Rising call handling times - a cause for concern?

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The call and contact centre is the mouthpiece of a brand. It is the place where customers go when they want to speak to someone – often with a query or complaint – so it is pivotal that it operates seamlessly. Long waiting times or inexperienced agents are to be avoided by brands seeking to deliver the best possible experience to their customers. 

Call handling times – the time that an agent spends on the phone with a customer – are another important consideration in the creation of a smooth customer journey.  Across the industry, the average call handling time (AHT) is 6 minutes – with variations up and down depending on the sector. This figure serves an important purpose – providing a key metric to understand and measure the performance of a contact centre. By monitoring AHT, roadblocks, inefficient processes and gaps in agent knowledge can be identified – all of which can impact a customer’s experience with a brand.

Rising AHT

It is therefore unsurprising that reports of increasing AHTs have caused ripples in the contact centre world. The fear is that longer call times equate to a failure by the contact centre team.

However, this couldn’t be any further from the truth. Indeed, there are a number of reasons why average handling times are going up:

The effect of digital transformation – As more customers turn to chatbots, or search for answers through intuitive and comprehensive knowledge bases, fewer customers need to make contact with the call centre with simple, single issues. That means that those who do call in, are calling with more complex and challenging issues, which inevitably take longer to address.

First time contact resolution – Longer handling times may also be indicative of agents working hard to please customers and provide better resolution first time round. Customers would rather be on the phone for a little bit longer if it means that their issue is dealt with in one phone call, rather than having to make multiple calls.

Greater understanding of ‘good’ customer experience – Customers who have taken the time to phone up a call centre, want an opportunity to be heard – and that takes time. Call centres are increasingly training their agents to listen to the customer, to ask the right questions, and to offer the right balance of sympathy and pragmatism – all because they want to deliver a better customer experience. While this invariably increases AHT levels, it certainly boosts customer satisfaction when an issue is handled well and is resolved.  

Why AHT metrics alone only tell part of the story

It is also important to remember that a low AHT is not necessarily a good thing. Short calls could be a sign that callers are getting frustrated, cut off or not given adequate time to resolve their query. Conversely, increasing AHT is not necessarily a good thing either. Yes, longer calls could be a sign that customers are being given plenty of time, or that calls are increasingly complex, but it could also be a sign that agents are poorly equipped to support customers, or that agents have to wade through complex processes to complete routine tasks.

The reality is that AHT should not be considered in isolation when considering the success of a contact centre and its part in the customer journey. Contact centres should always focus on quality and delivering an excellent customer experience. If agents are providing a quality service and keeping customers happy, then everything else should fall into place.

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18th Apr 2019 16:41

Great points and I hope they are what is driving increasing AHTs. But as a consumer I feel that the longer conversations tend to be the ones when the agent doesn't listen. I have had some great conversations with agents, they are short, sweet and fix my problem.

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