Why Average Handle Time Is a Terrible Metric

average handle time

Everyday is a bad day when you’re a rep working at a customer service center that evaluates you by Average Handle Time (AHT).

Average handle time (AHT) is a metric for the total average duration of a single call, including hold time, talk time and the follow-up or admin tasks related to that call. Hopefully it’s on its way out too.

Calculate Average Handle Time

AHT is in many ways a useful management tool: it does a good job helping managers keep tabs on how many hours are being worked, helps them make staffing decisions, plan shifts and so on.

What it doesn’t do is differentiate simple calls from complex, high-involvement ones. This penalizes reps who are efficient but may also take longer calls to help customers through complex problems.

The problem with AHT is that it doesn’t tie back customer retention, growth or any other meaningful key performance indicator (KPI).

How could getting off the phone possibly be useful to customers? Here’s what adds up in the background when you depend on AHT as a primary performance metric:

  • Reps are incentivized to get off the phone w/ customers as fast as they can – which means customers can end up confused, overwhelmed and having to call back again.
  • Reps are measured by speed, not customer outcomes- which pits the rep’s interests squarely against customer’s interests.
  • Reps become frustrated that they can’t control their customer’s support experience – which demoralizes smart reps who would otherwise be capable of resolving issues efficiently.

What you should really be asking is, “How do I reduce handle time in a call center without making the customer pay for it?”

If you really want to reduce AHT, don’t focus on AHT

You can reduce your AHT in ways without screwing over customers. But it does mean planning, prepping and working smarter as a team, with a longer term focus on building value for your customer and ensuring your customer’s success. The following strategies reduce the overall effort and touchpoints and in the process, also reduce AHT:

Send customers to your really great support portal

If you’re not convinced of the value of a really good self-service system, here’s a strategy straight out of Hubspot’s playbook.

When we first started using Hubspot, we thought it was pretty amazing how quickly their support team would contact us after we put in a call request (usually within 2-3  minutes). We were requesting a lot of calls too. It made us wonder how they could be managing so many high-involvement customers on the phone and still be so quick.

But then we noticed a pattern start to emerge. Each time we called, the reps would patiently hear us out and then direct us to an online guide or resource that would help us solve that exact problem.

Every call was actually pretty short, and we got all the information we needed.

Keep calls short by directing them to the references you already have online –  include articles, videos and guides. Over time, this “teaches” customers to look for help online first instead of reaching for the phone.

Hubspot Customer Support - average handle time

In other words, think beyond the phone! You can keep AHT down if you operate in terms of favorable customer outcomes rather than by channel.

Set customers up for everything they need

Companies that depend on AHT are often plagued by repeat calls, and customers having to make repeat calls is one of the biggest drivers of customer disloyalty. That changes drastically when you prep customers for a few steps ahead:

“What other issues might come up on the customer’s journey from A to B?”

When you’re on call with support, your reps have to be the expert. They should be the ones to help your customers fully understand and navigate the rest of their support journey so they don’t need to call back.

Rather than keeping calls shorter, look at them as events, not one-off issues. If a customer calls the bank looking to shut down a credit card, then what comes next? This is called next issue avoidance. Next issue avoidance can only happen when your teams are aligned by key business goals which focus on customer value, rather than traditional service metrics like AHT alone.

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Find out what your customers are really trying to achieve

Imagine how much time a rep could save on the phone if they had a little context. Making a little small talk at the start of a call can serve two helpful purposes:

  1. Buy reps time to go through customer profile and history
  2. Build rapport

Making chit chat isn’t time wasted. Reps can actually use this time to go through a customer’s history, confirming rather than asking for customer details. This is impressive to customers who are bracing for an endless list of questions. It also saves time.

This also gives reps a chance to find out whether what the customer is asking for is different from what they actually need.

Take this example from The Effortless Experience:

The airline customer who is upset about their canceled flight to Chicago may actually be reacting to the fact that their daughter is performing in a dance recital the next day. So the issue isn’t rescheduling the flight or even getting to Chicago per se, it’s fulfilling a promise to a child to be present for her big event.

There may be a host of alternatives that could be acceptable to a customer in that kind of desperate situation (e.g., flying to a different city and driving the rest of the way, or taking ground transportation to another city and flying to Chicago from there.

Without context, that could have been a really long call. Hopefully a longer call doesn’t seem as dangerous to your support operation anymore.

Think customer goals, not channels

AHT is just one of many traditional service metrics to move away from as you build an integrated support system.

While phone support may be one of  the most expensive forms of support, think beyond myopic questions like: “How do I reduce handle time in a call center?”  Customers care about something fairly predictable: getting the right kind of service at the right time.

So ask bigger questions, like:

  • Why are customers even calling?
  • What was their support journey before they called?
  • What are you doing to prevent the call in the first place?

It’s the answers to these that will bring you closer to the frictionless support journey that your customers really want.



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About the author
Nandini Jammi

Nandini is crafting content that tells the Kayako story and shares our vision for customer service.

  • Great blog post Nandini! We’ve actually just published a blog titled “Calls Made vs. Call Activity: Which Are You Measuring?” and I think you and your readers would love the information inside of it. Average handle time isn’t something that should be looked at, and in our post we cover on all the angles the SHOULD be looked at, and shouldn’t be looked at.

    I hope you have time to check it out and find it as useful as we do!

    Here’s the blog: https://www.leadfuze.com/calls-made-vs-call-activity-measuring/

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