Jon Browning

Mastering AHT in Your Call Center: 7 Essential Questions and Answers

Understanding Call Center AHTAverage Handle Time (AHT) sits at the core of your call center business. Without it, you cannot manage your people or service properly. The following seven questions and answers describe what AHT is and why it's so important, as well as provide tips on how to manage it effectively.

Why do I need to measure AHT?

AHT is a fundamental concept that must be understood to effectively manage a call center. If you don't know your average handle time, you won't be able to calculate how many agents are needed to achieve the desired service level. It’s also important to know your AHT as a benchmark to track whether your call center is becoming more or less efficient over time.

You will need to specify your AHT within your workforce management system for it to calculate the required agent resources and how best to schedule them across the working day.

How is AHT calculated?

Handle time includes three key elements:

  • Talk time: the time the agent spends talking to the caller.
  • Hold time: the time the caller spends on hold during the talk time.
  • Wrap time: the time the agent spends finishing work related to the call after hanging up, during which they are not available to take another call.

To calculate your AHT, divide the total number of calls answered for a period of time (e.g., one day) by the total handle time for the same period.

Should AHT be measured separately on different lines?

If multiple lines being answered by a team of multi-skilled agents, examine how much variation exists in handle times across the different lines. If there is a substantial difference, it’s worth capturing separate AHT measurements. By contrast, if you have multiple client lines that effectively deliver the same service, it's probably ok to include all call volumes and handle times across all lines to calculate the AHT. However, if there are significant differences in call length or wrap time between different lines, or if there are different dynamics in call arrivals (such as seasonal peaks), then consider measuring and tracking these separately. Rolling everything up into a single calculation may disguise peaks that drive a requirement to increase your headcount.

How often should timings be reviewed?

You should review Average Handle Time at least once every 12 months. This may happen naturally as part of a billing mechanism. However, you may want to review more frequently than this if there have been changes in the business that could impact handle times. For example, the introduction of a new IT system could have a significant effect on AHT. If you find handle times have changed, the underlying cause may not be obvious, but it's important to investigate this. When the cause is determined, you may not need to do anything, as you may decide that the issue will self-correct. However, if the impact is not expected to dissipate, it might lead to an inability to meet service levels without additional headcount. You won't be able to argue a case for more funding without articulating the reason.

Should agents have targets for AHT?

Exercise caution when setting agent-level targets for handle time, in particular if those targets have a financial incentive, such as a bonus payment. Targets that are based on a maximum AHT at the agent level can drive undesirable behaviors, such as rushing calls or setting unrealistic expectations in order to release calls quicker. This can be counterbalanced to a degree by qualitative targets, but if you want to set a goal based on AHT, consider a banding-based target instead. For example, establish the AHT for a group you want to set a target for, such as a team of agents, and then set the objective for all the agents to keep their AHT within a variance of 10 percent of that average. That gives some wriggle room while ensuring agents don't stray too far from the norm.

Why might cause AHT to go up?

There are several factors that could result in increased AHT, but the most common relate to:

  • IT systems: either new systems during launch or problems with the speed or reliability of existing systems can all slow agents down.
  • New agents: new recruits fresh out of training will initially operate more slowly until they find their feet.
  • New/changed processes: it takes time for people to get used to changes in process, which will slow them down.

If the cause of an increase in AHT is not immediately obvious, drill down to the line or agent level to find the origin. Once you've found what you're looking for, listen to some calls to find the root cause.

What is the optimum AHT?

The optimum AHT is the sweet spot that allows you to meet customer and business expectations as well as contractual obligations and financial targets. There is no magic number. Resist the temptation to set an arbitrary AHT target to reduce cost. Make sure there is a plan in place for how a reduction in AHT will be achieved. For example, there may need to be an investment in technology to facilitate a longer-term return through the reduction of AHT. If you're looking for quick wins to reduce AHT, identify your five quickest agents and listen to some of their shorter calls. Find out why they are taking less time and ask them to coach other agents to help them achieve the same results.

Remembering these seven AHT points will help ensure you can manage AHT more effectively. They will also be a constant reminder of why it's so important to keep monitoring AHT and what to do if things start to go awry. Ultimately, you'll have more confidence in your workforce planning and ability to react quickly to changes in AHT when they occur.

Next: Call Center Outsourcing 101: A Buyer's Perspective

About Strategic Sourcing Advisors (SSA)

SSA helps buyers of call center services find the right vendors and locations for their specific needs – at no cost or obligation.  Our team of former Microsoft leaders now call center consultants have decades of experience buying contact center services and we understand the difficulty of finding a great outsource partner in an ever-changing market.  

We’ve managed over $700 million of global contact center business, working with many of the best providers in the industry.  Our team led Microsoft’s global contact center consolidation initiative, recognized by IAOP as an industry best practice. We apply this experience to match you with the right outsource partner to accomplish your process improvement and cost reduction goals.


by Jon Browning
CEO, Strategic Sourcing Advisors

call center strategy Average Handle Time Call Center AHT

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