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Tracking average handle times can ruin your call center. Why and how to fix it?

Photo by Siavash Ghanbari on Unsplash
Photo by Siavash Ghanbari on Unsplash

Average Handle Time. Out of all call center metrics and industry standards, AHT sticks out like a sore thumb. Managers chase it, call center operators hate it. Let’s dig in and try to figure out the value of this metric, as well as its impact on your call center’s day to day productivity - both positive impact and negative impact.

Average Handle Time. Out of all call center metrics and industry standards, AHT sticks out like a sore thumb. Managers chase it, call center operators hate it. Let’s dig in and try to figure out the value of this metric, as well as its impact on your call center’s day to day productivity - both positive impact and negative impact.

As in any industry, the call center industry is full of metrics and standards. It lets call center managers compare the performance of their operations versus those of their competitors. It also lets managers compare operations of a single company’s Texas call center versus an Ohio call center. The same goes for comparing the efficiency of a Philippines call center and an India contact center.

A few key metrics that are tracked in the industry are average wait time, average speed to answer, average time in queue, first call resolutions, service level, occupancy rates and, of course, average handle time.

What is Average Handle Time?

Average handling time (AHT), is a call center metric that helps measure agent efficiency and provide better customer service. So what is handling time? AHT at call center shows how much time an agent needs to solve a customer’s problem. It begins when a customer initiates a call and ends when the agent has completed all the after-call follow up tasks.

Calculating your AHT

To calculate the AHT that are up to call centre metrics industry standards, you need to have three data points:

  • Call time - the time spent by the the customer on the phone talking to call center agents to resolve a specific issue;

  • Hold time - the time the customer spent on hold either waiting for the call center operator or being transferred between call center operators;

  • Follow-on tasks time - this will be the hardest data point to source most of the time. Here you need to know how much time the call center agent spends on follow up tasks following the completion of the customer call.

When calculating the AHT, you need to take into account the time period. You can calculate AHT for a single call (which is a pretty useless exercise) or for the last 24 hour period, or for a given week, month or year.

So what is handle time calculation after all? Handle time is calculated as the total time spent by an agent on the call with customer + total hold time + total time spent doing follow up tasks after the call divided (/) by the total number of calls during a given period of time. In other words, average handling time at call center is the total duration that a customer service transaction takes.

In other words yet AHT is a product of your load distribution multiplied by your call center agents’ professionalism. If you need me to elaborate, read on.

The industry standard for AHT

A whole range of factors can influence handle time – it’s a challenge to set a specific standard for each and every industry which makes use of business process outsourcing call centers or runs internal call centers. Call Centre Magazine figured out a global standard for average handling time by analyzing more than 190K entries. It turns out the average handle time for most companies (regardless of industry and team size) is right at 6 minutes and 3 seconds. Interestingly, this data checks out with some other researchers who place the time at 6 minutes 10 seconds.

It’s important to note that the same experts state that an agent should pick up the phone within the first 20 seconds. That would mean the acceptable hold time in customer service is 20 seconds. And it does seem that in the majority of cases, an 80/20 phone pick up rule is maintained. 80% of calls are picked up within 20 seconds. These numbers sure sound good but I, as a consumer, cannot believe in them because I always end up waiting on the phone significantly longer than 20 seconds before getting answered. Could the numbers be skewed? Likely so. Such variables as industry type, team size and number of departments leave the notion of an acceptable AHT up for debate. It is, however, important, to remember these numbers (20 seconds hold time) as we continue with our exploration of handle time and how to make it a success at your call center.

Why chasing metrics will RUIN your call center

Any way you look at it, AHT is a problematic metric, as far as call center industry standards go.

The problem is that in chasing lower average handle times, call center managers often end up creating a much larger problem - unsatisfied customers. How does such a thing happen? It would seem that solving something as pressing as reducing the time call center agents spend handling customer queries would be hugely beneficial to the call center. After all - the less time spent on a single call, the more customer problems can be resolved in any given period of time - be it a year or a day. Sounds about right? Wrong.

In chasing lower call handling time, many call center managers pick the easiest method which is - put the heavy pressure on the call center operators. There are various ways in which managers do this. Some set recommended call times. If a call center agent falls outside of the recommended call time, they may see some repercussions, even monetary. Other managers may set hard limits for the time an agent is to spend on the call, this creates a variety of issues, including call center agents passing the call on to other agents to keep within the allotted time.

Call center activity shouldn’t be governed by the principle of “quantity over quality.” Instructing your agents to chase quicker calls while sacrificing customer satisfaction is a losing strategy. The aim is to become more efficient, not micromanage your agents until they’re sprinting through their calls.

Let me repeat this: sacrificing call quality for numbers will hurt you in the long term. Providing bad customer service is a great way to lose customers.

In chasing the elusive low AHT which seems like a success, call center managers and directors set themselves and their customers up for very real failure. When the pressure is put on the call center agents to complete calls quickly, the quality of the conversation inevitably suffers, resulting in unhappy, unsatisfied customers with everything that means for the business in the long run.

How to lower your call handle time

Do you need to lower call AHT? Are you ready to sacrifice customer experience for the sake of efficiency? Does it have to be a zero sum game?

First and foremost, if you are facing what you see as a problem with unreasonably long average handle times, you need to begin by diagnosing the underlying issue with the call center operation.

As you recall, AHT is a measure which reflects hold time + call time + follow up task time divided (/) by the total number of calls. The thing to do is to look at each of these values one after the other to figure out where the culprit for high AHT in customer service lies. It can often be found from such an analysis that the real cause of the unreasonably high AHT lies in the long average hold times.

I should note that, as you analyze your call center operations, you need to always be measuring customer satisfaction. And I don’t mean by the agent on the phone - that data will be flawed. Nor do I mean with SMS text messages - no one responds to those and some of the data is the same as no data at all. Ideally, you want to set up an automated system that will ask for open customer feedback after every single interaction with your call center agents.

The truth of the matter at hand is that a low handle time is only a cause for celebration in so far, as it is coupled with satisfied customers.

Here are the things that you should focus your attention on in your bid to achieve a lower AHT.

Train your call center agents better

Yes! Can you believe it! You can not only achieve a lower average handle time with well-trained customer service agents but also you can actually make your customers happy. Because you know what? Low AHT is more than a better bottom line for your call center, it is a faster problem resolution for your customer, making them a happier customer and more likely to recommend your business (or your customers’ if you’re a BPO) in the long run.

Monitor and QA your agents’ performance

Learn to use automated quality assurance tools to survey your agents’ performance. You can set a team up to do this manually, of course, but it will not be a very efficient way of doing things. You can [reach out]( to us if you want to try setting Dasha up for this task.

Enable your call center agents

This is slightly different from training. Provide them with the tools to succeed. Some of these might be a comprehensive knowledge database, so that the agents have all the information they might need right at their fingertips, as they go about their daily work of solving customer problems.

Record all conversations

You can then use a voice analytics tool to identify the best conversations and use them for training and coaching your call center talent.

Streamline post-call work

As you remember, the post-call work is the third part of the data that you evaluate to figure out your call center’s handle time. If you can find a way to both monitor and ensure that the agents are spending this time productively, as well as coach them on best practices, you will find this time significantly reduced. You can consider implementing a newer CRM or conducting training meetings in using your CRM. You also might want to think about implementing standard breaks, say 5 minutes every hour or 10 minutes every two hours. You will find this will keep your call center operators from distracting themselves as they work and spending their post-call logging times unproductively. This will lower your AHT as well.

Optimize your routing

That’s right - maybe you are routing calls to the wrong team and that’s why they take so long to resolve? Maybe you are passing the call on to an IVR when you should be passing it directly to an agent. Speaking of that, you might even consider to

Replace that creaky old IVR with conversational AI

This is a big one. Your IVR is hardly catching any customers, it’s a well-known fact that most people will say anything they can just to get past the IVR and talk to a real person. If you feel like this is also the case with you, then you need to ditch the IVR. You can replace the IVR with human-like conversational AI that will speak to your customers like a human call center agent does, and increase your customer satisfaction levels because customer problems get resolved quickly.

Some of our customers have managed to free up their agents to the point where they can now dedicate more time to serving their customers properly. They offloaded repetitive, algorithmic tasks to Dasha AI, freeing up their agents in the process. As the pressure on agents subsided, so did their efficiency improve in servicing customers at their own pace. In turn, the customer NPS scores have gone up. And in case you’re wondering – yes – the NPS scores are collected by Dasha on live calls with additional open feedback.

Our tech is not the only way to improve your customer service and shift the focus from AHT to serving the buyers. Proactive customer service is where it’s at. And there are other call center AI solutions that will enable you to go proactive. Your agents can use an AI assistant for quicker training, employ analytics to identify customer profiles or get a single up-to-date reference point in the form of an AI-powered database, among other things.

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