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.


Bottom Line

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

4 thoughts on “Operational Indicators – Average Handle Time (AHT)

  1. Veronica says:

    Hi. Can AHT impact conversion rate?

    • Turaj Seyrafiaan says:

      Thanks for your question.
      Yes, AHT could impact the conversion rate assuming that it is being enforced (i.e. agents and/or center are measured by keeping AHT at a certain level).
      In best-in-class centers, however, both AHT and conversions are outcome of other drivers. In those centers, Quality becomes the main driver for both AHT and conversion (improved quality can reduce AHT and increase conversion rate). In all cases it is important to consider the performance of the center as a whole and not parts. For example what would be the overall results in conversion, center budget, customer satisfaction if one decides to allow higher AHT?
      Hope this answers your question, Turaj

  2. Vincent says:

    i’m interested in more insights on why talk times are higher in the evening resulting also in a higher AHT result due to the lower call volume as per the formula (ATT+Hold+ACW/#calls). We understand the human factors such assertivity or slowing down the pace to end your late shift on time but there are many customer behaviour factors too. It depends also on the industry and type of service provided to your customer via helpdesk.
    Thanks a lot

    • Colin Taylor says:

      You raise a valid point and one that is often seen in many centers across verticals and industries. There is no one factor, but rather a combination of a number of underlying causes. These would include:
      • When call volumes slow down, when there is not a flashing wallboard displaying service level or the number of calls in queue, agents tend to feel less pressure to complete the call “as quickly as possible”;
      • In most centers, the preferred shift is the day shift ( 9 to 5). In many centers, the evening shift is staffed by less experienced staff. By virtue of their lack of experience, they are often still progressing up the learning curve towards competency. While still progressing up the learning curve their calls will be longer (they will often have lower FCR, CSAT and quality scores). They will also tend to place callers on hold to ask for help more frequently. If the relative experience level for the agents is lower in the evening, then the AHT will be longer.
      • Customer availability also impacts the AHT, generally speaking, customers or consumers will have more time available in the evening than they have in the day to deal with complex service related issues. As a result they tend to shift complex or involved inquiries until they have the free time to deal with it; this can then skew the AHT for evening shifts. You may be able to determine the degree to which this is the case by analyzing your contact types by intervals.
      ~ Colin Taylor

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