Average Handling Time (AHT)

By Jeremy Blake on February 13, 2023

‘AHT’ or Average Handling Time - the average amount of time you and your team dedicate to each call. If those interactions require more time, the number of calls you’re able to take and sales you make in a day goes down. On the other hand, if you’re able to increase the amount of calls in a day, while keeping the average handling time low, then, technically, you can increase sales and keep more customers content.

The movie ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ depicts a great example of the value of salespersons’ time: the sale is completed, and the customer is then passed to an administrator for the call’s paperwork. Could it be that you are expecting too much from contact centre staff? Should there be a smaller team assigned to administrative tasks? It depends on what the goals of your AHT are; is the purpose of the call to make an influential or persuasive pitch? Could those necessary admin tasks, like name, address, and telephone number, be handled by people with less persuasion abilities?

All contact centres strive for a quality of service to be delivered, yet is AHT the correct metric to gauge this? John Seddon, a British psychologist, commented that the ‘variation is in the customer’ – this is due to the individual agents with their own language and personality, conversing with different kinds of customers; a recently widowed elderly lady, a newly relocated young man, a couple who have just bought their first home, etc. The variation is more in the customer rather than the agent, but the agent is expected to maintain the AHT, and when this isn’t done properly, it can lead to customers calling back again because the call was rushed, and something was missed.

John Seddon coined the term ‘Failure Demand’, which refers to demand that is caused by the failure of the company to do something right for the customer. Customers come back, resulting in extra demand and the utilisation of the organisation’s resources due to their unsatisfactory service. To reduce the handling time, it’s important to first think about how much of the interaction is caused by the organisation’s mistakes.

Jeff Donnelly’s article on AHT reveals that 60% of the failed attempts of first call resolution are a result of the agent’s inability to access the right data. If your system is outdated and slow, how can you expect advisors to reduce the average handling time when it isn’t able to support that?

The end of each call can be automated, and doing so can cut the time by 80%. For example, if there’s a 10-minute bit on the end of each call, that could be reduced to two minutes, which lowers the AHT for the entire call by about 20%. Automating that part of the call is great, as it takes away the unnecessary tasks, allowing agents to move on to the next call, where they can use their persuasion skills more.

Though AHT is an interesting metric, it is essential to consider whether reducing it is decreasing the quality of service as well. Is there a certain limit to how much a customer can buy in a single call? If you are selling just one thing in a contact centre, there will be specific amount of time required to sell it, whereas if you’re expected to sell a range of products, it could extend the AHT, depending on the detail. It is all a matter of striking a balance.

Rory Sutherland, of Ogilvy, and founder of its behavioural science practice, commented on the relationship between AHT and time spent on the phone. He stated that, “in any organisation [there should be] a mixture of automation streamlining where consumers want it, and the complete opposite, which is high touch attention, where nothing else will do [for other customers].” Once again, this connects back to John Seddon’s comment about the variation in the customer.

Focusing solely on reducing the AHT won’t answer the real questions, like 'how can we keep customers happy?', 'how can we grow our sales?', and ‘how can we change our systems?’. These questions take a while to answer, but failing to do so could be missing out on chances for growth.

Lastly, if you put too much pressure on AHT, agents will be more likely to try and complete calls quickly to make you happy instead of making sure the customer is content. This is not what you want to happen.

AHT is an important metric to consider when discussing call times, but it is equally essential to investigate the quality of service and how it is affected by AHT. Questions should be asked about customer satisfaction, growth opportunities, and changes in the system, to ensure that customers are getting the best possible experience. Failure to do so could lead to an unproductive loop of bureaucracy and decreased customer happiness.