Identifying the best way to measure call centre performance has always been a tricky task. Whether it be net promoter score, customer effort score, or something else entirely, the merits of different measurements are the subject of a debate that is unlikely to be settled anytime soon. One thing is clear though. If you want to know how your call centre is performing, AHT may not provide the answer.
AHT (average handling time) is a fairly self-explanatory term and is taken by averaging the length of agent-customer calls. It is a measurement that has been around since the inception of the call centre itself, and agents today are still often rated on this basis. In fact, if you walk around a contact centre, it would not be unheard of to see leaderboards, with the top-ranking agent having the lowest average call length.
The reasons for measuring AHT are (generally) twofold;
1. Time is money
AHT is often seen as a control of staffing levels. The more time an agent spends on a call with a single customer, the less time they have to assist others. If customer waiting times are long, an organisation may have to hire more staff at great expense.
2. Easy measurement
AHT is easy to assess. It doesn’t require complex analysis or customer involvement.
But ultimately AHT fails for a number of reasons.
AHT must not be confused with an indicator of efficiency: it simply measures time spent and not effectiveness. Under an AHT measurement, for example, two separate 9 minute calls to resolve one single issue is preferable to a 10 minute call.
Hinging call centre performance on AHT is problematic because ultimately it does not drive business goals, such as increasing sales, efficiency, or improving customer service. As Steven Kerr, Director of Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation, might have once put it in his classic Academy of Management paper, AHT is an example of ‘hoping for A while rewarding B’. From the moment an agent who is assessed on AHT picks up the phone, they are racing to conclude the call, regardless of what the organisation would like to achieve.
Ernst and Young estimate that across financial services, telcos and utilities, between 25-30% of calls are ‘redundant’. These calls are so named because they do not contribute to revenue, for example a customer might be calling regarding confusing offers and applications, or because they have an issue that hasn’t been resolved. But the true way to solve this problem is not a single focus on reducing the length of these calls, as it’s likely that a failure to offer a quality service first time will results in either in further calls or customers walking away. The focus should therefore be on ensuring customers are provided with everything they need first time, commonly known as ‘first call resolution'.
As markets generally become more saturated, and organisations are finding it increasingly difficult to differentiate on products and price alone, customer service is being viewed as an important source of competitive advantage. In fact, McKinsey estimate that revenue can be increased by between 5-10% by optimising customer experience.
But what insight does AHT give you into your customers experience? Ok, perhaps it is fair to assume that customers want to ideally spend as little time interacting with organisations as possible. But ultimately quick calls only have value if you can deliver the products and services the customer requires in that time. AHT doesn’t give you this insight; customers may frequently be encountering difficulties in telephony journeys. Indeed, customer journeys today tend to cross channels. Customers might start a journey with some online research, go into branch to discuss this with an advisor, only to complete their purchase on the phone. AHT is too highly specified to provide any insight into the overall customer experience.
But more than failing to provide an insight into customer experience, AHT may directly lead to a decreased level of satisfaction. When AHT is an important measure, the customer can hear the metaphorical clock ticking. If this happened to you, ask yourself whether you would feel like a valued customer, receiving service from an organisation that really cares about your needs?
Telephony is evolving
Gone are the days that customers need to call their bank to hear their balance, or their service provider to check their bill. Nowadays, simple journeys have been automated so that customers can perform them without human interaction. Although this has led some to predict the end of telephony, this has been premature. In fact, what we are seeing is that telephony is evolving into a channel to serve increasingly complex journeys. This is because customers still prefer human interaction when their purchase is high value, or they are experiencing problems.
Whilst AHT may have been a good way to assess performance in resolving simple issues, the changing nature of telephony and the increasingly complex journeys it is serving means that AHT has become outdated. Telephony is increasingly serving more bespoke journeys, where the agent must first get an understanding of the customers context and background. The question to ask, therefore, is not “how quickly did the agent hang up?”, but “did the agent resolve the customer’s issue?”.
One of the advantages of employing humans, rather than having machines, to deal with customer service requests is that people can solve problems creatively. Every customer is an individual, and agents can tailor the service they offer according to a range of variables, such as the customer’s requirement.
Once you start to supress the agent’s judgement by enforcing scripts, checklists or, as this post has focused on, limited handling time, you are missing out on the agent’s ability to react to the customer and their circumstances. Studies consistently show that abandoning traditional agent ‘scorecards’ increases their productivity. In fact, call centres that encouraged agents to use their own initiative saw powerful results, with agents performing 50% better according to productivity and customer experience indicators. What’s more, the evidence suggests that this does not cause a dramatic increase in costs.
AHT is not without use. It can be used to understand organisational performance or identifying call centre costs. But by using it as an indicator of call centre performance is counterproductive as you create a rewards system that does not align with what you would like to achieve. Ultimately, the best way to improve AHT is to simply hang up the phone. Furthermore, AHT does not guarantee your productivity. Rather, the focus today must be on making sure your agents are doing not what is fast, but what is right.
Click here to download our white paper on how organisations can improve call centre productivity.
 Ernst & Young, Cutting costs not customers: Maintaining customer loyalty in a challenging market
 McKinsey, Customer experience: Creating value through transforming customer journeys
 CMS Wirse, Surprise! Your customers still want to speak to humans
 Harvard Business Review, Kick-Ass Customer Service