Does Average Handle Time (AHT) Have a Place in the Modern Call Center?

Ben Bennett

I am strongly pro average handle time as a target, so long as it is used appropriately, and all the elements that make up the average handle time are applied correctly. My reasoning follows, plus why I consider the average handle time got a bad name. Of course, like the majority of measures, average handle time cannot be used in isolation, because it does not measure call center service levels, efficiency, quality, outcome or customer experience of the call, although these are reflected through the handling time.

Average handle time got a bad name because it was misused and abused. The measure was targeted to fit the budget by people lacking the knowledge and understanding of the components of a successful call. These individuals also lacked the knowledge of how those elements would be affected by targeting average handle time.

Not All Call Center Managers Are Equipped to Discuss Average Handle Time

New products or procedures were added without taking into account the implications on average handle time, or how it could be maintained, without affecting the quality of calls. Pressure was applied to maintain average handle time when new products were introduced to ensure they cost in. Similar situations would arise when IT changes (software, applications and infrastructure) were made without measuring or considering the consequence.

The debate should be balanced with the point that not all managers in call centers, were aware or equipped to have a meaningful discussions about changing average handle time, how to quantify the affects, or were able to explain the cost implications to the business of a decrease or increase of n+ seconds on the average handle time.

Average handle time was normally the target of the call center representative in addition to the call center manager. Average handle time as the main target is inappropriate because it confuses the call center representative. It is of interest to call center managers but counter productive for achieving revised call center targets that account for quality.

In Theory Average Handle Time Is Not That Bad

In theory average handling time should be the easiest call center measure to use because it is what it says it is. It’s an average of what is going on with call handling times. The issue does not lie with the measure, but with the lack of understanding of the players in the call center who use it. This ensures that all people who are fully educated and understand the parts of average handle time are taken into account.

Some of the key elements that affect average handle time are: call type mix; the call center representative’s efficiency, call center representative skill level, the effectiveness of the IT systems and applications, processes, training, coaching and development. I have demonstrated these elements below in an average handle time force-field diagram below. (Click on diagram to enlarge.)

Common Responses to the Average Handle Time Topic

"But it’s different in our call center."

"Average handle time is not relevant on outbound."

"I don’t mind how long call takes so long as they make the sale."

Average handle time is relevant regardless of the call type that is handled, the measure is valuable, and very usable. Average handle time provides a quick and effective indicator that a call center representative is out of step with the norm and further investigation is required. This considers all other constituent parts and measures e.g. sales, quality, first time resolution, customer satisfaction, etc.

Average Handle Time Findings Can Be Positive or Negative and Should Add Value to Training

This can bring important hidden issues to the surface because average handle time can expose process failures. This insight into average handle time provides a powerful argument to have the issues addressed.

Average handle time is a fundamental part of resourcing a call center, being used to calculate the number of call center representatives against call volume and the required service level. Therefore it must be a used appropriately for budgeting and/or to demonstrate the impact of, changing process and procedures, e.g. IT changes, process failures, turnover with call center representatives, new or add-on products and marketing initiatives.

If average handle time is not monitored within the call center I would suggest educating those who need to be more aware of its purpose. Also there is a risk that resourcing and finance will make the decision without sufficient robust input from operations.

What Are the Alternatives to Using Average Handle Time—Quality Measures, Sales, Number of Complaints?

Of course these are all valuable measures alone, but used with average handle time they provide a fully round argument. Understanding the average handle time movers could avoid the situation where head count was reduced but the service level target, PCA, was to be maintained, which results in some call centers suppressing calls to meet the target. Unfortunately, this is not only bad practice but a double edged sword, because customers affected by call suppression will refer to it during the call, resulting in an increased average handle time.

I have successfully used average handle time to; have new equipment installed and the call center refurbish saving 50 FTE; saved £1m per annum by changing a call center Process; secured funding for the implementation of a Voice response solution for customer verification.

Don’t Avoid Average Handle Time as a KPI

It would be naive to avoid average handle time as a measure, but like all the other call center measures, it cannot be used in isolation. There needs to be a full set of measures that are suitably weighted to demonstrate effectiveness, quality and value for money that is being delivered by the call center; therefore don’t forget the tail measures. Average handle time should not be used to pressure call center representatives and call center managers but to ensure they examine and question changes that are detrimental to service and best practice is shared.

It is not possible to carry out proper sizing and pricing without average handle time, whether this is for budgeting or to demonstrate the impact of, changing process and procedures. Given a well founded and robust average handle time, anyone should be on solid ground when discussing budgets, FTE and pay.

Value for Money in the Call Center

We should also not lose sight of the fact that the cost for every person and piece of infrastructure is passed onto the customer through the services and products provided by the company. Surely, the aim for any business, therefore, is to deliver an efficient, good quality and cost effective call. All the tools available should be used to delivery value for money, in the case of a call center a good quality and effective transaction, average handle time with other relevant measures used appropriately can ensure that this is delivered. Food for thought; the cost of adding one second to the average handle time in a call center I managed was £10,000 plus 3 FTE.

Final word on call center measures: Like average handle time it is as easy for any other call center measure to drop from favor, if the call center measure is not understood and used appropriately. Therefore we should not forget that whatever measures, commission or bonus that are used in a call center it is vital to ensure that the tail is measured and desired outcome(s) are delivered.

First published on Call Center IQ.