Doing More With Less in the Call Center and the Dangers of Average Handle Time

Jane Finn

In recent years, a lot of attention has been paid to making our companies more "customer- centric" and aligning the call center’s "vision and mission" with the organization’s corporate goals and objectives. It was gratifying to see the call center elevated from the role of production house to strategic partner, but it's alarming how quickly tough times can cause us to abandon our course and revert to old habits.

Today, you can’t pick up a newspaper, attend a webinar or read a memo that doesn’t ask us "to do more with less," but what exactly does that mean? Find creative ways to increase sales, improve revenue per call, enhance the customer experience, improve customer retention, reduce unnecessary repeat calls or cut costs?

Managing Call Center Transactions Instead of Customer Relationships

Unfortunately, for far too many call centers this "rallying cry" has been translated to hiring freezes, training cuts and the requirement to "handle more calls, faster, with fewer people." Service levels tank, turnover increases, absenteeism soars and in the blink of an eye, we revert to measuring outputs instead of call center outcomes, managing call center transactions instead of customer relationships.


What evidence is there that the pendulum has once again swung heavily in favor of call center productivity at the expense of the quality of the call center interaction? Here are just a few observations regarding what constitutes "business as usual" in the call center today:

  • New products, call center processes and services are being launched and call center representatives are being asked to up-sell or cross-sell without adequate training because there is no time or budget
  • Call center quality monitoring and mentoring is suspended so QA analysts can man the phones
  • Coaching sessions with call center representatives are cancelled so Supervisors have time deal with more escalations and call center employee "issues"
  • Average handle time has been reintroduced as a key individual "performance indicator" in the call center or the emphasis on reducing AHT has increased to the point where our representatives are "watching the clock" instead of focusing on the customer

Now I’m not disputing that average handle time is an important internal and operational metric in the call center. It is the foundation for forecasting and scheduling, resource planning and budgeting.

Neither would I disagree that a call center representative’s knowledge, call control, communication and navigational skills and how they manage their after call work time can all positively impact call center handle time but, there are numerous other factors outside a call center representative’s control, that also influence average handle time. These include: the clarity of marketing communications, changing or broken call center processes, systems upgrades, the ease of use of desktop applications, the complexity of the call—which is increasing with the availability of more self-serve options—and lastly, what we often fail to take into consideration, customer proficiency and customer preferences.

What Message Do Your Call Center Performance Metrics Send?

Average handle time is meaningless to the customer who has connected with a representative looking for a complete and accurate answer or a solution to their problem. How well they were served, not how long it took drives the customer’s impression of our organization and their propensity to purchase or recommend.

Average handle time is equally irrelevant to the dedicated front-line representative who is committed to resolving the customer’s inquiry or issue the right way, the first time.

So, the question we need to ask ourselves before directing all our effort and energy towards "shaving a few seconds off every call" is … Is average handle time a true indicator of customer satisfaction or the call center representative’s success?

Let me cite an example of a call center that introduced an arbitrary average handle time target as a performance "qualifier." It quickly became apparent that the center’s best call center representatives—the ones who consistently achieved their sales, first call resolution, accuracy and customer satisfaction targets—would no longer be eligible for bonuses, merit pay raises or promotion because they were not meeting the mandated average handle time goal. The company then added a "bump calculation" to their performance review process to mitigate the negative impact on staff. Surely this should have been cause to ask what message are we sending?

Hidden Costs of a Quarter-to-Quarter Mindset

While processing calls more quickly with fewer resources may result in some immediate and short-term savings, the hidden costs of unnecessary repeat calls, employee turnover, customer dissatisfaction and customer defection are seldom factored into our calculations. Before we put the onus on our call center representatives to manage productivity one call at a time, we should remember that future revenues and new business depend on how we treat our customers and our employees today.

What could they have done differently? I suggest the better course of action would be to identify the 20 percent of your workforce who are causing 80 percent of your efficiency problems and deal with that aspect of their performance directly. Provide them with targeted coaching, an improvement action plan and if necessary, performance counselling. Incentivizing all call center representatives to strive for a magic number puts the emphasis on the wrong effort and undermines the value of the call center representative’s contribution. It’s not how long it takes to serve the customer but how well the call center representative uses their time that counts.

New Year’s Resolution-First Call Resolution

Now is the time for a little introspection and perhaps a New Year’s resolution or two. Ask yourself if you are managing what’s easy or managing what matters? Are you focused on the long term or the quick win?

The only proven internal measures that positively influence customer loyalty are first call resolution and employee engagement. Planning your strategy and the execution of any new initiatives around measuring and managing these three key performance indicators is my definition of doing more with less and the key to success in 2010 and beyond.

First published on Call Center IQ.