Efficiency Indicators – Average Handle Time (AHT)

Have you ever wondered what is behind any of the contact centre 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 or AHT for short. AHT is the total amount of time (on average) that an agent spends on a contact. In a call centre environment (voice), 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 centre over a reasonable period of time.

Many of today’s efficiency measurements go back to the early days of Call Centres when the role of the centre was simply to answer telephone calls. Call centres were viewed and operated as a cost centre and the operating philosophy was to maximize the efficiency (no mention of effectiveness), thus reducing the operating costs. As a result, efficiency measurements such as AHT, Service Level, Occupancy Rate, ASA (Average Speed of Answer) and Calls per hour became the necessary indicators to operate any given call centre. 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 the customers and doing the necessary after-work), so improving the agent’s performance seems to be the most reasonable route. In fact we have seen contact centres managers who set a new AHT target based on their budget and then asked 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 (sometimes via truly undesirable behavior) to reach those targets and associated rewards, as they were asked. The overall results, however also include, lower quality calls, reduced sales and/or increased call volume.

So 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. The first focus, however, must be given to the effectiveness of the Contact Handling process and to creating a smooth exchange between the agents and the customers. Next would be using the available technology to assist agents in moving through the process more efficiently. Technologies such as CTI (Computer Telephony Integration) 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/effectiveness of the contact by eliminating the “who are you” step in the process and saving the associated 20 seconds or so. Lastly, effective use of a comprehensive knowledge base can assist agents not only by providing the necessary but sometimes obscure knowledge about the centre’s products and services, it can also provide templates and frequently used commands completing a customer request, 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. However, like every other process in the contact centre environment, Contact Handling is performed by the agents and here is where the agent’s Training and Coaching as well as the centre’s Rewards and Recognition program can lead the agents to reach the potential for the optimized AHT. Keep in mind that AHT for the centre is not a target but rather a mathematical outcome (sum of 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)

Assuming that the centre’s ACD (Automatic Call Distributor) is programmed properly and agents are familiar with and employing properly the 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 (no two agents are alike) to work with their coaches and to enhance their performance which will lead to the overall improvement of the results for the entire team and the centre.

When Better Is Worse?

Although lowering the AHT seems to positively impact the overall budget, it is not always the case. In fact many centres have faced the opposite! To find the reason, one must look beyond the pure efficiency and start looking at the overall effectiveness picture. The customers contact a centre 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 can nullify the effects of AHT reduction, but increases the overall work-load of the centre and in turn the overall staff requirement and operating budget!! In a few cases, contact centre managers claim their achievement in creating an efficient contact centre and blame those increased call volumes for their budgetary problems.

Bottom Line

AHT is one of the most important operational indicators for any contact centre. It is a key input in scheduling and calculating the required staffing. In a contact centre with large volume of calls 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 centre performance to ensure that the quality of customer service is not diminished or better yet it has improved.

This article was originally published in The Taylor Reach Group newsletter.