Average Handle Time: An Antiquated Call Center Metric

Tripp Babbitt

I recently finished reading Customer Management IQ's Blake Landau's blog entry "AHA!" Moment About AHT Average Handle Time and talks about how call center representatives may "hang up" on customers to keep their handle time down to meet their target or quota. I have seen such foolishness in almost every call center I have visited.

The Problem with the Call Center Metric Average Handle Time

The problem here is deep, rooted in command and control thinking born from scientific management theory (F.W. Taylor). Not only is this thinking old, but is displayed in the blog comments. This productivity mindset is over 100 years old and has run its course. Better methods are at hand, but require a change of thinking from command and control to a systems thinking one.

The average handle time target is the problem. The average handle time becomes the de facto purpose of the call center representative, meaning their focus is on the target and not the customer. The call center representative is left with a choice to either serve the customer or risk being paid attention to or not receiving some incentive for not achieving some arbitrary numerical goal (target).

Additionally, the target does not account for the variety of demand that a call center representative receives. I have seen on many occasions where the customer demand is a hard call (time consuming) and no call center representative wants those calls when they are under the gun of an arbitrary target. Sometimes call center representatives hang up or don't give complete answers to customers, leading to more failure demand (call backs, errors, follow-ups, escalations, etc.). This just increases call volume at great expense.

The Command and Control Solutions for the Call Center

One comment to the blog suggests that having someone with greater than 15 percent average handle time needs to have the agent's attention. The arbitrary 15 percent bothers me. Where does that number come from? Why isn't it 20 percent or 7 percent or some other number? This person clearly does not understand variation.

Almost all the responses were from command and control thinking. Items like more call center quality monitoring, scorecards, coaching, training, etc. that only add waste to a poorly designed system. Most of these call center solutions focus on the individual (except scorecards) and the problem here is that 95 percent of performance comes from the system (work design, technology, management thinking, constraints, regulations, policies, procedures, scripts, etc.) and only 5 percent is attributable to the individual. Call center scorecards are just doing the wrong thing, righter. These solutions have the displeasing odor of command and control thinking.

A Better Way: Systems Thinking

One thing I have found is that command and control thinking doesn't work very well. Systems thinking (by nature) focuses on the customer. Decisions are made outside-in and not top-down starting with understanding purpose from a customer perspective, deriving measures from this purpose and liberating method. The focus becomes serving the customer rather than some arbitrary target. With an understanding of customer demand, we can design systems against this demand. In a management paradox, this improves customer service and cut costs by eliminating failure demand. This is something that command and control (production) thinkers don't understand . . . to them there is always a trade-off between costs and good service.

The better way eliminates the need for call center quality monitoring, scripts, mandates, procedures, targets and the like saving the call center and the organization from wasteful costs. Other benefits are improved call center culture from putting the decision-making back with the work and allowing call center representatives to think again instead of "dumbing them down" with costly call center technology and monitoring. The real question is: Are you ready to change thinking to get the benefits?

First published on New Systems Thinking.