A Holistic Approach to AHT Improvement

Average Handle Time (AHT) is an important metric in any contact center. It plays a key role in workforce management planning, and can shed light on problems with workflows, call routing and agent training that increase costs and compromise the customer experience.

Too often, however, contact centers become obsessed with reducing AHT and end up beating agents over the head with this easy-to-measure metric when rigid objectives aren’t achieved.  AHT has its place in the contact center, but it shouldn’t be the primary focus at the agent level. The best contact centers still strive to reduce handle times (as well they should), but they look for ways to do so organically – ways that don’t cause customers to defect and agents to implode.

Though certainly not an exhaustive list, here are some of the best ways your contact center can decrease AHT (or at least keep in in check) while increasing customer satisfaction and agent engagement:

Educate agents on AHT. During initial training, teach agents on what AHT is, how it is used in planning and scheduling, and how keeping it in check helps not only keep costs down but also improve the customer – and the agent – experience. Make sure agents understand that the AHT objectives for the various call types they handle are more of a range than a “hit this number or else” goal. And clearly explain that AHT reduction is ultimately the responsibility of managers and supervisors – not agents. After all, it’s up to the former to ensure that agents are properly prepared to handle calls efficiently and effectively, and that the center’s systems and processes don’t hinder agent’s ability to do so.

Once agents realize that AHT isn’t intended to handcuff them, they can relax and focus on delivering the best customer experience possible on every call. This results in fewer errors and fewer callbacks from frustrated callers – things that can drive center-wide AHT way up.

Provide focused coaching to help agents with call control issues. Cracking the AHT whip over agents doesn’t bring improvements; however, providing positive coaching to those who struggle with call control and talk time can.

Don’t approach AHT-challenged agents with numbers; rather, take the time to first listen to some recorded calls (including screen capture) to uncover what actions and behaviors of the agent might be adding undue length to their customer interactions. Such analysis might reveal that the agent lacks product/service knowledge or struggles with screen toggling and data entry, or maybe just needs to be a little more assertive with customers who view the interaction as a chance to socialize.

Once the gaps are identified, provide personalized coaching with a focus on actions and behaviors, not on minutes or seconds. Remember: Agents want to do a good job and to help customers. They appreciate being shown how to work smarter and provide higher quality service – much more than they do being told that they need to lower their handle time by a minute and a half.

Master workforce management. Doing a solid job of forecasting and scheduling impacts AHT by shortening wait times in the queue, which decreases the risk of customers venting to agents at the start of the call. Adding a skills-based routing element to the mix helps to further keep handle times down by ensuring that calls are sent the most qualified available agent based on the customer’s specific issue/need.

Part of workforce management mastery is educating agents on the importance of adhering to their schedules to help keep service level high and AHT under control. Again the focus should not be on numbers, rather on how adherence impacts everyone.

Continually evaluate and improve workflows and desktop resources. Even if all of your agents perform within the acceptable AHT range in your contact center, it doesn’t mean that problems don’t exist. Jus as important as uncovering opportunities to improve individual agents’ AHT via coaching and training is removing barriers that inhibit all agents’ ability to maximize efficiencies.

Continually evaluate systems, screens and workflows to make sure they are working properly and feature the most agent-friendly (and, thus, customer-friendly) design. Use your quality monitoring system to observe how quickly and easily agents are able to move through screens and access data. Another way to pinpoint where scripts, workflows and desktop resources can be improved is to simply ask agents for their input on the matter – via surveys, team meetings, “town-hall” discussions and one-on-ones. Some contact centers have even created special agent-led task forces that focus on things like workflow improvements and technology/systems enhancements that can help cut handle times and improve the customer experience.

Reward and recognize agents for positive accomplishments with regard to AHT. You don’t want to reward agents or teams just for reducing AHT, otherwise you might find them rushing callers off the phones in order to earn a plaque or some cash. Instead, reward and recognize those who are able to raise quality scores and/or FCR rates while reducing AHT – or even just maintaining it within an acceptable range. (Contrary to popular belief, improvements to AHT and to FCR are NOT mutually exclusive.)

Be sure to also reward and recognize agents who recommend viable methods for effectively reducing AHT center-wide.  This is a great way to keep staff empowered and engaged, customers happy, and costs down.

 

About the author

Author of Full Contact: Contact Center Practices and Strategies that Make an Impact. He has written hundreds of feature articles, case studies, blog posts and research reports on contact center best practices trends and challenges. He is founder and principal of Off Center, which provides a variety of resources to educate, inspire and entertain contact center professionals. Levin is the former editor of ICMI’s pioneering publication Service Level Newsletter, as well as its highly regarded follow-up journal Call Center Management Review.

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