Myth About a Myth: Measuring Average Handle Time Yields Poor Customer Service

Brian Cantor

By now, virtually everyone has been educated on the "myth" of average handle time. Long relied upon as a measure of call center efficiency, the AHT metric has been dismissed in recent years by those who believe it runs counter to customer-centricity.

In short, no pun intended, customer management professionals have come to fear that assessing performance based on call length urges agents to sacrifice relationships for brevity. Under the gun to keep calls short, agents will not "risk" engaging in a dialogue that could produce poor performance against the AHT metric, even if a lengthy, meaningful call is required to truly satisfy the customer.

It is sensible for customer management professionals to concern themselves with this dilemma. Their agents, ultimately, are responsible for satisfying customers, and if their operation blatantly undermines that objective, it is failing. The second AHT becomes the enemy of customer satisfaction is the second it becomes the enemy of the call center.

But, as TeleTech noted during its workshop presentation at the 4th Call Center IQ Customer Experience Summit in Miami, Florida, the myth of average handle time is a myth in and of itself.

Back in high school, one of the fundamental rules in my hybrid-policy debate league was that the affirmative team need not prove implementation. Instead of arguing about bureaucracy and its potential to get in the way of implementation, we focused on the merits of the proposal. As long as the affirmative team could prove that its resolution was better than the status quo, we assumed the relevant government body or private entity would be rational enough to put it into action.

Obviously, that is a bold assumption that has limited authenticity in the real world. But there is still an important lesson here: our society and its people often let pessimism get in the way of good ideas. Instead of focusing on defining strategies that work, our minds immediately seek to identify the barriers to those strategies.

When it comes to debunking the supposed average handle time myth, we presuppose that call center agents are not rational and customer-centric enough to balance their focus between efficiency and solvency. We argue that if agents are held accountable for their call times, they are categorically unable to also focus on meaningful engagement that produces legitimate customer satisfaction.

That is a myth.

Instead of evaluating AHT as a reason not to focus on resolution, why not eye it as a directive for agents to be more efficient with their call process? Instead of choosing between efficiency and resolution, why not drive agents to efficiently deliver resolution?

Where call center leaders are inclined to preemptively rule AHT out on the grounds that agents cannot properly balance efficiency expectations with customer-centricity expectations, perhaps they should instead focus on the managerial and cultural failures responsible for creating that concern. If call center agents truly believe they have to sacrifice one to achieve the other, they are not being properly trained by their organization.

In this era of relationship-minded, revenue-driven call centers, many functional professionals seem to have forgotten that efficiency is a crucial tenet of the customer experience. Customers indeed prefer brands that value the relationship and make a comprehensive ability to answer all questions and solve all problems, but they will not devalue their own time to achieve that reality. Time is as money as it has ever been, and customers are not going to spend fifteen minutes on a call that should take two minutes in the mere name of "customer-centricity."

Reliance on metrics like Average Handle Time assures that efficiency lies at the heart of all interactions between agents and customers. It compels agents to listen to the customer, quickly qualify the situation, tap effectively into the relevant knowledge bases and information channels and swiftly enact what needs to be enacted.

It is under this umbrella that we see the inherent contradiction associated with the average handle time myth. We feel agents are incapable of balancing between efficiency and resolution in an AHT-driven call center; with a clock timing their calls, they naturally will offer curt, insufficient service simply because they have to hit their marks.

And yet, those who dismiss AHT have no problem trusting their agents to independently strike that very same balance. Suddenly, these agents who could not toe the line between efficiency and resolution in an AHT-driven center gain the power to perfectly do so the second AHT goes out the window.

Remove AHT, there is no chance an agent ruins the efficiency part of the experience by spending a minute too long on the call. Measure AHT, and it is a certainty that agents will only concern themselves with the efficiency component of the experience.

Bad agents and bad management can exist in any call center environment. As a result, there is definitely a risk that urging agents to keep their calls brief will discourage them from doing the due diligence necessary to build meaningful relationships and offer legitimate customer satisfaction.

But there is also a risk that devaluing efficiency metrics will cause agents to dwell aimlessly on calls, mistakenly believing that every minute they spend on the call contributes positively to the "relationship."

By being so utterly avoidable, both scenarios seem utterly ridiculous. Organizations do not really want to get rid of AHT and/or similar measures of assessing agent productivity and efficiency; they simply want to be sure it is not getting in the way of customer satisfaction.

And if that speaks to your situation, communicate that to your agents. Do not make the hasty, unnecessary decision to remove efficiency from the equation…put it into context. Let agents know that while it indeed matters, friendliness, personalization, relationship-building and resolution also matter. Score AHT with respect for the full spectrum of customer experience elements, and you will not prompt agents to lose sight of them. Because, at the end of the day, no matter what intermediary performance assessments you use, the most important measurement is the impact on the customer.

No one wants to contact customer service, but in some cases, it is simply unavoidable. The goal of the contact center should be to minimize the inconvenience and maximize the enjoyment.

In creating that experience, you must account for both efficiency and resolution.

Let that logic, not cutting-edge "myths," define your performance measurement strategy.

Disclaimer: Though a quote from TeleTech’s presentations served as the impetus for this article, the analysis here is that of CCIQ and not TeleTech. In a whitepaper accompanying its presentation, TeleTech, in fact, discusses the merits of dropping AHT for customer-facing assessments.