It Is Time to Toss Average Handle Time

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When it comes to managing Average Handle Time (AHT) in any contact center, there are countless articles on how to reduce, optimize, and measure the time spent engaging with a current or prospective customer champion. However, companies that focus primarily on reducing AHT are wasting time and valuable resources; not to mention most likely negatively impacting the experience with the person with whom they are engaged.
Strategies that prioritize AHT rates fail to address the actual issue, which is how to properly incentivize teammates (employees) to ensure that customer’s needs and expectations are being met. Here’s how companies can modernize their AHT strategies and better align them with customer behaviors to deliver a more satisfying experience.
is it time to abandom average handle time metricsAverage handle time is a widely used contact center metric that measures the total length of time it takes a representative to engage with a customer, across any channel. Having a low AHT suggests representatives who are assisting customers are highly productive. The belief is that when your brand ambassadors are encouraged to handle an issue as efficiently as possible, they are able to help more customers. And fast customer service means fewer customers are waiting and becoming irritated.

An obvious pitfall, though, to focusing on AHT is that it detracts from and overshadows other factors, such as quality. The more attention contact center managers (your customer experience stewards) and representatives give to low AHT rates, the less time they have for other concerns, such as examining the quality of their service.

Furthermore, AHT hails from an era when the telephone was the primary customer service channel. It was also a time when customers had few options in which to complain of receiving poor or rushed service.
But times have changed.

In a world that is increasingly digital-first, customers reach out to voice channels only when they have a complex issue or can’t find the answer themselves. Additionally, more and more simple inquiries are being handled by automated systems, intuitive self-service strategies tied to an optimized knowledgebase strategy, integrated mobile app support, and more. Essentially, we are headed to a place where Tier 1 support—handled mostly by human interactions today—is replaced with advanced technologies and more efficient customer engagement design principles.  Machines, bots, optimized process, and automation will essentially make “obsolete” the need for Tier 1 human interactions as we know them today, but more on this in an upcoming article.
As innovative organizations continue to “teach” their customers how to self-service their way through automated and efficient Tier 1 support, it becomes critically important to have a team of expertly skilled, customer-first brand advocates to support the more complex, nuanced interactions that become difficult to resolve.

Contact center representatives can answer questions that require more time to properly resolve and build a “customer for life” relationship. In other words, a model that prioritizes AHT rates is likely out of touch with the needs of today’s customers. And in an age of empowered, hyper-connected customers, companies can’t afford to be tone-deaf about the customer experience.

By the same token, AHT still has a role to play in the modern contact center—the challenge is balancing the value of the AHT metric with other metrics. For example, instead of prioritizing the number of answered calls or closed tickets, make sure associates understand that their performance also includes outcomes like customer satisfaction, minimal customer effort, superior teammate NPS results, or renewal rates. 
And when setting AHT metrics, look to contact center representatives who receive high marks in customer satisfaction as models. Gamifying the results your teammates achieve and presenting them to your team in real time builds teammate confidence, accelerates their performance, and challenges them to over achieve, while also bringing an element of fun and personal passion.  Doing so also helps align the AHT rate more closely with customer-centric behavior and practices. Additionally, consider setting a range of acceptable rates rather than just one rate. Armed with a range, managers can still track their team’s performance and identify outliers without employees scrambling to meet an artificial goal.
The bottom line is that to remain competitive, companies must be flexible and nimble enough to adjust their performance metrics according to the needs of their customers. And just because something worked well in the past, that doesn’t necessarily mean it will work today. Low AHT rates may have been the ideal goal several years ago, but customers—and the issues they inquire about—have changed. It is up to companies to respond to those changes and deliver better customer experiences before their competitors do. 

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