Average Handling Time (AHT) is frequently the most important KPI a contact center can monitor. It is very closely related to the cost of a call. Staff wages are the main variable cost of a contact center, they make up 70% of contact center expenses. If the call is longer, it costs the organization more to provide it.
So what drives AHT up and how can we bring it down? Here are the “drivers” of AHT:
- Script adherence. When an agent follows a script, the call has a “road map” that enables him/her to complete the transaction in a quick, pre planned way ensuring that all requirements are covered as quickly as possible. When agents don’t follow the script, AHT will increase.
- Product knowledge. It doesn’t matter whether the agent handles customer enquiries or sells outbound, s/he needs to know what s/he is talking about. In this way, s/he is more likely to complete the transaction successfully and quickly.
- Application/System use. Inbound customer service programs often use complex CRM systems which take considerable skill and experience to handle quickly and effectively. An agent who is “all fingers and thumbs” can slow the call down considerably because he will not be able to process the customers transaction as quickly as possible.
- Call handling skills. We talked about agents following scripts. The other participant in the conversation, the customer, never follows the script! An agent who is skilled in handling diffcult or upset customers can solve their problems more quickly and get the required result, because s/he knows the techniques to deal with him quickly effectively and politely.
- Escalation. There are 2 ways this can increase call length. An agent can escalate a call he could have handled himself. This can increase the call costs not only because of the extra time the customer has to spend talking to the higher level agent, but also because that agent may well be paid at a higher rate. On the other hand, if the agent does not escalate when he needs to, he may spend a lot longer trying to solve a problem he doesn’t have the knowledge and skills for than a higher level agent who is better qualified and more experienced.
So how can we bring AHT down? The way that works is to set up a quality improvement project along 6 sigma lines, including the 5 phases of Define, Measure, Analyze, Design and Verify (DMADV).
Having defined the issue as the need to reduce AHT, a specially written questionnaire can be used to measure the influence of each of the drivers on the overall situation. The statistics are then analyzed to identify which of the drivers above are pushing AHT up. Once the numbers are in and the drivers have been revealed, further questionnaires are designed to form the backbone of a cyclical improvement program where agents are evaluated and receive feedback on their performance in this area. The effect of the project is verified by monitoring both the AHT statistics from the CRM system, and also the scores from repeated administrations of both questionnaires.
Such programs usually prove to be hard work. Changing habits is not always easy, but the rewards for even a modest reduction in AHT can be quite substantial.