Reducing Average Handle Time does not necessarily mean that you have improved it. Read on to know how you can improve your AHT without sacrificing quality
How long is too long? Well, that depends on the situation.
It was the holiday season in 2018. The boardroom held the CEO of Amazon Jeff Bezos, and 30 other executives from different geographies. And Bezos wanted to find out how long was too long.
He had one question for them, “How long are the telephone support hold times?”
When Brad Stone, the global VP of customer service, asserted that their customers didn’t have to wait on the line for more than a minute, he decided to test it out. He dialed their customer service line on the room’s speakerphone.
They heard the line ring. And ring. And ring.
It was four and a half insufferable, uncomfortable minutes before anyone answered the call.
That was the day Brad Stone learned that Jeff Bezos takes customer service very seriously.
And ideally, so should every business.
Though initial wait time is not a component of the Average Handle Time (AHT), it is a critical metric that determines how the customer will perceive the business. Long wait times impact customer satisfaction. When the customer has to wait more for a resolution after being connected, it leads to frustration and poor customer experience. Lowering your handle time will help you improve AHT, which will help you increase the efficiency of your call center.
Lowering your AHT will ultimately help you
- provide a better customer experience
- operate your call center more efficiently
- reduce costs
We’ll discuss a few methods through which you can improve your AHT while ensuring top-notch customer service.
What is Average Handle Time (AHT)?
The time it takes to handle a call from beginning to end – starting from call connection, hold time, talk time, and After Call Work (ACW) the agent must do to resolve that call is called AHT. Here is the Average Handle Time formula:
Here After Call Work (ACW) time is when the agent brings their notes up to speed on what the call was about.
AHT is an important call center metric used as a Key Performance Indicator (KPI) in call centers. It is an important metric to stay on top of. It is used to assess the performance of a call center as it can be a useful benchmark that agents can look to achieve. It is typically used to measure the duration of a phone call. Businesses taking an omnichannel approach to their customer service can use this metric to compare how well phone support fares when compared to other support channels like chat.
How Average Handle Time affects costs
The Average Handle Time is directly related to cost savings, and so call centers to invest a lot of time in analyzing how to drive it down. Let’s look at how AHT can cost your company money.
Agent salaries are the primary cost driver in a call center. Yet, laying off staff is not an option, so call center managers look for other ways to reduce costs, and reducing AHT is one way to do that. More calls a day equates to more problems resolved, which in turn drives up your revenue. So, if your call center is taking a hundred calls per day, and you can take a few seconds off each call to reduce AHT, the time saving will translate into cost savings. This means you can do more with less, i.e., your agents can speak with more customers in the same time.
Driving down AHT should not be the only thing you focus on; sometimes, it could lead to poor customer service. Let’s take an example to understand this.
Agent 1: Total talk time – 200 secs
After Call Work – 20 secs
Agent 2: Total talk time – 170 secs
After Call Work – 50 secs
Total number of calls handled – 100
AHT for agent 1 = (200+20)/100 = 2 mins 20 secs
AHT for agent 2 = (170+50)/100 = 2 mins 20 secs
Here both agents have the same AHT, so they have performed equally from a cost perspective. But where they win out depends on which agent gave a better customer experience, which you can measure through customer surveys.
Factors that impact your Average Handle Time
Average hold time
Hold time is the average amount of time a customer waits in a queue before the call is answered by an agent. It is also defined as the average time taken for an operator to answer the line. It is calculated as follows:
The industry standard for hold time is 20 seconds. The average hold time directly affects your average handle time, so it is necessary to keep your hold time as short as possible.
If your customers call you multiple times to resolve a single issue, it will increase your AHT. It could also potentially hurt customer service, as the customer has to keep coming back to gain more information. If the agent is not adequately equipped to handle the issue, he/she might put the customer on hold, which will drive up your AHT.
Call transfer times
Sometimes as an agent, you may have to transfer an inbound customer inquiry to another department. This will cause you to put the customer on hold. You will initially consume some time to interact with the customer to collect details before transferring the call. So in this scenario, three factors: talk time, hold time, and transfer time combined will drive up your AHT significantly.
This is a direct aftereffect of call transfer. The first agent validates incoming calls from the customer. When he/she transfers the call, the same set of questions is again posed by the second agent to understand the issue. This not only increases your AHT but also leads to frustration from the customer’s part. Having features like a warm transfer can help you overcome this situation.
Apart from the above, two other factors can distort your AHT. They are:
After Call Work (ACW) efficiency
Agents ideally use ACW time to add notes related to that particular call. However, some agents may use this time to take time off, like to take a cigarette break or restroom break. This could distort your AHT, as ACW time is one direct contributor to how you calculate it.
When using AHT to measure agent performance, you may find that your agents tend to cut off callers midway or transfer it to another department. This is because they may find the caller too challenging to deal with, and carrying on the conversation will drive up the call handle time. This will distort your AHT and also lead to poor customer experience.
How to improve your Average Handle Time
Now that you know how critical AHT is, let’s look at ways to improve it. Reducing your AHT does not necessarily mean that you’ve improved it.
Too confusing? Here’s what that means:
While there are time-tested ways to bring down your AHT, you must ensure that it does not affect customer satisfaction. For example, you can reduce (but not improve) your AHT by hurrying customers off the call, irrespective of whether your agents have resolved the issue. This will help you reduce your AHT, but it will adversely affect your C-SAT score and lead to repeat callers.
The real standard for measuring AHT is not only reduced call durations but also increased customer satisfaction. So, improved AHT can be defined as decreasing your average handle time while attaining a high level of customer satisfaction.
Additionally, as discussed above, improving your AHT will also help you reduce your call center costs while helping you improve the overall call center efficiency.
Here are a few things you can do to improve your AHT:
Effective agent training
You can improve your AHT significantly by imparting quality training to your agents. When it comes down to it, AHT depends on your agents’ abilities to handle common issues. Without proper training, agents may fumble and bide time while on the call when trying to retrieve solutions. Ultimately, this will drive up your AHT and also hurt customer service. Comprehensive training on standard hardware and software issues will prepare your agents to quickly and effectively handle them, thereby enabling you to improve AHT.
Monitor agent performance
Improving call center performance doesn’t merely stop with training agents. It is also necessary to monitor how effectively they apply their learnings, and if it’s helping you with your objective. You can make use of software to measure metrics like Average speed of answer, average wait time, average queue time, etc., to measure your call center performance. You can also set up a service level and monitor how well agents are adhering to it through Service Level Monitoring (SLM) tools. SLM is a way to measure your team’s efficiency based on the time taken by each agent to answer calls.
One primary reason why it is not advisable to use AHT to measure agent performance is that agents may cut corners to achieve that target. They may cut off calls early, or mark issues as resolved when they aren’t, to achieve their AHT goals. Though this will help you reduce AHT, it will lead to poor customer satisfaction, and sometimes they may also end up churning.
Use scripts as a guide
Scripts are only meant to ease the call handling process, so do not train your agents to use it like a mantra. Too much focus on the script will hinder active listening, increasing the overall handle time. It can also lead to the agents asking questions repeatedly, frustrating the customer. This negatively impacts your customer satisfaction score. Encourage agents to listen well and ask questions rather than sticking to a pre-written script. This helps in faster resolution, thus helping you reduce the AHT.
Build a useful self-service portal
Build a comprehensive self-help portal to enable customers to solve their issues on their own. Effective knowledge management (like using a Knowledge Base) enables agents to access required information quickly, which helps reduce the AHT. Including help articles that cover a comprehensive list of how-to’s on specific issues will help agents find answers quickly, while also serving customers effectively. This leads to a win-win; you reduce your AHT, and customers are satisfied with your service.
Optimize call routing
Have a well-designed routing system (phone tree) in place, so that customers can connect to the most knowledgeable agent related to their inquiry on their first attempt. This will help save time spent on-call holding and call transfer, thereby improving your AHT. Routing callers to the wrong agent not only drives up your AHT, but it also causes time to be wasted in interacting with the first agent.
Improve internal communications
Enabling internal agent chat will help you save time spent on transferring calls from one agent to another. Your agents must be able to collaborate so that answers come faster, and AHT improves as a result. Making use of an in-built chat app or any third-party app will help you achieve this.
Get a handle on your Average Handle Time
While an improved AHT showcases the efficiency of a call center, it must not come at the cost of customer experience. Customers want a quick and efficient response in any type of support interaction they have, and they usually contact support only when they face an inconvenience. Use AHT as an indicator to mitigate that inconvenience, rather than merely using it to measure the call center performance.
Improved AHT can be measured by excellent customer satisfaction, reduced call handle time, and as a result, reduced costs. The methods mentioned above will help you use AHT more than just as a performance metric.
Excellent customer service must always be your top priority. So when striving towards improving your AHT, ensure that customer experience is not forgotten.
Freshcaller is a modern-day reimagining of our everyday phone system for customer support, sales, IT, and HR teams. With Freshcaller’s cloud-based architecture, it brings together the best of legacy features like IVR and advanced capabilities like Smart Escalations, Call Routing, Custom Call Center Analytics to help you set up a state-of-the-art business call center. Freshcaller offers phone numbers in 90+ countries, requires zero phone hardware, and is extremely easy to use.
If you want to find out more about what we do, check out www.freshcaller.com.
Illustrations by Nikhil Kanda.
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