Contact centres have a lot of metrics and performance metrics are crucial for gauging efficiency, effectiveness, and overall customer satisfaction and operational rigour. Among these metrics, Average Handling Time (AHT) often garners significant attention. AHT measures the average duration of an agent’s interaction with a customer, including talk time, hold time, and any follow-up actions (wrap). While AHT provides insights into operational efficiency, its appropriateness as a metric for evaluating individual agent performance is questionable. Here’s why AHT may not be the best metric for contact centre agents:

Quality Over Speed: Focusing on AHT can inadvertently prioritise speed over quality. Agents might rush through interactions to keep their AHT low, potentially compromising the quality of service. High-quality interactions often require time to understand the customer’s issues fully, provide comprehensive solutions, and ensure customer satisfaction. When agents are pressured to keep their AHT down, they may not spend adequate time resolving issues, leading to repeat calls and dissatisfied customers.

Complexity of Issues: Not all customer inquiries are created equal. Some issues are simple and can be resolved quickly, while others are complex and require extensive troubleshooting or detailed explanations. Holding all agents to a standard AHT does not account for the varying complexity of issues they handle. An agent dealing with more complex problems will naturally have a higher AHT, which does not reflect poorly on their performance but rather on the nature of the issues they are resolving.

Impact on Customer Experience:  AHT as a metric can adversely impact the customer experience. Customers value effective and empathetic service over rapid resolutions. When agents are under pressure to minimise AHT, they might interrupt customers, provide incomplete information, or fail to build rapport, leading to a negative customer experience. Prioritising AHT can create an environment where the agent’s primary goal is to end the call quickly, rather than ensuring the customer is satisfied and their problem fully resolved.

Agent Morale and Job Satisfaction:  High-pressure metrics like AHT can negatively affect agent morale and job satisfaction. Agents might feel stressed and anxious about meeting stringent AHT targets, leading to burnout and high turnover rates. A focus on speed over quality can diminish the agent’s sense of accomplishment and pride in their work, as they may feel they are not given the time necessary to perform their duties effectively.

Misalignment with Business Goals:  While operational efficiency is important, the ultimate goal of a contact centre should be to provide excellent customer service and build customer loyalty. Metrics that align more closely with these goals, such as Customer Satisfaction (CSAT), Net Promoter Score (NPS), and First Call Resolution (FCR), are better indicators of an agent’s performance and the contact centre’s success. These metrics focus on the outcome and quality of the interaction rather than the time taken to handle the call.

Encourages Shortcuts and Unethical Behaviour:   In extreme cases, the pressure to maintain a low AHT can lead to shortcuts and unethical behaviour. Agents might transfer calls unnecessarily, avoid dealing with complex issues, or even disconnect calls to keep their AHT within the desired range. These behaviours not only harm customer satisfaction but also distort performance data, making it difficult for management to get an accurate picture of operational efficiency and agent effectiveness.

So in the abundance of metrics that we have in the contact centre what are the alternative that we could consider that would add more value to customers, colleagues and overall business performance?  Given the limitations we’ve discussed so far around AHT as an agent metric, operational leaders should consider a more balanced approach to measuring performance and the metrics that matter, here are a few alternatives we’d recommend:

  1. Customer Satisfaction (CSAT): Measuring how satisfied customers are with their interaction after engaging with an agent can be a really useful one especially when you link this to sentiment analysis and pre and post interaction sentiment – did the agent manage to turn the sentiment around?.
  2. Net Promoter Score (NPS): Another potentially contentious one as how can an agent really influence a customers decision to recommend but sometimes agents like to know how post interaction customers rated their involvement, but take caution with this as a metric for agents.
  3. First Call Resolution (FCR): Tracks the percentage of issues resolved on the first call, indicating effectiveness. This is a useful metrics to help ensure that agents are taking ownerships and helping really establish root cause and taking action to help resolve the customers query, again always consider the unintended consequences of measuring this and monitor your Reopen rates
  4. Agent Utilisation: Measures how effectively agents are used within their scheduled time. This is useful to understand how effective agents are being with time setting realistic utilisation rates that don’t drive burnout is important.
  5. Quality Assurance Scores: One of the most common and this evaluates the quality of interactions based on predefined criteria and helps understand the error rates of our teams.

We asked a few industry experts to share their thoughts, here’s what they had to say:

Keith Stapleton – Select Planning

“I’ll buck the trend, it’s ok to use AHT in your agent performance metrics (note it’s part of, not the only one), but don’t measure it against the planning metric (usually an average of selected actual or a set value based on what was designed) measure people against each other to see how they compare. Don’t reward lowest and punish highest, it’s not that simple, you need to understand quality, content and ability too.  It’s not easy, but if Managers/Coaches have a scorecard a picture becomes clearer, and AHT has a role to play.”

Anna Wilcox – Bupa

“With the increased use of digital I would hope we will drive administrative tasks to be facilitated in these channels. Then we should be enabling our advisors to spend more time speaking with customers who want that human support. If we have reduced the admin load, then in theory we should have more time for our agents to spend on the phone.

AI has a huge opportunity to enable a seamless experience where we can switch between automation and humans. This needs to be unique to every individual customer need and interaction. But we need to consider where we need to increase pace and automate steps Vs identifying where we can add value by slowing down and giving customers all the time they may want to support their needs.”

Nery Corfield – Injection Consulting

Nerys Corfield Contact centre Leader

“The reason you look at AHT is for planning resources and understanding if the advisors a able to manage different contact drivers within a reasonable % of the benchmark.  If they aren’t managing to do that then a coaching/support intervention can take place to help them understand where better call control or more effective diagnostics can be applied.  It might also indicate knowledge gaps which are specific to certain advisors or widespread.

There are a lot of business challenges here – understanding benchmark AHT by contact driver for one – BUT AI is going to start to change all of this and insight will become much more readily available.

I don’t think there is any place for AHT on an advisors performance metrics.  Let the Team Leaders and the support teams see it, understand it and support them to become more in line.  Talk about it in huddles and team performance reviews with the context of why it is a metric looked at but they have enough to worry about without burdening them with a management metric.”

Asim Malik- Out &Out Original FurnitureAsim Malik Contact centre Leader

“I’ve always been an advocate of leverage AHT and other metrics as insights and cues of potential operational friction points that agents are facing that need review. Are our people having to use too many systems to resolve customer issues? Do they truly have the hardware, such as second screens, etc to handle each contact efficiently? I have been able to reduce AHT by over 40%, by simply providing agents the right tools – improving both customer and people experience and ultimately cutting overall cost to serve. All without a single discussion with agents on reducing their AHT or a single ‘stick’ in sight.”

Rob Wilson – Service Economics

Rob Wilson Contact centre Leader

“If you’ve really solved every other more important problem in your contact centre – eliminated failure demand, reduced unnecessary handoffs, challenged unnecessary controls, given Agents the tools they need to work effectively etc – then by all means look at Agent AHT. But in all honesty, any manager who doesn’t have a thorough understanding of Variation or doesn’t know how a control chart works should not be allowed anywhere near that sort of conversation!”

So Final Thoughts…..

While AHT provides some valuable insights into contact centre operations, it is not an appropriate metric for evaluating individual agent performance, its should be used as a planning metric to help forecast and build capacity plans and operational resource requirements. A focus on AHT can undermine service quality, affect customer experience, demoralise agents, and misalign with broader business goals. Understanding the mechanics if AHT and using this as an indicator to coach and develop your teams, call handling or call control skills can help but using it as a metric to manage agent performance is not advisable and not fair on your teams. By adopting a more holistic approach to performance metrics, contact centre leaders can better support their agents, enhance customer satisfaction, and achieve sustainable operational success.