AHT in the Age of Omni-Channel Customer-Centric Service

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February 12, 2018, 10:14 am.
A recorded call within a call center in Stockholm, Sweden.

Agent: Thanks for calling Förenad TelCo*, how can I help you?

Customer: Hi, I am having a problem….. shhh, sweetie, shhhh….

Agent: What’s the problem?

Customer: I’m having a problem with my Internet. It’s….just one second, please. Shhh, baby, mommy’s coming in a minute, shhh.

Agent: What exactly is happening with the Internet?

Customer: I’m sorry, please hold while I get my baby a bottle. <6 minutes later> Thanks for holding. I’m not sure what the issue is. There is a red light flashing on my router and I can’t access any websites.

Agent: Which light is flashing?

Customer: Let me check.  Waaa. Oh, no. Can you hold one more minute while I pick up my baby?

Though  this call should have taken no more than 5 minutes, it took a full 30 minutes to gain the customer’s undivided attention in order to resolve a very simple issue. Luckily, for both the agent and the customer, “Förenad TelCo”* is a forward-thinking organization that does not place undue emphasis on average call handling time (AHT) as a KPI.

 

The AHT Debate

Average call Handling Time (AHT) is strongly entrenched in the traditional world of customer service. Measuring (and limiting) the length of time an agent spends on each call is seen as an important KPI to ensure efficient and agile call center operations. However, the Harvard Business Review states that AHT is the worst way to measure customer service as it creates an environment where contact center agents de-prioritize complex issues and are motivated to keep calls short, even if they could have resolved the inquiry had they invested the time to do so.

For example, in the story above, if the agent would have been concerned about AHT, as soon as he realized the customer was distracted, he may have dispatched a technician in order to cut the call short. This would have resulted in an unnecessary expense for the company and a negative experience for the customer who would have remained without Internet until the technician arrived a few days later.

 

The Shift to an Omni-Channel Approach

Many of today’s customer-centric companies take an omni-channel approach, supporting multiple channels of customer engagement. Deloitte reports that by 2019, more than half of customer interactions are expected to be through channels other than voice.  

This shift from voice-only contact has forced companies to re-examine their approach to average call handling time. While the length of a phone call is relatively straightforward to measure, other channels are more complex. For example, agents on messaging apps can be logged in to multiple cases at the same time, and social media engagement may take place over a series of days.

In addition, when customers are transitioned between channels – such as from email to chat to live visual support – multiple agents often work on the same case, even further complicating the measurement of AHT.  Also, with the advent of self-service channels, it is often the more complex cases that are actually called in to a live agent, issues that inherently will take more time to resolve, resulting in a longer AHT.

For these two primary reasons — undue pressure on agents and the irrelevance of the KPI in omnichannel engagements — AHT has come under scrutiny recently and is being challenged as a fair performance indicator Other efficiency-based KPIs have been proposed, such as First Response Time (FRT) which measures how quickly an agent responds to the first customer contact, or Average Response Time (ART) which determines the average collective length of time it takes for a company to respond to customer inquiries across the board.  

As call centers increasingly adjust their focus to become more customer centric, some pioneering companies have swept AHT aside in favor of satisfaction-based KPIs, such as net promoter score (NPS).

 

The New Paradigm – Holistic View

Yet, most companies and contact centers can’t afford to abandon AHT altogether. After all, a disciplined approach to agents’ time and operational costs is necessary in order to stay in business.

A holistic view of contact center KPIs that takes into account both the customer experience and operational efficiencies is the answer to achieving the contact center’s goals in an increasingly-complex and omni-channel customer service environment.

KPIs measure three primary aspects of contact center activity:

  1. The efficiency (AHT and its new alternatives)
  2. The Customer experience/satisfaction (NPS, CSAT etc.)
  3. The end result (FCR, technician dispatch rate etc.)

By giving each of these factors a proportional weight in accordance  with the company’s strategy, a holistic KPI emerges. This new KPI enables customer service leadership to direct and inspire agents to take the right action at the right time, without keeping an ever-present eye on the clock.

The holistic approach dictates that the contact center’s efficiency, a positive CX, and a satisfactory end result is what keeps the service running smoothly, the customers loyal and the business thriving in these complex times.

 

Summary

Traditional KPIs are no longer enough to ensure a culture of service excellence. While average call handling time is still a useful measure for assessing organizational costs and performance, in today’s customer-centric world, companies should re-examine their approach to AHT as a yardstick for efficiency.

Instead, they should take a global approach to service efficiency by customizing their KPIs to include alternatives to the traditional AHT and view them holistically, alongside KPIs for customer satisfaction and outcomes.   After all, it is the quality of the interactions and the ability to meet customer expectations – not speed – that are the real performance indicators.

 

*  Company name and identifying details have been changed to protect the

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