5 Best Practices for Reducing Handle Time
By Greg Levin
In successful call centers today, metrics like first-call resolution, quality and customer satisfaction have replaced average handle time (AHT) as the key performance indicator. Still in all, these centers haven't stopped trying to reduce AHT—nor should they. Instead, they continually look for organic ways to gain call efficiencies via better processes, technologies and training—ways that make customers and agents rejoice rather than revolt.

Though certainly not an exhaustive list, the following are some of the best ways call centers can bring AHT and associated costs down while raising FCR, C-Sat and agent engagement through the roof.

1. Educate agents on AHT and implement fair objectives. Healthy reduction in AHT starts with not only taking the time to fully understand the meaning and aforementioned ideal uses of the metric, but also ensuring that your agents do, too. Top call centers educate agents on what AHT is, how it is used in planning and scheduling, and how keeping it in check helps not only keep costs down but also improve the customer—and the agent—experience. Most importantly, these centers make it clear that AHT reduction is really the responsibility of managers and supervisors—not agents. After all, it's up to the former to ensure that agents are properly prepared to handle calls efficiently and effectively, and that the center's systems and processes don't hinder agents' ability to do so.

2. Provide focused coaching to help agents with call-control issues. Supervisors and coaches in top centers don't approach AHT-challenged agents with numbers; rather they take time to first listen to some recorded calls (including screen capture) to uncover what actions and behaviors of the agent might be adding undue length to their customer interactions. Such analysis might reveal that the agent lacks product/service knowledge or struggles with screen toggling and data entry, or maybe just needs to be a little more assertive with customers who view the interaction as a chance to socialize.

Once supervisors/coaches spot the agent's weakness(es), they can provide personalized coaching, where the focus is on actions and behaviors—not on minutes or seconds. Give an agent more product knowledge or show them how to quickly access information, and AHT will soon take care of itself.

3. Master workforce management. Call centers that become masters of forecasting and scheduling almost always have the right number of agents with the right skills in place at the right times. This impacts AHT by shortening wait times in queue, thus keeping customers from becoming frustrated and venting to agents at the start of the call.

Many leading call centers have further reduced AHT by adding a skills-based routing element to their workforce management repertoire. While sometimes challenging to manage, skills-based routing gets the customer to the most qualified available agent based on the customer's specific need, thus reducing handle time directly (the agent has the specific skills or knowledge to handle the call efficiently and effectively), as well as indirectly (less customer frustration since the call is handled well with no or limited transfers).

4. Continually evaluate and improve workflows and desktop resources. Just because all of your agents perform within the acceptable AHT range in your call center doesn't mean that problems don't exist. Even more important than uncovering opportunities to improve individual agents' AHT via coaching and training is removing barriers that inhibit all agents' ability to maximize efficiencies.

The sharpest centers continually evaluate systems, screens and workflows to make sure that they are working properly and feature the most agent-friendly (and, thus, customer-friendly) design. While many centers use their quality monitoring system to observe how quickly and easily agents are able to move through screens and access data, most have found that the best way to identify improvements to scripts, workflows and desktop resources is to simply ask agents for their input on the matter—via surveys, team meetings, "town-hall" discussions and one-on-ones. Numerous call centers have even created special agent-led task forces that focus on things like workflow improvements and technology/systems enhancements that can help speed transactions and improve the customer experience.

5. Reward agents for positive accomplishments. This does not mean rewarding staff simply for AHT reduction, as doing so tempts agents to sacrifice the customer in order to achieve "enviable" AHT numbers. Instead, top call centers create AHT-related incentives that always take other key metrics and the customer experience into consideration. For instance, many centers reward and recognize agent teams who are able to raise quality scores, FCR rates and/or C-sat rates while reducing AHT—or even just maintaining it within an acceptable range. Rewarding and recognizing agents and teams that identify ways to improve call handling while maintaining a strong customer focus is another great way to keep staff engaged, customers happy and costs down.

INSIDE VIEW: Canadian Tire Financial Services
Across Canadian Tire Financial Services' (CTFS) contact center operation is a long-standing customer-centric philosophy, which is, quite simply: Customers for Life. It is built on an interwoven focus on customer and employee satisfaction. Staff at all levels understand that customer service success equals business success, and contact center reps are empowered to ensure that every issue is fully resolved on the first contact. The ability to do the right thing for the customer reflects in a satisfied, loyal employee base. In fact, the average tenure for a call center rep is a remarkable 12 years. One reason why employees tend to stay is that their input is valued and acted upon—especially when dealing with process improvements that involve customers and efficiency.

Read the full story here.


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