AHT - You're Still Doing It Wrong

Contact center managers, you are still wrong about AHT (Average Handle Time, also known as Agents Hate This). Maybe not all of you are, but for sure, many of you are.

I know what you’re likely asking, how would you know if you’re wrong about AHT?

Here’s a simple test. Do your agents have an AHT goal? Do your supervisors have an AHT goal? If the answer to either question is “yes”, you are doing it wrong. It’s that simple. 

Of course, you probably think that I’m crazy. You’re thinking that AHT is as much a part of contact centers as headsets, splitters and those obnoxious wallboards. Sadly, that is true, but it doesn’t make it right. 

photo credit:  William Warby , Flickr

photo credit: William Warby, Flickr

AHT is a vital metric to contact center managers. Even managers with no WFM experience understand its importance in staffing a contact center. If you are responsible for making widgets, you need to know how long it takes to make each widget. But just because it’s important to know it, doesn’t mean it’s the most useful metric.

For those of you that are relatively new to the exciting world of contact centers, or have know idea what a contact center or AHT is, (if that’s you, thank you for reading this far!) here is a brief history lesson about AHT (or average talk time, average treatment time, average interaction time, or whatever else you call it).

In the beginning, contact center managers didn’t care about AHT. Ok, admittedly, I have no proof of this, but I like to imagine it so. Business owners and executives cared about the bottom line of the business and since early contact centers provided great economies of scale, it took some time before AHT (and its dumb, older brother, Calls Per Day) got slid under the microscope. 

Once AHT was under the microscope, managers got hyper-focused on theirs because all they cared about was how much it cost to run their operation. Because AHT has a direct relationship on the cost of running the operation (it is the cost, after all), managers (and high priced consultants) gained success (and more contracts) by aggressively managing AHT down. 

We took very little time to try and understand what impacted AHT, we all just jumped in with our calculators and stopwatches and put all of the emphasis on just reducing that number. How many of us have re-arranged our department budget to create incentives to lower AHT? And then what happened? Phone and performance manipulation, customer mistreatment, and even worse, the complete ignoring of customer feedback and business trends. Yes, we went out of our way to pay to get bad behavior.

As senior leaders aimed to improve their customer experience and the culture in their contact centers they got rid of AHT goals altogether. I remember hearing about a colleague’s contact center in Arizona that threw a “no more AHT party”. Agents loved it! It was as if a great weight had been lifted from their shoulders! Actually, that is exactly what happened.

However, you know the history lesson doesn’t end there. In pretty short order, AHT began to increase and contact center managers watched their costs rise. Trying to balance the improved agent and customer experience with some cost control measures, some brainiac foolishly decided that rather than bringing back AHT goals at the agent level they would just make it a supervisor goal. That was a mistake. 

Many companies eventually learned hard lessons and stopped focusing on AHT because they witnessed how it drove bad agent behavior. They should have realized it would drive bad supervisor behavior as well.

Nearly every time I meet a fellow contact center leader I ask how they are managing AHT. And nearly always, they tell me the same thing. That it used to be an agent goal but that now it is just a goal at the supervisor level.

Supervisors weren’t coached on how to effectively use AHT, they still just told agents to stop talking so long on their calls.

And it’s clear that many agents feel it is their job to hit an indiscriminate AHT on every call. It’s not the agents’ fault. It’s just a number to them. Supervisors spend so much time telling agents what AHT target to hit.

Supervisors have told their agents that they aren’t measured against AHT goals but since the supervisor is, that just gets pushed back down to the agents. And then I call your contact center and while your agent is helping me I ask the question that I have perfected over many years. The question that gets ‘em talking every time. 

“Thank you for all your help today. I hope I’m not getting you in trouble by taking so long. Do you get in trouble if you spend too much time with a customer?”

The responses I get make it clear that the vast majority of contact centers are fooling themselves if they think that a supervisor only AHT goal is any better than an agent level goal.

Many Supervisors do a terrible job describing the A in AHT. I understand that they get it, but it doesn’t translate to what they tell their agents. If your agents have a goal of 4:25 they will feel anxious when a single call lasts considerably longer than that. On a side note, stop referring to AHT in seconds… no one says something took 265 seconds! This inability to describe the average isn’t the Supervisor’s fault; the blame belongs higher up in the organization. When every leader in the organization is just focused on shaving seconds off the AHT, without any direction, that is exactly what they’ll get. Be careful what you wish for.

AHT is just a productivity measurement. If embraced and understood, your contact center’s AHT can give you great insight on, and with some work, have great impact on your customer experience. The reason it does not is that managers are still only managing the number. 

Focusing on the number alone ignores the true value of measuring AHT.

Do you remember the vicious cycle of AHT and self-service? If you’ve been in the contact center business for long you have likely lived through this - AHT was three minutes and then you introduced some new self-service technology that would move the simple transactional calls away from the agent… which, of course, would increase your department’s AHT, which would drive managers to panic and then the supervisors would go right back to barking at agents to lower their numbers. But AHT increasing wasn’t the true story. And most of the time, there was no chance in ever reducing it to where it was before.

AHT, like other measures, is simply a single tool for spotting trends. The goal should be to seek to understand what your AHT is telling you. AHT is important, but remember the self-service cycle - you have to look at the whole picture. 

So, how are you supposed to effectively use AHT? Step one: stop trying to manage it.

  • Never use it as the metric. Don’t give it any press. Take it off your agents’ and your supervisors’ scorecards.
  • Stop focusing on the actual number, the movement is more important, focus on the direction and velocity.
  • Use it to tell you where to look. AHT is a secondary metric, not a primary one. Stop trying to manage the AHT and look for the causes of its movement. Here’s a thought: overall AHT trends can be used as an indicator of how effective (or how terrible) your CRM and other technologies used by agents are.
  • Stop reporting it to anyone in the organization (use cost per call instead), and remember that AHT alone doesn’t answer any questions. Use the number for WFM only. Like a great meal paired with the perfect beer, find a complimentary metric to help tell the complete story (like calls per 1,000 customers or average revenue per call - remember the example of the AHT increase driven by improvements in self-service technology, the AHT increase wasn’t the whole story).
  • Focus on your outliers. Look at agents that are lower and higher than your threshold. Depending on the size of your operation, this might be 5% +- to 20% +- of your average, and remember that low AHT can be bad, too, far more damaging than high AHT.

AHT is a single tool in your toolbox. Think of it as your compass or your flashlight. The key is to use AHT to point you in the direction of where you need to focus your coaching or customer experience improvement initiatives, not try and manage your AHT. 

This doesn’t mean you should totally ignore productivity measures. As one of the best managers I have ever worked for used to say, “The subway employee that makes a great sandwich but takes an hour to do it won’t last long, probably not past their first sandwich.” Every job has a productivity standard.

And contact center managers need to know their AHT. It is still one of the most important metrics in running a contact center. But knowing it doesn’t mean you should use it as a billy-club and whack employees over the head with it - which is what many are still doing.

The subject of AHT is one that many of us have strong feelings about. What do you think? How are you managing AHT? 


More on the subject of AHT:

Call Length Is the Worst Way to Measure Customer Service

AHT—Average Handle Time or Agents Hate This? | LinkedIn

AHT and the Importance of Rep Ownership | CEB Blogs

Why Average Handle Time (AHT) Is a Terrible Metric

7 Lessons Star Wars Can Teach You about Customer Service | LinkedIn

7 Ways To Fix Customer Service | LinkedIn

Minimizing Call Center Burnout / Emotional Exhaustion - 3 Management Tips | LinkedIn


Article also posted on LinkedIn - linkedin.com/pulse/you-still-wrong-aht-matt-beckwith