Average Handle Time: Is It For You?

Everything old is new again–including AHT.

I’ve been around the call center space for a long time. Heck, I’ve been around since before the call center was called a call center (back then it was referred to as Inside Sales, Customer Service and Client Relations). Admitting to my longevity in the field may make me sound ancient but I assure you that I am not prehistoric. Technology, after all, has come a very long way in an incredibly short time. This is one of the reasons why the recent discussion around the call center metric average handle time (AHT) is so intriguing.

Is the Call Center an Extension of the Brand's Image?

It takes me back to a era when we did not have the technology to determine such a thing as AHT and all calls were a mismash of conversation. And it reminds me of when I first saw AHT in action at IBM’s call center in Markham, Ontario. As I monitored the call center representative a small smiley face glowed in the top left corner of their screen. If the call center representative was on the call for too long the smiley face changed from happy to sad. As the icon transformed so did the call center representative’s demeanour. Believe me when I say that the call center representative was well aware of AHT. As soon as the sad face showed up call center representatives did all they could to get rid of the caller—pronto!


Which is why I believe that the important question is not whether a call center should measure average handle time; rather the question is: Are we measuring the right thing? After all, AHT is simply the total sum of the communication parts, so as a standalone measurement it is irrelevant to call quality and not a true indicator of call quantity.

Forward-thinking call centers are beginning to understand this. That’s why they consider the telephone to be an extension of the company’s brand image. They realize that when you dissect human interaction and consider what we say, how we say it, what we ask, how we respond and how we ultimately tailor our message to suit the person on the other end of the line, the real question is whether or not each component of the conversation is connecting with this customer as efficiently and as effectively as possible.

Communication is the Call Center Conundrum

Not connecting with people is one of the biggest oversights in this whole call center conundrum. Rather than treat one another as individuals most call centers rely on a one-size-fits-all approach to the communication process. The call is structured. From hello to good-bye every word is choreographed. Call center representatives ask the same questions the same way, answer frequently asked question with prepared replies and use the same words regardless of who is on the other end of the line.

Essentially call centers have become little more than a place to manufacture communication. But is the customer satisfied with the end product? Rarely. That’s because we have different manners of communicating. Some people focus on the bottom-line. Others are more inquisitive. Some like to establish relationships. Others are not as comfortable in social interactions. Some people speak quickly. Others are more deliberate. You get the picture.

But before we get rid of AHT—thus tossing the baby out with the bathwater– let’s ask another question. Why did Call Centers want to know the average handle length in the first place?

The Solution to AHT?

The answer is because conversations were excessively long and there were not enough tangible results to show at the end of a call for the call center representative’s effort or the company’s expense. No tangible results often meant no confirmed sale, no immediate solution to a customer complaint, or no fix on a technical support problem. Customers weren’t happy either. Believe me.

So what is the answer? The answer is that there is no single solution. Is AHT important today? Yes and no. It depends on the sophistication of the call center, the capability of the call center’s management team and the goals of the organization. Some call centers need more structure than they currently have. Other call centers have become so automated and robotic they need to loosen the reins.

What every call center needs to know is that whether AHT is measured or not is not the real issue. The real issue is whether the call center’s approach to communication supports or sabotages the company’s brand image. Today branding is faceless. And faceless branding means customers need to believe they are special. People need to have a sense of belonging. And everyone wants to feel valued. AHT or no AHT.

First published on Call Center IQ.