Reducing average handle time (AHT) is a common way to bring contact center costs down, but this tactic can lead to poor call quality and customer dissatisfaction.
In this post, we’ll explore the various components of average handle time and how to manage them effectively in order to reduce workload without sacrificing customer satisfaction.
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What is Average Handle Time (AHT)?
Planning for workload in the contact center is one of the core functions of any workforce management team. A ‘workload’ (the total number of minutes you need to plan for) is calculated by multiplying the forecasted volume of customer contacts by the forecasted average handle time (AHT). Clearly, any reduction in AHT has a corresponding effect on workload and therefore the number of agents needed will also be reduced.
‘Handle time’ incorporates three elements: 'talk time’, ‘hold time’, and ‘after-call work’.
In practice, each of these elements is typically reported as an average (‘average talk time’, ‘average hold time’, and ‘average after-call work time’). To calculate these averages, simply add the number of minutes spent in each state and divide by the total number of calls handled.
- Average talk time: The time an agent spends actively communicating with a customer. Usually, tracking begins from the time a call starts until it’s disconnected (with the exception of hold time).
- Average hold time: The time an agent has a customer on hold. For example, if an agent records 10 minutes of hold time after taking 10 calls, the average hold time would be one minute. If the agent records 10 minutes of hold time after taking five calls, the average hold time would be two minutes.
- Average after-call work time: This is the time an agent is working after the call has been disconnected. In most cases, agents select “ACW” on their workstations to go into this state to prevent another contact from coming in until they’re ready. The calculation works by adding the total number of minutes spent performing after-call work, divided by the total number of calls handled.
Is there a correct average handle time?
This is a question I hear a lot, and I’ve seen average handle time managed in every way possible. I’ve seen operations leaders who heavily incentivize low handle times, as well as operations leaders who don’t believe it should be managed at all.
As you can imagine, the first approach results in low handle time, but often leads to low quality and customer dissatisfaction. At the other extreme, not managing AHT at all can lead to higher costs.
When possible, I recommend linking AHT targets to your customer satisfaction metrics, too. A good starting point is to consider the handle time that gives you the best customer satisfaction (CSAT).
You’ll also need to look at your other business objectives beyond CSAT. If it’s to increase revenue or make sales, you may be willing to accept a higher handle time. But if you’re aiming to keep costs low because you’re a BPO (business process outsourcer), then you'll want to strive for lower handle times.
Whatever your objectives are, you can set a target by benchmarking against the average of your top agents’ handle times (i.e. agents within the top 30-40%).
Reduce AHT without sacrificing quality
WFM professionals should observe and communicate recommendations around AHT to other teams in the contact center, even if they aren’t responsible for the in-depth analysis.
But before taking steps to bring AHT down, it's important to know your projected AHT, its volatility over time, and how consistently the fluctuations repeat themselves across various time intervals. Once that’s established, here are some ways to help agents reduce average handle time without sacrificing customer satisfaction.
1. Call control
Think about how effectively agents manage the pace of a call. Long calls with lots of “dead air” drive-up handle time and create a poor customer experience.
- Tip: Constantly coach your agents to control the call and the pace of the call to drive resolution efficiently without appearing to hurry the caller.
2. Technical proficiency
Consider agents’ ability to navigate your systems. Do they have to switch between several different systems or could this be simplified? Are they navigating systems as efficiently as possible?
- Tip: Providing coaching sessions to improve the technical skills of your agents can go a long way toward lowering AHT.
3. Product knowledge and memory
Do agents understand the products you’re selling and are they able to provide service without looking up the same information repeatedly?
- Tip: Arrange training sessions to help agents commit important product and service knowledge to memory. Investing this time in your employees will pay for itself many times over through better - and shorter customer interactions.
Are your agents able to switch back and forth between tasks while engaging with the customer?
- Tip: Teach agents to document important information while the customer is on the phone. This creates an opportunity to ask clarifying questions and reduce the amount of after-call work time required as a result.
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Originally published on Jun 10, 2020, updated on Oct 02, 2022.
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