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Handle With Care

The following article is published with permission of our partner company Atlantic Insight. Along with Quality Assurance, AHT is one of the most common contact centre KPIs.

Philip Stubbs argues that AHT is a very useful KPI for managing advisor performance, yet it must be used sensitively as part of a well-planned, robust coaching culture. If used incorrectly, its use can make performance much worse. Could the same arguments be made for how we treat call centre QA also?

How to use Average Handling Time so that contact centre performance is improved – and not damaged

Average Handling Time (AHT) has long been measured and tracked within inbound contact centres, for two key reasons. The first is that AHT is commonly used as a key input to calculate resource requirement, so that the correct resource can be planned. The second reason is for performance management – measured at advisor, team and site level, AHT has been used as an important efficiency measure, to understand how quickly the advisors, on average, are dealing with customer enquiries.

Yet many contact centres have rejected, or are questioning, the use of AHT as either a measurement or a target for advisors. So if Average Handling Time is so useful, then why are so many contact centres and professionals turning away from it?

The answer to this question is that Average Handling Time has been misused again and again in inbound contact centres. AHT misuse is seen when a narrow focus is placed on reducing call time by senior management, often where there is a poor understanding of overall contact centre commercials. And not enough attention is given to other measures that are just as important. Here are some of the outcomes of AHT misuse:

  1. It can lead advisors to believe that the pursuit of a short call is more important than delivering good customer service. Consequently, advisors can take action that meets an AHT target but offers poor quality and harms the customer experience. So a site can achieve a low AHT, but at the expense of unhappy customers, which may well harm revenue.
  2. It does not promote call resolution, because advisors may be incentivised to deliver short calls rather than deal with the entirety of the callers’ enquiry. This will result in more calls coming into the contact centre. Therefore misuse of AHT creates further calls, which increases cost, rather than decreasing it.
  3. It can give advisors a strong sense of dissatisfaction if they are told that a short AHT is more important than delivering strong customer satisfaction. A reduction in employee engagement may follow.
  4. It may lead to some counterproductive behaviours on the contact centre floor. For example, if there is pressure from top management to reduce AHT, a Team Manager may keep saying to an advisor that they should try and end the call if it has been going on too long. This is especially true if a contact centre management applies punitive methods to those with a high AHT.

Without a doubt, a poorly-communicated or clumsily-managed AHT approach can create all of these problems, and make performance worse. I have witnessed all of above misuses of AHT many times in varying environments, in situations where AHT is used incorrectly or awkwardly, so it’s no wonder that many contact centres have rebelled against AHT. Yet turning away from AHT deprives a contact centre of a measure that tells a valuable part of the performance story of an advisor, a team and a site.

Using AHT and another measure, such as Quality, it is possible to study variation across the advisor population, and challenge some misconceptions. For example, plot a scatter chart with one dot representing each monthly data for each advisor. The X axis can be AHT, and the Y axis can be Quality.

It is very unlikely that you will see a straight-line relationship demonstrating that better quality goes hand-in-in-hand with higher AHT. A far more complex picture is likely to appear. You will find some advisors with high AHT & low quality. This is because an advisor with a poor grasp of how to help customers is often failing to deal with their calls properly, and perhaps are putting their customers on hold and seeking help too often. Other advisors may have low AHT & high quality. This cohort of advisors are able to deal with customer enquiries extremely efficiently, and may even know some system shortcuts that are unknown to other advisors.

I believe that it is possible and desirable to deliver excellent customer service and focus on efficiency – and AHT plays its part. So in this article, I present a four-point plan on the best practice use of AHT within a well-designed performance management system.

Handling AHT with care

a) Definition
First of all, ensure that the definition of AHT is sound. Sometimes I find that organisations use a standard definition from a reporting system that does not capture every part of an inbound call. Therefore, get to know your data, and ensure all talk, wrap, hold and all other follow-up elements are included in the AHT. If the definition is poor, then the reported AHT will not reflect the actual amount of time sent dealing with a customer enquiry, and the integrity of the performance management system will be undermined.

Average Handling Time is more preferable as a measure than Calls per Available Hour. This is because the number of calls an advisor handles while they are available can be affected by how many calls are delivered in a day. On a quiet call volume day, it is possible for an advisor to have a very low Calls per Available Hour value, even though their efficiency has been strong.

b) Balanced Measures
AHT should never be viewed in isolation. Discussions on an advisor’s performance must always be given with reference to AHT in combination with other performance criteria, covering quality and call outcomes. Here is a sample of measures:

  • Call Resolution measure
  • Real-Time Customer Feedback measure
  • Call Outcome metric (will vary according to application)
  • Sampled Call Quality
  • Average Handling Time
  • Call Shape

Call Shape expresses the breakdown between the elements of a call. For example, if the elements are talk, wrap and hold, then the percentage proportions of the calls within a period can be expressed as t:w:h, for example, 82:15:3. It is a really useful measure to help identify coaching needs.

It is important not to swamp advisors, Team Managers and senior management with a huge range of metrics. Just because you can measure something, it doesn’t mean that you should.

Ensure that the relationships amongst the measurements are thoroughly understood. The benefit of having a balanced set of KPIs means that Team Managers can review performance across efficiency, quality and outcomes, and then ensure the correct coaching for each individual. If the focus is dropped on one of efficiency, quality or outcomes, then the performance on that outcome is likely to deteriorate.

Put in place a robust and fast automated reporting system, so that the results are convenient for Team Managers to view. Metrics should be provided by an automated reporting tool accurately and speedily, where the Team Managers and/or Coaches obtain results when they want. The key five or six measures, including AHT, should be visible on the first screen. Ensure that the automated reports simplify rather than complicate the objective of improving performance.

c) Strong coaching culture
In order to achieve strong results in all three of quality, efficiency and desired outcomes, it is essential to build and maintain a winning coaching culture. Here are five important aspects of such a culture, on which I will expand in a forthcoming article:

1. Design
A coaching culture must be rigorously designed, documented and tested prior to going live.

2. Training and Support to the Coaches
For a coaching culture to become successfully embedded, there must be upfront training and a great deal of ongoing support.

3. Active Management
An essential element of a coaching culture is that Team Managers should spend the vast majority of their time actively working with their advisors to boost performance.

4. Tailored coaching focus for each advisor
Coaching should be used with all advisors and not just the ones that are perceived as needing to improve performance. And the coaching strategy for each advisor must be different, depending on their metrics, the feedback from the call listening, and the personality of the advisor.

5. Shared Success Stories
Ensure that performance is recognised across the whole centre so that the contact centre is seen by all as one large performance centre, rather than just a collection of teams.

d) Link to planning
A key benefit of using AHT as a performance measure is that it can also be used for both resource planning and budgeting. Actual AHT can be tracked against Budget AHT to explain variances to Budget resource requirement. Contact centre resource requirement is very sensitive to changes in AHT, and in most circumstances, a percentage increase in AHT leads to an increase in resource requirement close to that percentage figure.

Case study: What happens when AHT is removed as an advisor KPI?
I once took part in a project in a multi-site contact centre where AHT had recently been removed as a KPI. A message had been given to the operation that advisors should take as long as they wanted with each call. The result was that AHT actually increased by over 20%, but with no significant corresponding increase in call quality. Service levels deteriorated, because the budget had been built on the previous level of AHT, and it was not possible to recruit above budget FTE numbers.

What had happened? The cause was that AHT had been removed as a targeted KPI, and the Team Managers had no performance-linked coaching culture or performance management system. By getting rid of AHT, the focus on efficiency deteriorated. The business lost the ability for Team Managers and coaches to identify possible efficiency improvements and follow up on them in the most appropriate way.

In the resulting project, AHT was reintroduced together with a strong performance coaching culture. The result was levels of efficiency and quality exceeding the levels before AHT was removed as a KPI.

* * *
As contact centres become dissatisfied with AHT, it is banished from some organisations. Yet this route can seriously reduce contact centre performance. The best route is to implement a winning performance management system, with coaching at its heart, where efficiency, outcomes and quality are all important goals.

My belief is that AHT remains an excellent measure to use to maximise overall performance within your operation. An AHT focus and quality focus are not mutually exclusive. Make sure your metrics are defined well, that AHT is used in conjunction with other measures, and embrace it as part of a strong and appropriate coaching culture. You should then achieve the optimum performance across efficiency, quality and customer service goals.

Atlantic Insight is a partner company of Centrebound. Their mission is to help customer-facing organisations achieve sustained improvements in operational effectiveness and customer engagement. They can be contacted at,  +44 (0) 203 086 8004,

Philip Stubbs is a partner of Atlantic Insight, and has over 25 years’ experience of improving performance within operational areas within a wide range of industries.