Contact Centre AHT: Who’s Responsible?

Personal trainer timing a female runner. Selective focus.

“It’s just a matter of understanding what’s necessary and discipline yourself to do it.”
Arthur Lydiard

Considered by many the greatest long distance running coach, Arthur Lydiard’s words cut to the heart of the athlete and coach relationship. A coach brings knowledge of what is necessary to succeed to the partnership, but success depends on the discipline of the athlete to apply that knowledge. Neither athlete nor coach decides the course over which the race is run.

This relationship offers an ideal analogy for the bond between contact centre Agent and their Team Leader, and is particularly apt when considering the management of the Average Handle Time (AHT) of customer interactions.

AHT is a pivotal contact centre measure, representing one of the primary contributors of centre resource demand. The relationship between AHT and a contact centre’s operating cost is virtually proportional. If AHT can be reduced by 10%, you will in turn reduce your operating costs by up to 10%, if all other factors remain equal. Control of AHT remains key to controlling a contact centre’s operating costs.

During my early years within the industry, it was not uncommon to assign absolute AHT targets as performance goals for Agents. Team Leader contribution towards Agent achievement of targets often amounted to little more than berating or nagging Agents to pick up the pace on their calls!

In more recent years the focus has shifted from Agent to Team Leader, and the supporting Team Senior role, as responsible for AHT management. After all, how can an Agent be held responsible for the length of the phone calls they answer if they haven’t been taught how to control the length of their calls?

I believe both AHT management approaches miss the mark, while the athlete and coach analogy offers an effective and responsible alternative.

Within this relationship, Team Leaders are responsible for bringing the knowledge of what is necessary to the relationship, while Agents are responsible for the discipline to effectively put that knowledge in to practice. Within this model Team Leader and Agent share an AHT target within their key performance management metrics.

For Agents, AHT targets are set in terms of acceptable variance from the average of the group in which they belong. Dependent on complexity and predictability of calls handled, this target could be set to AHT remaining within 20% of the average. Then AHT 20% less than the average, or AHT greater than 20% above the average, would be considered in need of improvement. Agent AHT must remain within the acceptable variance range for performance to be considered average, while other performance measures would be used to an Agent’s performance beyond average.

For Team Leaders, AHT targets are set in terms of the number of Agents within their team who achieve their AHT variance target. The Team Leader is responsible for coaching, while the Agent is responsible for the discipline to apply that coaching.

This method of AHT performance management will disadvantage an Agent partnered with a poorly performing Team Leader. Likewise, a Team Leader will be disadvantaged when working with a lazy Consultant. However, documented Agent performance plans will soon reveal where the issue lies if AHT improvement cannot be achieved.

Unfortunately neither Agent nor Team Leader is fully in control of their performance result. What measure of contact centre operation does offer full independence? If control of contact centre performance results could be truly independent why would our industry place such emphasis on the need to work in Teams? Creation of a successful Performance Management Framework  acknowledges and embraces the need for partnership objectives, while creating the opportunity for individual efforts to be recognised.

Within this discussion, the goal of Agent and Team Leader AHT performance targets has been to lead AHT towards a consistent median. These targets do not control where that AHT median lies! After all, as in the analogy, neither athlete nor coach set the course over which the race is run. I will leave the challenge of controlling the AHT median for a future discussion.

I would love to hear your thoughts on AHT performance measures for Agents and Team Leaders. Have you discovered an alternative approach that delivers the results you need? And remember, while your contact centre must own its Performance Management Framework, you certainly don’t have to create it alone!

Jason Metcalfe, QPC Solutions Manager