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Blog | August 20, 2021

Average Handle Time Isn't Sexy But It’s Still Vital for Modern Contact Centers

Free throws in basketball aren’t sexy, but they’re fundamental. Footwork in baseball isn’t sexy, but it’s fundamental. And average handle time in contact centers isn’t sexy, but, yes, it’s fundamental. That said, the customer experience (CX) landscape has changed drastically over the past few years. And some vocal critics think a “reviled” metric like average handle time (AHT) no longer has a place in the contact center game.

Well… sure it does. We’re just playing by a different set of rules now.

The Game’s Changed: Old School CX vs. New School

Tracked as a performance metric, the old-school application of average handle time in contact centers made a lot of sense. Back then, the name of the game was quantity. In 2006, only 30% of customers handled issues themselves through nascent “self-service” channels (compared with 84% by 2010). Meaning, many customers were calling in to speak with agents (or on hold and waiting to) with issues that were low-value, simple to resolve, and more or less the same.

So, in this context, the desire to understand a given agent’s average handle time (total talk time, total hold time, and the number of calls taken averaged together) was common sense. But this is where the current resentments toward AHT began to take hold and fester.

As Goodhart’s Law states, “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.” Efforts to maximize profits led to AHT being valued above all else through management practices like publicly displayed leader boards. This misuse of AHT led to a lot of damage—like quality of service sacrificed on the altar of efficiency, poor contact center culture, and customer distrust since they could hear the “clock ticking” on their end of the phones, too.

It was during these CX dark ages that Net Promoter Scores (NPS) gained traction. And, no surprise, CX leadership began to see correlations between high NPS and high AHT. But this was only the beginning of the disruption leading from the old-school world of CX to the new.

A combination of three factors upended the industry, leading to shifts in customer behavior, like the surge in customer self-service from 2006 to 2010 noted above: the acceleration of digital technology, changes in customer behavior, and increasing competition. Then, most recently, COVID-19 flipped everything in CX on its head again.

But, ironically, AHT is now arguably more important in modern contact centers, not less, because CX fundamentals matter more than they ever have.

Rules Change, But Fundamentals Don’t

The name of the game is now quality. Based on customer demand and expectations, CX leadership had already turned to newer key performance indicators (KPIs), like customer satisfaction (CSAT) and Net Promoter Scores (NPS), in an attempt to better capture the nuances of customer sentiment. And the advent of real-time analytics and insights gleaned by artificial intelligence are challenging the value of traditional KPIs even further.

But at a fundamental level, we’re still trying to understand the same two things: How well are we serving our customers? And how efficiently are we doing so? We still need traditional KPIs like AHT to answer these questions.

That’s because, in a relatively short amount of time, COVID-19 has made lives and livelihoods exponentially complex. And this context has shifted the frame that agents and customers connect within. In chaotic times, CX touchpoints become “moments of truth,” with 59% of customers saying CX has a significant impact on their decision-making compared to 38% pre-COVID.

Despite the availability of emerging technologies like conversational and expertise AI, these moments are still made or broken by agents and their ability to connect and engage with customers. But are newer metrics alone up to the task of measuring empathy?

CSAT and NPS are self-assessed customer measurements of brand satisfaction by way of trust and loyalty. Like AHT, these two relevant mainstays of CX have had their relevance battle-tested through the COVID-19 pandemic. And being focused on trust and loyalty, their potential impact should be especially valuable during times of customer uncertainty.

But while still useful when applied at the correct touchpoints, the impact CSAT and NPS can have on real-time customer engagement is limited in that they are lagging indicators, with insights only available in aggregate and at some point after the customer’s issue was resolved.

Survey fatigue,” which was already at record high levels pre-COVID, blunts these metrics’ impact further, with 72% of surveyed customers stating they did not appreciate being surveyed by brands. For CX leadership, this is an unfortunate sentiment, one compounded by the pandemic. This is why AI-driven CX technologies and their ability to help measure engagement and empathy during conversations are proving to be so valuable in that they don’t create friction within the CX experience.

This increases the need to deliver and measure quality customer experience as it unfolds. In the world of old-school CX, doing so was a pipe dream. But the advent of artificial intelligence (AI) in CX makes this possible.

How to Make Better Calls: Average Handle Time in Modern CX

So, if contact center AI can monitor and measure things in real time, what value do fundamental metrics have in CX? Despite the flash and allure of contact center AI, a complicated digital world means we can’t focus on just one metric from one source.

This is why using a strategically selected assortment of KPIs and metrics (including oldies but goodies like AHT) in concert with one another is key to making better calls in CX. What’s more, this holistic approach to measuring modern CX performance also serves as a natural inoculant to the pitfalls of Goodhart’s Law.

Choosing the right metrics also means understanding when each one makes the most sense. Altogether, ideally, we want to understand what’s happening during the customer experience, how customers felt about the experience, and what the customer then went on to actually do. This, in turn, more objectively determines how good the service is, ways the service can be improved, and the business benefits of making these improvements.

Metrics that capture what customers do after their customer experience should be categorized as outcome metrics. Despite challenges with surveys in today’s marketing environment, leveraging NPS to gauge trust and loyalty related to what customers do post-experience (as opposed to what they say they’ll do) remains valuable. And challenges in determining NPS can be bridged by measuring churn and product holdings as complementary outcome metrics.

Perception metrics, satisfaction, ease, and CX index better capture nuanced customer emotions and sentiment, like feeling appreciated. More than three-fourths (76%) of customers say they will stick with a brand that makes them feel appreciated, 80% will spend more on the brand, and 87% a brand that makes them feel appreciated to loved ones. What’s more, with the correct outcome metrics in place, CX leadership can determine if they actually do.

Finally, we have the moment of engagement, where the once-reviled average handle time redeems itself, along with modern interaction metrics like first call resolution (FCR) and website errors. And here’s where the value of AHT to modern contact centers becomes clear. Consider two variations of one hypothetical scenario:

In a call center, where each agent handles an average of 45 calls per day, one agent handles around 39 calls per day. This agent’s AHT is 25% higher than their peers.

vs.

In a call center, where each agent handles an average of 45 calls per day, one agent handles around 39 calls per day. This agent’s AHT is 25% higher than their peers and their FCR is 77.7%, 23% better than the contact center average.

In the first variation, AHT suggests that the agent is wasting their time in dealing with customers. In the second, the exact same AHT suggests the opposite—that the agent is investing their time in dealing with customers. Now, imagine these different conclusions at scale, and both the stigma AHT has traditionally shouldered and its value and potential in modern contact centers are clear.

Time as Investment: The AHT of Employee Expertise

As a CX fundamental, the flaw with average handle time rests in how it was used, not as a measurement of time. And time is like string in that determining the correct length lies in the need at hand. As an investment, the time that agents spend engaging with their customers is important. But this idea of time as an investment is equally important to the agents.

Internally, AHT can also serve as a valuable indicator of the quality and impact of your onboarding and ongoing training initiatives, which makes it an important aspect of transforming customer care from a cost center to a value center.

Note: Net Promoter and NPS are registered service marks, and Net Promoter Score is a service mark of Bain & Company, Inc., Satmetrix Systems, Inc., and Fred Reichheld.