Why Average Handle Time can be a misleading metric

Don’t Hang Your Hat on Your Average Handle Time: Why the Misleading Metric Shouldn’t Be a Focus in Your Contact Center

Every customer that reaches out for help is different. Sure, they may tout similar problems or journeys with your company, but each conversation your agent has with a customer is unique.

Some customers may be super chatty, high maintenance or have issues your agent isn’t quite familiar with. Or, perhaps your company updated a policy or instituted a price hike, opening the floodgates for hard-to-handle customer calls.

No matter your reality, the facts remain true across all contact centers: alone, your efficiency metrics don’t give you a clear view of how you’re helping customers.

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For decades, contact center leaders have leaned on efficiency metrics like Average Handle Time to improve contact center operations. There’s an outdated mentality that the more customers you can feed through the queue, the more sound your operation looks.

But metrics like AHT are misleading if they’re in a vacuum.

AHT measures the total average duration of a single interaction, including hold time, talk time and the follow-up or admin tasks related to that interaction. Calculating AHT is easy.

You take the total talk, hold and post-interaction work time, and divide it by the number of interactions handled in a day.

Average Handle Time Calculation

AHT is popular for two reasons in particular:

  1. It’s easy to understand and measure
  2. It helps you track cost-per-call

As a manager, your eyes are often on the costs of your contact center. And, AHT is an incredibly helpful management tool, so please don’t ignore it completely. It’s a great indicator of how much work your agents are doing, and where inefficiencies lie. It can help you predict hiring needs, plan agent schedules, and assess agent performance. It helps you measure how efficient your team is and can help you see weak areas in the volume of requests you handle.

BUT, it doesn’t, and it can’t, measure the quality of service your agents deliver.

Prioritize outcomes over individual metrics.

Does delivering standout customer service and lasting customer resolutions matter to you? Or, do you care more about maximizing the number of interactions agents take each day? Before you decide to underline AHT or kick it to the curb, think through the most important outcomes for your business.

In theory, a low AHT means your contact center maximizes resources and operates efficiently. But does obsessing over reducing AHT make your customer service better? What’s the opportunity cost of achieving that low AHT metric and running an ultra-lean operation?

If the priority of your contact center is to deliver the best possible resolutions for your customers, putting AHT on a pedestal above other quality metrics won’t help you reach your goals. It’s a metric rooted in efficiency. One that helps you cut FTE and cost per contact numbers, but that doesn’t account for the complexity of the problem a customer brings to you.

Let’s say your agent Natalie spends 30 minutes with a customer who called in fuming. Natalie took time to ease your customer’s frustrations, and to find a lasting resolution. Her AHT plummeted because of the extra time she spent helping the customer. But her knowledgeable and friendly help saved the customer from jumping ship.

The revenue Natalie saved by turning an angry customer into a loyal one likely outweighs the immediate gains you’d see from keeping your daily AHT low. The reality is, metrics don’t matter if your customers leave a should-have-been-helpful conversation still frustrated.

Coach agents to improve outcomes over metrics with these 7 coaching methods to up-level agent performance (and satisfaction).

Quality service brings higher long-term gains than fast service.

Customers today expect to be prioritized and heard. Reviews and customer opinions matter now more than ever. The Temkin Group reports that after having a positive experience with a company, 77% of customers will recommend it to a friend.

But, after one negative experience, 51% of customers will never do business with that company again. The quality of your interactions matter.

When you push your agents to focus primarily on the speed of their interactions, you enforce the idea that quantity and cutting costs is more important than quality. Your agents may make poor, hasty or sloppy decisions because their goal is to move on to the next customer. It’s harder to stay present with each customer when agents are trying to flow through as many interactions as possible in a day.

Empathy doesn't scale in overburdened call centers

Don’t make AHT your only focus. Instead, balance this metric with other KPIs to give your customers the best possible experience. Keeping costs down and running an efficient operation still matters. But it can’t come at the expense of your ultimate customer outcomes.

Need proof that loyal customers pack tons of value for your business? Jump to the cost analysis of loyal customers vs. new customers.

Pair Average Handle Time with other metrics to grow understanding of your customers.

To understand your contact center’s performance, evaluate other factors alongside your Average Handle Time.

First Contact Resolution, Active Contact Resolution and CSAT.

Your FCR, ACR, and CSAT scores are measurements that give you insight into customer happiness. To keep your focus on customer longevity over short-term budget gains, view these metrics alongside AHT.

Most contact centers already measure FCR and CSAT, but ACR is an agent-first metric worth paying attention to. It’s directly actionable by your agents. No matter how many times a customer has reached out prior to their interaction, the agent is graded on getting to a resolution within their first touch with the customer. Not the first touch the customer has had with anyone in the call center.

If AHT is high but FCR (or ACR) and CSAT are low, you see when lengthy customer interactions do more harm than good to your service. And if all four metrics are low, it’s likely that agents are rushing through calls (in the sake of efficiency) and customers aren’t getting the resolutions they need. In fact, many companies have found that de-emphasizing AHT leads to increased CSAT and FCR.

Get a better grip on your customer’s satisfaction. Here are 7 ways to encourage customers to share feedback in CSAT surveys.

Improve AHT for better outcomes, not just better vanity metrics.

It’s true that customers don’t want to spend an hour out of their day talking to your agents about a problem. Nobody wants to waste time in a world where there isn’t enough of it. So first, remind your team that the “A” in Average Handle Time stands for Average. So, when they have a longer interaction, it’s not the end of the world. Then, coach them to trim down Average Handle Time without costing your customers exceptional service.

Offer up easily accessible customer data, resources and interaction history to help your team get through calls faster, without sacrificing quality. Leave contextual feedback and training on your agents interactions, pointing out where they slowed their roll and need to pick up the pace. And, if you saw them struggling, surfing around for customer info in dozens of screens, take note and build a business case for better tools.

Then, help agents trim as many seconds as possible off hold time, data entry and case follow-up tasks. Use automation and intelligent routing tools to cut inefficiencies from your agents’ simple tasks, so they can dedicate more of their coveted minutes to human interactions.

Unify your contact center software into an all in one platform (like Sharpen’s) to make it easier for agents to find resources while talking to customers. Building efficiency into your processes naturally makes it easier for your agents to help customers. Find ways to make your contact center operate faster, without leaving your customers in the dust.

Look to more than just a single metric to improve your customer experience. Learn how to put your data to work to deliver on the experience your customers want. Get the step-by-step guide.

We originally posted this article on March 21, 2018. We updated it for accuracy and tone on May 9, 2019.