Speed is everything to today's customers, and their time is precious.
So what should you care about most – speed or quality?
The correct answer is both.
Striking the right balance is where average handle time (AHT) steps into the spotlight. Call center AHT has quickly become one of the most closely analyzed metrics in the sector. Its use has enabled businesses to overhaul the way agents respond to customers – increasing first-time resolutions and driving down cost per interaction (CPI).
In this article, we’ll explore the basics of average handle time and how it can impact critical KPIs across CSAT, operational efficiency, training, budget and more.
What is average handle time? (AHT)
Average handle time (AHT) is a metric used to measure the average duration of an entire customer engagement with an agent, from the moment the interaction begins to the moment it concludes.
AHT takes into account all aspects of the interaction, including talk time, hold time, and any post-interaction work, such as updating contact profiles or completing follow-up tasks.
How is average handle time calculated?
Calculating average handle time (AHT) involves summing up the total time taken to complete customer interactions and then dividing by the total number of interactions. Here’s the formula for different channels:
Breaking down AHT components:
Talk time: The time an agent spends directly engaging with a customer in conversation, addressing their query, concern or request.
Hold time: The average amount of time callers are placed on hold or being transferred to another suitable agent.
After-call work (ACW): A set of necessary tasks completed after an agent interaction such as updating customer records and sending CSAT forms.
Why is average handle time important?
Average handle time offers a unique view into how efficient your agents and your overarching support services are for customers. Businesses that prioritize optimizing AHT stand to gain improved customer loyalty, streamlined operations, and a significant edge in today’s competitive landscape.
As a metric, it creates visibility and accountability into the customer’s greatest commodity: Time. No customer is looking for a heavy lift. They want fast and painless resolutions to their problems, courtesy of your brand. If you can’t supply that, the data suggests they’ll take their business elsewhere. In fact, when customers experience high-effort issue resolutions, they are 96% more likely to be disloyal to brands and 81% more likely to share negative word-of-mouth.
Not to mention, keeping customers on the line for longer than necessary holds little value for businesses either. Shorter interactions are far more economical from a capital perspective; they require fewer resources and less agent labor, meaning businesses can reach more customers in a shorter span of time.
This increase in agent capacity can result in:
- Shorter customer wait times
- Improved resource allocation
- Increased customer satisfaction
- Reduced customer churn
- Reduction in labor expenses and cost-per-interaction
What is a "good" average handle time?
The benchmark for a “good” average handle time will vary from industry to industry – it’s too hard to call broadly. Customers expect different treatment from different sectors, and customer service processes can vary in complexity.
Certain businesses are prone to longer interaction times because their customers simply expect more, such as detailed walkthroughs or long empathetic calls. That does not make AHT optimization a fruitless exercise in these circumstances. These businesses need to strictly focus on procedural tweaks that can speed up interactions – rather than introducing any reduction to service levels or quality.
Here are three examples where handle time can vary from industry to industry:
How to reduce average handle time
IVR & call routing
IVR systems can route incoming calls to the most appropriate department or agent based on the caller’s input – quickly and without human intervention. This eliminates the need for manual call routing, reducing the time customers spend being transferred between different agents or departments.
With the introduction of AI, well-implemented IVR systems can offer time-saving advantages beyond just quick and accurate routing:
Computer telephony integration (CTI): Using CTI, your IVR system can identify each customer based on their own unique phone number. With a sophisticated API, a customer’s call can trigger a pop-up with their profile, order history and any other supplementary details that can help your agent to identify the customer, preempt their request and drive faster resolutions.
Natural language processing (NLP): With natural language processing, IVR systems can automatically collect data from the caller before they are routed to an agent. Aside from giving agents a head start, more advanced setups will automatically insert call details and summaries inside your CRM – reducing after-call work (ACW) and time spent on data entry.
Qualified agent routing: With most traditional IVR systems, there’s a high chance trainee agents could face your toughest customer interactions, which can be damaging for your brand and their development. With NLP, businesses can identify the customer’s issue in real time and route calls to the agent with the highest satisfaction rate for that specific inquiry.
Implementing a customer knowledge base or help center brings benefits for both consumers and agents. Customers are known to try and resolve issues independently – 81% of them to be exact. These resources help them to find answers to basic questions without the need for agent assistance – eliminating low-priority interactions and enabling support teams to focus on more valuable customer conversations.
In many cases, AHT is impacted by agent knowledge – and the resources available to them. A dynamic, easy-to-navigate knowledge base also provides a portal for agents to quickly pinpoint the right solutions for the customer in front of them. They can also find and send relevant articles to the customer– which helps to finalize interactions faster.
When agents improve their ability to handle queries quickly – whether common or complex – handle time is reduced. This all starts with data-driven coaching. Before deploying an onboarding strategy, consider the impact of your CRM, software, hardware, scripts and service standards. If supervisors are training agents with a clear understanding of the factors that influence AHT, they will be better prepared to pay attention to this metric and take accountability for their performance.
It’s equally important to coach based on what the data is telling you – not gut feeling. Identify the agents in your team that are achieving lower handle times with high CSAT scores and weave their insights into your onboarding.
Introduce speech analytics and call categorization
Speech analytics make achieving full visibility into team performance simple. This fast-growing AI technology analyzes call recordings, automatically tags and indexes keywords used and then assigns each call to a relevant category. Every interaction is dispositioned with the specific product and issue type – giving businesses the insights to create AHT benchmarks more granularly.
Plus, with this log of historical interactions at their fingertips, agents can quickly search by keyword and adjust their conversation based on what top CSAT performers do and say in similar situations. Certain speech analytic APIs can even automate this for you, prompting a call script on the agent’s screen in real time.
Is low average handle time always good news?
Businesses nearly always find that reducing their average handle time results in lower labor costs and decreased waiting times – but that doesn’t paint the fullest picture.
It’s vital to remember that lower AHT does not equal effective customer support, nor should it come at its expense. Businesses that excel at maintaining a low AHT focus on improving internal processes, rather than rushing customers with subpar support and unfinished resolutions.
Cutting corners in pursuit of lower spend only works if you’re still able to provide what your customers are looking for. If you can’t, you’re destined to harm your brand reputation and CSAT – the impact of which is no secret:
50% of consumers will switch to a competitor after one bad experience. (ZenDesk)
$62 billion is lost by U.S. businesses each year following bad customer experiences. (Vonage)
Only one in five consumers will forgive a bad experience at a company whose service they rate as “very poor.” (Qualtrics)
Do customers really care about AHT?
When customers pick up the phone, initiate a live chat or send an email, they’re only looking for one thing: A fast, reliable and sustained resolution to their issue. While average handle time takes speed into consideration, the quality of your service and the experiences you provide are left out of the equation.
If average handle time is low, but customers continue to call in with repeat challenges and unresolved issues, that is a poor experience – one that damages your brand and profits. First-time resolution (FTR) is what customers truly care about. If they spend longer than expected on the phone, but their issue is fully resolved, customers are more likely to feel their value to your brand and product and see that you are prepared to go above and beyond to meet their needs. That is a far more value-adding experience for the customer.
Your average handle time is a powerful indicator for agent performance – but it’s not the be-all and end-all.
Focusing on reducing your AHT may instantly reduce labor and lower costs, but it’s important not to sacrifice quality for speed. If you can find a healthy balance between both – and your CSAT or quality scores prove it – you’re likely already one step ahead of the competition.
Harte Hanks can help you find this balance. By deploying our meaningful service insights, accomplished support agents and powerful self-serve technology, we help you to drive breakthrough reductions in handle time and maintain continual upticks in CSAT, renewals and repeat business.
Connect with us today
Ben Chacko is the managing director of customer care for Harte Hanks, a leading global customer experience company that provides CX strategy, data-driven analytics, and actionable insights combined with seamless program execution to better understand, attract, and engage customers.