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Understanding the Average Handling Time (AHT) Call Centre Metric
The Average Handling Time metric (AHT) is used in a call centre to calculate the total length of time from the start of the conversation with the customer to the end of the customer contact, including the After Call Work.
So if the agent spends 100 seconds having a conversation with the customer and then spends another 100 seconds typing notes into a system once the customer has disconnected, the Average Handle Time is 200 seconds.
AHT is an important metric because it’s an essential ingredient in Erlang Calculations that form the basis of all Workforce Optimisation planning.
Jump Straight to a Section:
What is the Average Handling Time Formula?
To calculate the AHT, use the following formula:
(total talk time) + (total hold time) + (total after call work time) / (total number of calls) = AHT
If we just keep things nice and simple to explain the AHT formula, let’s add some numbers in seconds to demonstrate how it works.
(total talk time = 600 seconds) + (total hold time = 100 seconds) + (total after call work time = 300 seconds) total of 1,000 seconds / (total number of calls) 20 calls so to calculate your AHT its 1,000 seconds / 20 calls = AHT of 50 seconds per call.
You can extrapolate that out using figures over a day or week using minutes or hours.
Call Centre AHT Industry Benchmarks
There is no industry average or standard for most contact centre metrics.
What is right for your business and customers may not be right for others.
I can provide some insights from the latest industry benchmarking report.
It revealed that across the Australian contact centre industry, the average AHT was 507 seconds (self-reported).
On its own, it doesn’t really tell us much.
However, what we have seen is a trend of AHT increasing over the years, primarily because the more simpler transactions are being automated leaving more complex (and therefore longer) calls for the agents to deal with and I don’t see that trend slowing down anytime soon.
Using AI to assist during calls may speed things up but we’ll need to wait for next year’s report to see!
Current Australian Call Centre AHT Data!
With the launch of the Australian Call Centre Rankings Reports that we now publish monthly, you can see current AHT data for a range of leading contact centres in Australia across a range of industry sectors including: Banks, Car Insurance, Councils, Energy Providers, Internet Providers & TAFES.
Why is it important to reduce Average Handle Time?
Notice how no one ever asks how can I increase Average Handle Time? ?
The focus on a call centre is always to reduce AHT as there is a direct correlation in reduced operating costs if you can achieve it.
Put simply, lower Average Handling Time equals fewer agents required.
Which equals less cost.
As a result, unfortunately, call centres often then put the focus on agents to reduce their AHT.
But what you may find surprising is that AHT often has very little to do with the agent…
Factors that contribute to Average Handle Time
If you have a high AHT, it makes sense that you would want to explore ways to reduce it.
There are a number of factors that can contribute to Average Handling Time in a contact centre including:
- Slow computer systems (How many times do you hear agents apologising for their slow system!).
- Slow internet connection.
- Having to flick between multiple systems.
- Your own processes (i.e. do agents have to ask “is there anything else I can help you with?” or are they required to follow numerous steps to process a call?
- Time of day (For example, calls before lunch may be shorter/longer than those after lunch or at night).
- Access to information (are agents constantly scrambling to find answers?).
- Agent experience & skill (as a rule, more experienced agents will often have lower AHT – why? Because they know their way around the systems and are better equipped to handle most enquiries).
AHT Distribution and why it matters
I won’t go too deep into it here, but it is worth noting that when calls come into the call centre, they aren’t distributed in a nice even pattern like in the normal distribution graph below where just about all calls are around 10 minutes on average.
Rather, they follow an Erlang Distribution meaning some calls go for a lot longer than the average all the way through to some being a lot lower than the average.
This can have an impact when you are using AHT in your Erlang Modelling, particularly in call centres with low volumes (don’t worry our Erlang Calculator PRO takes this into account).
Another point worth noting with AHT distribution is that it can vary throughout the day and there are typically always different nuances within different industry sectors.
For example, banks may experience longer AHT in the morning when people are fresh in the morning and want to tackle refinancing their home loans whereas in the afternoon the calls are more transactional and shorter in nature.
If you only have agents who work morning shifts, it would therefore be unfair to compare their AHT with someone who works only in the afternoons.
Using AHT to measure agent performance
Despite every leading contact centre training course advising that using the AHT as a performance metric for agents is a bad thing, it is still one of the most commonly used metrics to ‘measure’ agent performance.
As I alluded to above, there are many factors that impact AHT that are outside of an agent’s control.
And as I outlined in my Popular Call Centre Metrics article, whenever you rely on a single metric to measure performance it’s never going to end well!
Let me give you a scenario:
- Agent 1 has an AHT of 200 seconds
- Agent 2 has an AHT of 400 seconds
- Agent 3 has an AHT of 600 seconds
Who is the best agent?
If you answered either 1, 2 or 3 you’re wrong.
The reality is we don’t know because AHT tells you nothing about the outcome of the call.
Agent 1 may have been quicker, but for all we know 80% of the customers they spoke to called back because they didn’t get all the information they needed!
But if we looked at AHT in conjunction with quality scores, it would start to paint a clearer picture.
AHT Outlier Report
One tool I always found useful was an AHT Outlier report. Looking at the example below that I used from an earlier consulting engagement, each blue dot was an agent in a team that all did the same inbound calls representing their average AHT over an 8-week period.
The big green band is one standard deviation.
In simple terms, if anyone was inside the green band, then they were within acceptable norms. Nothing to see here; move on!
But if you are outside of that green band, it means you are doing something quite different from everyone else.
In the example below, we can see one agent with a much lower average handling time than the entire team and one considerably higher/longer than the rest of the team.
At this point, I do not judge whether this is good or bad, as I know nothing about the call outcomes. The agent who is taking the longest might have the best quality in the whole team, the highest sales conversions etc.
But it’s enough for me to know I need to look into it more.
And when you are time-poor, as most contact centre managers and team leaders are, this type of report can be very handy.
What happens when you do use AHT as a performance metric?
Oh boy, where do I start!
I think that at the highest level, if agents are worried about the length of their call rather than the outcome for the customer, it’s never going to end well and it can lead to a whole range of poor behaviours including:
- Finishing calls as they approach the AHT target, whether it was appropriate or not.
- Taking shortcuts on any follow-up work required (i.e less notes, use of jargon).
- Not spending any time building rapport with a customer.
- Trying to transfer calls to another department or agent.
- As they are rushing, making more mistakes.
There are two big losers out of this:
- Your customers who do not get the focus and attention they need.
- The agents who are constantly placed under pressure.
Tips to Reduce AHT in a Contact Centre
If you’ve come this far on learning more about Average Handling Time it’s only right that I share some tips on how you can reduce AHT in your contact centre. I’ve split the tips into three different sections – just click on the tab to open.
Tips to Reduce AHT for Agents
1. Be Prepared
Make sure your workstation is set up correctly with access to all the tools you need for your role. Wasting time having to hunt for a pen that works, a lost manual etc can add to your AHT.
2. Use the available tools
Whether it’s a Knowledge Management System, CRM tool, Excel spreadsheets etc make sure you are familiar with how to use all the tools at your disposal.
3. Use the Phonetic Alphabet
Using the ‘A for Alpha’, ‘B for Bravo’ NATO/Military Alphabet can be an easy way to reduce confusion, improve data accuracy and speed up your calls. We’ve got a free Phonetic Alphabet you can download and place on your desk/monitor.
4. Provide Feedback
Many of the issues that contribute to AHT are outside of your control, but it doesn’t mean they can’t still be fixed! Ensure you feed back ideas and opportunities to your Team Leader or Manager as not only will it make you stand out, it has the potential to deliver big cost savings for your company and that can be positive for everyone in your workplace.
5. Continous Learning
There are a lot of things your Team Leader and Manager can do to improve AHT, but you can always take it upon yourself to improve. Seek out others who are good at controlling calls, take the time to ensure you know your products and services etc. will all help ensure your AHT is never an issue.
Tips to Reduce AHT for Team Leaders
The role of the Call Centre Team Leader is certainly not an easy task! We’ve got lots of great tips for Team Leaders on how to be effective in your role but for the purposes of this article, the tips below are specifically to help with lowering Average Handling Time in your team.
1. Side by Side Coaching
Nothing beats sitting next to your agents and observing them in how they navigate through a call. You’ll be able to spot opportunities that can help reduce AHT first-hand, from how they navigate systems through to how they handle the customer and be able to coach them immediately with some tips on how to improve.
2. Coach on call control
If you have agents that tend to always be at the higher end of the AHT scale, there may be an opportunity to help them with call control skills. You can either do this live with them in side-by-side coaching or take them offline and do some role plays so they have a chance to practice without the pressures of a real live customer on the other end of the phone.
3. Don’t just focus on your high AHT agents
Whilst it can be tempting to just focus on your high-AHT agents, you should also look at low-AHT agents who could be taking shortcuts within your systems, not following processes correctly and/or not providing a great customer experience.
4. Let agents listen to other calls with low AHT
Another way to help your agents with higher AHT is allowing them to listen to calls with a low AHT to hear how other agents are handling the calls.
5. Buddy up agents with long AHT with ones with low AHT
Just like above, let your agents sit with another agent so they can watch, listen and observe how other agents are handling the calls.
6. Share best practice tips with the team
Your role as a Team Leader is to collectively help all your employees improve their performance, so when you come across some best-practice tips, make sure you share them with the whole team.
7. Let agents listen to their own call recordings
Enabling agents to listen to their own calls (either on their own or with you as part of a coaching session) can be another great way to identify opportunities to improve AHT.
8. Be there for your team
Especially for your newbies, make sure you are available to answer enquiries which can save people time in hunting for answers.
9. Champion the cause
There are typically a ton of ways Average Handling Time can be reduced when it comes to systems, processes etc, so encourage your team to share opportunities where they see them, and then make sure you champion the cause and bring the ideas to your contact centre manager to action.
Keep your team in the loop so they know you have followed through and that they can see and feel that they are being heard.
10. Be Consistent
When it comes to coaching and providing feedback, be consistent. If you are only talking to your agents when something is wrong, I can all but guarantee you will have employee engagement/morale issues.
Tips to Reduce AHT for Managers
The role of the Contact Centre Manager continues to increase in complexity; however, one thing that hasn’t changed is the need to still focus on the basics.
And when it comes to Average Handling Time, given the impact it can have on the efficiency of your contact centre (and, therefore, the associated budget), it is always an area that requires constant focus.
Below are some tips on reducing AHT in your contact centre; the reality is just about anything you do in a contact centre will have an impact, so these are to steer you in the right direction.
1. It starts at the recruitment
Ensure one part of your recruitment process includes a telephone interview (as opposed to video/in-person) to ensure potential agents can communicate over the phone. Include role plays/assessments to assess call control skills.
2. Don’t take shortcuts in induction
It’s no secret that more experienced agents tend to have lower AHT so ensure that your induction program provides sufficient training so the agents are competent before they hit the floor.
Capture a baseline AHT throughout the induction period and when they commence and ensure the team leader is actively coaching the agents from the moment to join the team.
Hold your L&D/Training team to account for speed to competency.
3. Get your Call Routing right
Ensuring calls get to the right agent with the appropriate skills can save a lot of AHT. Invest in the right IVR for your business and constantly optimise! Find suppliers of Contact Centre technology solutions >
4. Use Call and Screen Recording
While side-by-side/remote coaching can be great, the ability to watch/listen to a call can be a powerful tool in coaching your agents for optimal performance.
5. Appoint AHT Champions
AHT is never set and forget, but you’re a busy person. Delegate the responsibility to a section head/Team Leader to lead an AHT Champion team comprising various stakeholders who can meet regularly to capture and improve on opportunities to improve your AHT.
6. Use Knowledge Management Systems
They’ll also reduce your induction time and improve compliance. What are you waiting for!!! Find Knowledge Management Suppliers here >
7. Get to know your IT Manager
Like really well! Slow systems, disjointed platforms, UX issues etc., are all significant contributors to AHT, so make you have a great working relationship with the IT Manager and include them in the journey.
8. Analyse AHT by Call Type and Component
Understanding which type of calls have higher AHT, along with what part of the call (talk time, hold time or ACW), can go a long way to helping you identify which calls to tackle first that will deliver the biggest reward.
9. Get to know your Erlang
An Erlang Calculator can be a powerful tool in helping you model impacts on your AHT. We have two versions (free and paid) designed to make it easy for you to model a range of different scenarios that can be incredibly powerful in developing a business case for change.
For example, let’s say that slow systems are a big contributor to your long AHT. By observing calls and reviewing data, you establish that it’s added an extra 40 seconds to every call.
The IT Manager is aware of the issue, but fixing it will require a server upgrade which will cost $50,000, and he doesn’t have the budget.
Using Erlang, you can model the impact of reducing 40 seconds from your AHT, which may result in you requiring five fewer agents to maintain the same Service Levels.
Using an average salary of $90,000 for a fully loaded call centre agent multiplied by 5 = a saving of $450,000 for a $50,000 investment.
You don’t need to use our ROI Calculator to know that’s a smart investment for your business (plus the added bonus of happier customers and employees).
10. Regular Hack Days
Nothing ever stays the same in a contact centre, so in addition to your AHT Champions, conduct regular hack days to uncover opportunities to improve your contact centre.
As long as you capture all the feedback and then close the loop with your employees, they can be a powerful tool for making many positive changes in your workplace.
There’s no question the average handling time metric is a critical one in the contact centre.
I hope by reading this article you’ve come to appreciate that whilst there are some elements of AHT can control, typically the biggest influences on AHT are more to with the design, processes and technology stack of the contact centre, which is firmly in the hands of the contact centre manager.
If you’ve got some great tips in reducing AHT that have worked for you, please add them in the comments below or on the social media platform where you read this so it can also help others.
Additional content recommendations:
- About the Author
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After spending over 30 years working in contact centres and CX, one thing I’ve learnt is there is always something more to learn!
I’m thrilled to be the inaugural CEO of ACXPA, and together with the rest of the team, we’re focused on helping Australian businesses deliver efficient and effective customer experiences via phone, digital and in-person by empowering their employees with the skills, industry insights and professional support networks they need to succeed.