Operational Indicators – Average Handle Time (AHT)
By: Turaj Seyrafiaan
Have you ever wondered what is behind any of the Contact Center operational indicators? Why do we measure what we measure and what do they mean? In this article, we tackle one of the most important indicators; Average Handle Time (AHT)
AHT is defined as the total amount of time (on average) that an agent spends on a contact. In a Contact Center environment (voice, chat), AHT includes talk time, hold time and after call work time (ACW). As the name indicates, it is the historical average for thousands, perhaps millions of calls handled by the Center over a reasonable period of time. Although AHT can also be applied to non-immediate contact types (email, fax, and regular mail), it does not have the same importance as we typically use contact per hours as a key metric.
Many of today’s efficiency measurements go back to the early days of Call Centers when the role of the Center was simply to answer telephone calls. Call Centers were viewed and operated as Cost Centers and the operating philosophy was to maximize efficiency, with no mention of effectiveness, thus reducing the operating costs. As a result, efficiency measurements such as AHT, Service Level, Occupancy Rate, Average Speed of Answer (ASA) and Calls per hour became the necessary indicators to operate any given Call Center. AHT became the main indicator when managers realized its impact on Service Level, staff requirements, and the operating budget. The Lower the AHT, the lower required staff and therefore the lower operating expenses!
Improving AHT – Process
So, how do we lower the AHT? This is the amount of time that an agent spends on a file – talking to customers and doing the necessary after-call work (the AHT measurement for chat is slightly different as agents typically are engaged in multiple chat session. Improving the agents’ performance seems to be the most reasonable route. In fact, we have seen Contact Center managers who set a new AHT target based on budget and then ask their agents to reach the new target. “Let’s motivate our agents and reward them to go through the calls faster! That should do it”. Unfortunately, that will not work. Not really. Agents will reduce the AHT in many ways, often via truly undesirable behavior, to reach those targets and associated rewards. While AHT is reduced, the overall results also include lower quality calls, reduced sales and/or increased call volume.
What is the solution? Since AHT is the outcome of the “contact handling” process, the solution must focus on optimizing the process itself. To do that one must begin by understanding the current state of the process using the process map of the contact flow. Such maps can indicate the areas of the contact handling process that can be streamlined, re-positioned or perhaps even eliminated.
1) Communication: The first focus must be given to the effectiveness of the contact handling process and creating a smooth exchange between the agents and the customers.
2) Technology: Next would be using the available technology to assist agents in moving through the process more efficiently. Technologies such as Computer Telephony Integration (CTI) with Screen Pop, when installed and operated correctly, can significantly impact the process and enhance the efficiency of the contact handling process without sacrificing the quality or effectiveness of the contact by eliminating the “who are you” step in the process and saving the associated 20 seconds or so.
3) Knowledgebase: Lastly, effective use of a comprehensive knowledge base can assist agents not only by providing the necessary yet sometimes obscure knowledge about the Center’s products and services but, it can also provide templates and frequently used commands for completing a customer request thus speeding up the process and further reducing AHT.
Improving AHT – Agent Performance
Optimizing the contact handling process by streamlining it and using the appropriate technology can go very far in improving the operational results. That said, like every other process in the Contact Center environment, contact handling is performed by the agents. Agent Training and Coaching as well as Reward and Recognition programs can lead the agents to reach the potential for the optimized AHT. Keep in mind that AHT for the Center is not a target but rather a mathematical outcome summing all agents. In order for each individual agent to reach their potential best performance, it is necessary for the management to be able to measure not only the individual AHT but also the breakdown between talk time, hold time and after call work time (ACW).
No Two Agents are Alike
Assuming that the Center’s Automatic Call Distributor (ACD) is programmed properly and agents are familiar with and employing proper use of “make busy” and/or “not ready” stages, the above numerical data for each agent can be easily calculated. Such data can point to the areas for improvement for each individual agent to work with their coaches and enhance their performance which will result in overall improvement for the entire team and Center.
When Better AHT is Worse
Although lowering the AHT seems to positively impact the overall budget, it is not always the case. In fact, many Centers have faced the opposite! To find the reason, one must look beyond pure efficiency and start looking at the overall picture of effectiveness. The customers contact a Center to receive a desired service or product (from simple information to account maintenance to product ordering and billing issues). If such services are not provided fully – for example a required mailing address or fax number is left out – the customer has no choice but to call back. The overall impact: even though the AHT has been reduced, the overall numbers of contacts are increased. This increase not only nullifies the effects of AHT reduction but also increases the overall work-load of the Center and in turn the overall staff requirement and operating budget. In few cases, Contact Center managers claim their achievement in creating an efficient Contact Center and blame those increased call volumes for their budgetary problems.
AHT is one of the most important operational indicators for any Contact Center. It is a key input in scheduling and calculating the required staffing. In a Contact Center with a high call volume, a small reduction in AHT can result in a significant reduction in operating costs. As mentioned, AHT is the outcome of the contact handling process and as such, any attempt to reduce the AHT must start at optimizing the process. Such enhancement must be considered as part of the overall Contact Center performance to ensure that the quality of customer service is not diminished or better yet, has improved.
For additional information on AHT, help yourself to this editorial which focuses on Calculating Average Handle Time in Light of Customer Experience and IVRs
This content was originally created in 2010 and was updated in 2018