Average Handle Time (AHT) – Metrics That Matter

Average handle time (AHT) is a metric for the total average duration of a single contact, including any customer hold time (if Chat or Phone), talk time and the follow-up or admin after work tasks related to that contact.
For chat you also need to include concurrency in your calculation for AHT by dividing single session times by total logged in “productive time engaged in chats” and all offline/load must be removed from equation.
There is no doubt about it the good old Average handle time (AHT) metric is an important metric in workforce management workload forecasting. In fact, any type of moving average metric is extremely useful for forecasting long-term trends. However, be aware there are some flaws in using averages in any forecasting effort, and much depends on how spread your outliers are in the histogram of the average. For example, as was written by Sam Savage for the Harvard Business Review:

Consider the case of the statistician who drowns while fording a river that he calculates is, on average, three feet deep. If he were alive to tell the tale, he would expound on the “flaw of averages,” which states, simply, that plans based on assumptions about average conditions usually go wrong. This basic but almost always unseen flaw shows up everywhere in business, distorting accounts, undermining forecasts, and dooming apparently well-considered projects to disappointing results. 

If you want to learn more about the flaws of averages here is a link to that article: https://hbr.org/2002/11/the-flaw-of-averages.
Back to AHT. As Cameron Turner says in the article “Let’s Talk About Average Handle Time. – for a while now, in the contact centre scene it’s been popular to hate on Average Handle Time as metric, with some even completely leaving this metric un-monitored and un-managed. This thought process, whilst well meaning, is I am afraid completely flawed.
The advice usually comes in the form of it being the “wrong” metric to focus on because it creates bad agent behaviours not great for customer experience. i.e. it is focusing the agent to concentrate on how quickly they can get through the call instead of how well they can meet the customers’ needs or the customer experience.
In other words, this advice is basically saying; low AHT = low Quality experience or conversely High AHT = High Quality experience. Sadly however this is typically very bad advice and anyone who has attempted to correlate AHT with Quality, NPS or Customer Experience (CustX) will find some Agents with low AHT having great quality/CustX and some have terrible Quality/CustX or vice versa some agent having high AHT and great quality/CustX and some have terrible.
I have run similar correlation exercises as Cameron and also found there is simply very little correlation – yes AHT has to managed in the right way and agents should not be taking short cuts in order to reduce their AHT. Additionally when assessing an Agent performance on AHT it should also be recognised that the average is simply a midpoint of all the conversations that are taking place in that channel. In fact when managing AHT a more useful measure is the normal range of contact and assess abnormally long or short contacts to see why they are different – either short or long outliers are both bad for forecasting as well as indicators of something going wrong.
Anyway, what I am very firm on is that completely dumping AHT as a metric is highly flawed for any contact centre – both from a productivity perspective but also as a customer experience outcome – yes believe it or not customers don’t want long conversations.
Last note on AHT: there is no industry standard for the length of AHT, and it will highly depend on:
  • The complexity of conversation between the customer and agent and or process the agent has to complete to fulfil the customer’s request. For example, a simple “can you send me this document request” could be a very quick AHT vs a customer complaint. As organisations continue to roll out more digital, chat bot, and app self-service functionality this will reduce the number of simple transactional conversations so don’t be surprised when you see your AHT rise in this scenario.
  • The Tenure and Experience of the Agent – this is natural when you first learn a new skill it takes longer to complete; over time an agent will become more efficient.
  • The technology stability and page load time used by the agent.
Struggling to figure your why your call center AHT (Average handle time) is up??? Check this Video out from Marlon:

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