stay close to a recommended time. Despite living in a customer centric world where the time spent on a call shouldn’t indicate pass or failure AHT remains one of the most common call center metrics.
We decided to put this question to group of contact center professionals on LinkedIn. There were many different views on the matter and this is a synopsis of the discussion and some commentary.

AHT is a Lazy Call Center Metric

Keith Stapleton, Director at Select Planning LTD kicked off the discussion by indicating that measuring AHT was a lazy man’s approach to call center performance;
“If you want to change it [AHT] then you need to change the things that influence it and as you said make sure any changes do not have negative side effects (in this case quality). Trying to change AHT directly is a sign of lazy management, meeting staff requirements through changes to AHT is a sign of lazy resource planning.” I’m not sure if everyone would agree with you on the lazy comment Keith but let’s see what they said.

High Quality Low AHT and High Quality High AHT

Junaid Sarwar, Head at Center of Excellence was quick defend the use of AHT and showed in detail its relationship with performance. Junaid made some excellent points and backed these up by his own call center’s results. In particular the examination of high quality low AHT and high quality high AHT is difficult to refute;
“We cannot overlook the importance of AHT in a contact center environment. Not only is it critical to business to ensure profitability but also important for the customers who want speedy and efficient service.

However the point here is that does focusing on AHT impact customer service. If you follow the traditional action plans of putting pressure on the team leads and CSR's to reduce AHT without telling them how to do it effectively, you are bound to impact customer experience.

There are many methodologies to maintain a balance between AHT and Customer satisfaction. Lean Management is one of them. In a layman language, just listen to the calls of "High Quality Low AHT" CSR's and compare it with the call observations of "High Quality High AHT" CSR’s. You will notice that bottom performers follow some non-value add steps on the call which top performers don’t. Just note down these non-value add steps and educate the entire floor on how to eliminate these non-value add steps. In no time, you will see a good improvement in AHT while maintaining or even improving quality. I have tried it and improved AHT from 168 seconds to 137 seconds while improving quality and VOC within a 3 month period.”
I’m impressed Junaid and thank you for such a detailed response!

Difference in Attitude towards AHT between In-house Call Centers and BPOs

Business Development Manager at West Thames College, Tom Johnston looked at the topic from a different standpoint discussing the difference between an in-house call center versus outsourcer.
“Whilst some argue that AHT should not be a major focus as that can destroy quality I think it's important to context the demand. As an outsourcer serving a client on a maximum talk time rate your focus will drive actions that differ from those of a manager running an in house centre that is not under such extreme budget pressure. I know. I've done both roles.”

Call Center Performance: there are Two Sides to Each Debate

A lively debate ensued with many points from both sides on the table being argued;

Robert Tuck, Head of Workforce Optimization at InterCall stated that people rarely support the idea of AHT and wondering who in an organisation was “clinging to it so dearly?”. One person who does look on AHT dearly is Hailee Pearsall, Existing Business Team Leader at ING DIRECT Australia, she is in favor of the use of AHT as it used “to encourage agents to be conscious of how they're using their time on the call.”
Koech Rop Japhet, a Quality analyst at Horizon Contact Centers said straight out “AHT should be kept at a minimal low”, Koech also included “however if a call is long and the objective met then its okay so long as it does not affect the overall service levels of operations.”

Ian Marr, Customer Management/Operations/Contact Centre Specialist; Management Consultant; Excel/MIS Solutions Professional thinks that AHT is fine, as long as it isn’t a sole focus;
“Call quality can and does get affected when AHT becomes a focal metric. Insisting that AHT is reduced is a definite way to reduce quality. Success in any call center can only be achieved through a balance of quantitative and qualitative metrics. Monitor the AHT most certainly, but focus on first call resolution and call drivers.”

Agent Input

St John Bevan of Reactive Scheduling pointed out how priority and agent input should be considered when discussing AHT “it's paramount you decide on your priorities and also take into account the views of your agents as to what they believe you should be focusing on.”

Agent Experience

Simon Priestley, Interim Head of Contact Centers at First: Utility
“AHT is a fundamental building block for the operational budget, and you do need to hit it or you could impact the bottom line, but with any KPI you have to use it sensibly. Aside from evaluating the link between call quality and AHT to make sure advisers have the time to get it right on the call, a commonly missed point is you also need to factor in average experience of your advisers. If you have 20% of your staff with less than 6 months experience, the "nirvana" AHT so carefully worked out by observing top quality calls will probably never be achieved as this usually means experience. Advisers are human (a point neglected way too often) so to expect everyone to deliver your budget AHT is impossible, it’s not appropriate as an agent metric.”

AHT Labeling

The Head of Contact Centers at ING DIRECT Australia, Paul Claassens, mentioned how they no longer refer to it as AHT, but instead use “average customer time” to emphasize the importance of the customer.

The Problem isn’t AHT, it’s Misunderstanding the Metric

So there seems to be many out there prepared to defend the use of AHT and these same people are saying that misunderstanding or misuse of AHT is where the problem lies, not AHT itself.
Christopher Rainsforth, Customer Experience and Quality Specialist at Professional Planning Forum had loads to say on this idea;
“AHT is a target that has been squeezed and stretched and managed incorrectly at a performance level that we don't actually understand what our AHT should be anymore.
I think that as an agent metric it is ineffective and can drive poor behavior as advisers feel pressured to deliver to a number which can be detrimental to customer experience. We need to give agents the time and space to have meaningful conversations and drive positive outcomes for the customer.
I also feel that managers need to be aware of an agent’s AHT and monitor/review calls where there are spikes either up or down outside the norm as this can give us the insight we need to;
a) Improve agent performance around knowledge gaps etc. or
b) Highlight a poor process or customer frustration that we can rectify to help our agents/customers in the future.”

Abolition of Average Handle Time?

There are some out there that agree it’s a good idea and there are others that have abolished AHT and have seen good results, like Darenn Plowright, an Experienced Customer Service and Contact Center Manager;
“We abolished AHT and opted to allow our service advisers to take as long as they (and the customer) needs on a call. The result was an increase in customer satisfaction, a reduction in repeat calls and improved service quality. However we did learn that these successes can only be delivered with a very robust program of coaching and staff empowerment.”

As you can see there are many sides to this argument, do you think average handle time is negatively impacting call center performance? Is there an important point that hasn’t been raised so far? Let us know in the comments below.

Tags: Customer Experience & Service, Call Center Metrics & KPIs