William Balvanz is the Training Specialist at Voyant, a US-based UCaaS provider. He has years of experience in the call center space, as well as cloud-based communications. We have once again called on William to provide some direction as to how to improve one of the most critical cost-impacting metrics in the contact center space - average handle time.
Average Handle Time
This metric is one of the most commonly used to rate an agent’s performance due to the direct effect it has on profitability. If an agent can resolve issues in a short amount of time, he or she can improve First Call Resolution (FCR) and increase the Net Promoter Score (NPS). If an agent takes too long to get to a resolution, it means that fewer customers are served by that agent.
Average Handle Time (AHT) is calculated by taking the total time spent on calls in a given time period and dividing that by the number of contacts in that same timespan. Some systems include time spent on hold, and others may not. We will offer advice on Average Time on Hold in another article.
Depending on the type of contact center in question, First Call Resolution is the more important KPI. The coaching advice here will assume that Customer Satisfaction, FCR, and NPS are not a concern with this agent. In other words, you have an agent that resolves the calls and is well liked by the callers, but takes too long (or maybe not long enough, that will be covered at the end) to end the call.
The first step in analyzing this KPI, and most others, is to evaluate if the expectation for meeting the AHT is realistic. A good clue that it might not be attainable or realistic is that this is the metric with which the majority of your agents struggle. This can be because of a low tenured staff, because of a new site or just an influx of new agents. It is not uncommon to graduate KPI targets based on tenure. If you are confident that the handle time target is realistic, you can move to the next step. If not, look to redefine your expectations so they are attainable.
The next step is to ensure that your knowledge base and support tools are in place and accurate. No agent can possibly have all of the answers, so it becomes imperative to have some kind of database that defines your procedures, products, and processes. Are theses systems limited to floor support “red hats” only? Is the knowledge base easily searchable, easy to digest on the fly, and accurate? If you are not providing the proper tools to your agents, it is hard to hold them accountable for long calls. But, if you are, it is time to move to the next step.
This step is the interface is the human to systems part of the chain. Is your training program adequate, does it provide routine steps of evaluation and a place to work on call skills and time in a helpful environment? Does your training program specifically teach how to use your excellent knowledge base and provide practice in searching for specific articles? Do your agents have experience (even simulated experience) in handling the most common types of calls. If you can truthfully answer yes to all of these checkpoints, then we can move on. If not, you might look for advice on better training methods.
Use of Systems
Now that we have established that the support systems exist, they are adequate, and the agent has been trained on them, we can look to see if the agent is using the systems correctly. Note that we are on step four of the process and this is the first time we look at agent behavior. Keep this in mind and be certain that your house is in order before aggressively coaching an agent.
This can be observed through recorded calls, especially those with screen capture capability. You can also hot-desk and sit with an agent, but that raises a completely different set of problems. Another option is a live service observation, listening into the call from another desk.
If the agent is taking too long to use the systems, that can be a training issue. Practice can help, too, and so can job aids (listing the most common articles, for example). This behavior (correct and efficient use of tools) can be put into SMART goal format and an action plan can be written around it.
If the agent is using the tools efficiently, we can move onward.
This is another agent behavior point (as will be the last two) that can have an action plan written around it. Does the agent speak slowly? Does the agent get distracted easily or talk off into tangents? Some people can get pulled away from the path (a phenomena that is often called “Squirrel! Syndrome” from the Pixar movie “Up”) and take a long time to get back to the purpose of the call.
Writing an action plan on this can be enhanced with the right job aids and motivation. But, if the agent is not getting distracted, it is time to stiffen the coaching methods in the next two steps.
Will to Succeed
Frankly, does the agent want to succeed? I have experienced agents who honestly wanted to do a great job but they didn’t fully understand what was expected, and others who feel the position they are in at the present time is not where they want to be.
If your agent wants to be a success, give them a path. Set SMART goals and milestones that can help motivate. Do not shy away from anecdotes that empathize with them. One thing that can be really frustrating is a consistent shift in focus; one week it is hold time, the next week it is adherence, the next week it is handle time. This can be devastating if you have not made it clear what the major plan for this agent will be.
If your agent feels unappreciated or thinks their present role is “beneath them”, then give them some encouragement. Let them know that if you do not have to spend time in your one on one meetings shoring up easy stuff like Handle Time with them, you can focus on giving them more diverse training, maybe even setting them up for a promotion or other opportunities.
The Right Fit
Finally, at the top of the mountain, we get to the fundamental question: Is this agent the right fit for the job? For some managers and supervisors, this is a very tough topic. If you and the agent have done everything up to this step and they are still not meeting expectations, it might be a case that this position is just not right for the person.
Maybe they would be better in some other line of business. Maybe they are just not good on the phone and they are miserable every day. Maybe their attitude is just awful. Step 6 might lead directly here, for example.
It is recommended to have another manager, especially one above you, to sit in on your one on one when this step is reached. If the metric in question, in this case AHT, is very important, and you have explained that to the agent, it might be time to put them on a disciplinary plan. Give them X weeks to hit the goal or demerits are assessed. If it comes to this, be fair, firm, and supportive. If they make their action plan and goals, celebrate with them, but if they fail it may be time to cut ties.
Look at it this way, an agent who is not meeting profitability targets is costing your business money. It is a manager’s job to protect the profit of the organization.
The Problem with Low Handle Time
A unique problem with Average Handle Time is that of an agent who has calls that are always shorter than expected. Even if their Customer Satisfaction scores are perfect, they are missing opportunities with the low handle time. Coach them to remind customers of available self service options, or to do an “account review” for 30 seconds and see if they have expired features or ways to improve their experience. At any rate, very short handle time represents missed opportunities for add-on sales at best, and poor service that has not yet been found at worst.
Average Handle Time is an important KPI in terms of productivity and profitability, but it is neither the most important metric nor is it one that can be overlooked. By working through a process of analyzing and correcting different steps in the process, you and your agent can work out the best way to tackle this issue and gain compliance - or you can discover that you may have a person who is simply not a great fit for what needs to be done.