Apart from shrinkage and necessary overhead, there are three key things that drive staffing costs at our contact centers: service level objectives, call volumes and average handling times.
If we attempt to reduce our service level goals and are told “it is what it is” (see related blog post here), we’re left with either reducing our call volumes or our average handling times. Of those two, the one that’s our fastest-path-to-cash (or cost savings) is average handling time. Why? Because much of the power to reduce AHT lies within our direct control as Workforce Management and Operational Professionals.
Now, before I go any further, please notice that I did not say “ALL of the power.” Quite the contrary. In fact, I would argue that most of the power lies much higher up. Even our best agents can only do so much with the tools we give them. So if our desktop systems are not exactly technological models of efficiency, significant reductions to AHT may require that the powers that be invest in solutions to either replace or increase the effectiveness of existing desktop applications (and thereby increase the efficiency of the agents handling the calls).
That said, agents can also do a lot to reduce AHT without cutting corners on quality, provided we help them to pay attention to the right things. How? By minimizing, or even eliminating, the emphasis on measuring AHT at the agent level and focusing instead on the components of the call that make up AHT. (Note: If you think that the suggestion of eliminating AHT as an agent metric is crazy talk, check out this recent discussion on Linkedin to learn what others are doing.)
We cannot reduce AHT just by focusing on AHT itself
AHT is a compound metric, which basically means that it’s made up of other metrics. When you measure the metrics inside the metric, you focus improvements on the elements of the call that are largely within our agents’ direct control.
Talk Time: One thing we must always remember is that the metrics we use to measure how much time we spend TALKING to our customers are the same metrics that measure how much time we spend LISTENING to our customers. Cut this time too short, and we risk cutting customer satisfaction as well. For this reason, I recommend that you put this metric on the scorecard with the objective based upon the average talk time of seasoned agents. However, in order to drive the right customer-focused behavior, I would minimize its weight in the overall score.
Hold Time: Customers often have to hold a long time just to talk to someone in the first place. When they are put on hold again, it just adds to their irritation. Longer hold times for newer agents are a given, but average hold time for seasoned folks should be pretty similar across the board. I recommend that you put this metric on the scorecard and base the objective somewhere in between the average of seasoned agents and the average of top performers. Keeping in mind that excessive hold time is perceived as a negative by the customer and something we want to eliminate if possible, I would weight of the objective in the overall score higher than that of average talk time.
After Call Work Time: After Call Work Time (ACW) is a metric that can add significantly to AHT, but for some reason, it doesn’t seem to get the focus I think it deserves. The customer is off the phone and, presumably, the agent has solved their problem. Now there’s something that needs to be done in the system in order to “wrap-up” the call that couldn’t have been done while the customer was on the line. Is there really? Or are our agents just using this time as a “buffer-zone” between calls? My hope is that we’ve staffed our centers sufficiently so that agents don’t feel the need to escape into ACW for a bit of relief. That said, even in the best of centers, this can happen when an unexpected call spike kicks in. My point is that we won’t know our agents’ behavior patterns as it relates to ACW if we don’t measure this very important metric. I would base the objective somewhere in between the average of seasoned agents the average of top performers and weight it the same as average hold time, if not a bit higher.
As important as AHT is, holding our agents solely accountable for reducing it is not a Wise Workforce Strategy, in fact, it’s futile. However, agents can have a greater impact on AHT reduction if we help them to focus on the metrics within.