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Call Center Week: Witness the Death of Average Handle Time (AHT)

Brian Cantor

The reality that what resonates on paper does not always resonate in the corporate world is a lesson of immense familiarity to the customer management community.

Concepts like social customer care and at-home agents are ubiquitous in customer management dialogue, but as interaction with actual call center managers continues to confirm, they are not so engrained in reality. Such concepts, no matter how sensible and trendy, maintain an elusive state with a customer management audience unable—or unwilling—to part with more traditional conceptions of service.

While the presentations and interactive discussions at this past week’s 14th Annual Call Center Week definitely reflected the ongoing transition from theory to practice as far as such concepts go, audience adoption was far from universal. Twitter support and live chat, for many leaders, remain things that they need to do rather than things that they need to do better. Virtual contact centers and at-home models are attractive customer service options but not necessarily mandatory staples of the customer experience.

But disconnect between customer management dialogue and practice is not universal. And after years of mockery and criticism, it appears reliance upon average handle time as a core customer management benchmark has finally become as despised in practice as it is in conversation.

Epitomizing the disconnect between whose contact centers are meant to serve (customers) and whose they actually serve (internal stakeholders), average handle time toplines a school of "efficiency" metrics that has an increasingly smaller place in contact center management. It, like other efficiency criteria, remains one of the most commonly-measured tenets of the contact center, but it has lost footing as an integral part of the management process.

Customer management leaders, and even overall business leaders, who were once conditioned to assess agents exclusively on factors like average handle time now recognize that such metrics do not necessarily possess a connection to customer satisfaction. As such, they are irrelevant in the determination of whether or not the customer support team is achieving its fundamental goal of satisfying the customer.

While this line of argumentation is archaic, its manifestation is surprisingly current. Up until very recently, the notion that the contact center is part of a business, and therefore must answer primarily to operational efficiency metrics, was left unchecked in the customer management community. Factors like Net Promoter Score, Customer Satisfaction Score, Customer Effort Score and even First Call Resolution were nice to know and useful in crafting bonus structure, but when one wanted to know how well his contact center was running, he assessed his organization’s AHT.

The constant urging, shoulder-struggling and eye-rolling at that notion has finally paid off. When presenters and attendees discussed contact center metrics at the 14th Call Center Week, they were safe to downplay average handle time as incompatible with the "age of the customer." They were justified in their confidence that when they talked up customer effort score, they would not spark a chorus of complaints from those whose organizations would "never allow it."

In this forum, the questions were about how to do things better rather than which things need to be done. This crowd knew it needs to incorporate customer-facing, strategic metrics into the contact center management process, and it knew the next step was figuring out exactly how to measure and implement those indicators.

For this crowd, debates over AHT vs. FCR or AHT vs. CES were as one-sided as discussions over how best to measure, monitor and improve FCR and CES were valuable. Tradition-driven ignorance was replaced by customer-centric curiosity; organizations have finally begun to embrace the customer-minded conception of the contact center, and the goal now is to assure that the way they measure and manage performance brings them closer to the customer.

Particularly notable—and promising—about the renewed approach to contact center performance is the fact that attendees were embracing the broader ramifications of satisfaction metrics. Engraining the new philosophy in the call center is far from an easy task, but this group of hungry customer management professionals was already prepared to approach the challenge from a multi-channel perspective. That first call resolution should be renamed first contact resolution and incorporate customer service successes across all customer touch points was an inevitability rather than a fantasy. Factoring channel crossovers into the customer effort assessment was obvious not unattainable.

After so much fruitless urging, the customer management community is finally embracing what thinkers have known for so long: the contact center is about the customer, and by keeping that goal top of mind, customer support functions will not only achieve their most imperative objectives but also perform in the manner most valuable to the business. When a contact center is giving the customer what he wants, it is acquiring the feedback and building the relationships that provide the business with what it needs.

That is why average handle time is obsolete as a core contact center management metric. It is not that average handle time is irrelevant; it matters from a workforce management standpoint, and it could very well matter to customers who do not want to sit endlessly on the phone while their issue is worked out.

But even if the latter is true, it will be achieved as a byproduct of focusing on customer satisfaction. Committing to customer satisfaction is not synonymous with committing to lengthy calls; the efficiency of those calls absolutely matters, and it is in fact likely that by focusing 100% on the customer, centers will achieve better AHTs and reduce the overall number of (negative or support) calls.

What also matters is that customers are not made to suffer with indecisive calls or unresolved issues because agents feel they must achieve a certain call time.

That is why managing against AHT is so ill-advised in today’s contact center environment. If customers place satisfaction and loyalty on efficiency, customer-minded contact centers will deliver it to them. But if contact centers only focus on efficiency assessments, they cannot guarantee the resolutions and relationships that speak so pivotally to customer satisfaction.