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What Is Average Handle Time & How Can You Lower It?

If you run a call center, you’re inundated with metrics to measure. However, when prioritizing what gets measured and what call center agents need to target, one of the most important metrics is average handle time (AHT).

We’ll get you up to speed on AHT, provide industry benchmarks, and offer actionable tips to reduce the total talk time.

What is average handle time?

Average handle time, often shortened to AHT, is the amount of time taken to help a customer. Starting at the beginning of an interaction, call center software tracks how long it takes agents to finish assisting a customer.

AHT includes the entire customer interaction. It starts when a customer call reaches an agent, hold time, and after-call work is completed following the call.

This metric applies to users, departments, and even call drivers themselves. Often, AHT relates to customer satisfaction and agent performance.

In theory, the quicker you resolve a customer's concern, the happier they will be. But, of course, there’s a significant human impact to factor in here too.

AHT is one of five data points contact center leaders should track to improve the customer experience, according to Gartner. The other metrics are speed of answer, first call resolution, customer satisfaction score, and Net Promoter Score®.

Your customers will be the happiest if you resolve their concerns on the first contact. A shorter handle time isn’t always better.

How to calculate average call handling time?

The most used average handle time formula is as follows:

Average Handle Time (AHT) Formula
Average Handle Time is the talk, hold, and follow-up time divided by the total number of calls.

AHT example

Let’s say you had 10 phone calls for the day and spent 50 minutes talking, five minutes on hold, and five minutes adding notes in your CRM.

So your average handle time formula works out like this:

[50 mins + 5 mins + 5 mins ] / 10 calls = 6 minutes AHT

Once you’ve calculated your AHT, you can use the figure to optimize staffing. You can forecast the headcount you need if you know the average amount of time to help each customer.

Once you have calculated your call volume and AHT, you can enter these figures into an Erlang calculator.

The Erlang calculator finds the best number of staff for a contact center at any given time. Supervisors use this to predict the ideal number of agents for peak periods, so the customer experience remains at its best.

Tracking AHT within call centers

In a traditional call center environment, companies track AHT for two main reasons:

  • Measuring agent efficiency - If an agent takes longer than average to remedy customer inquiries, they may need more training.
  • Gauging customer satisfaction - If your customer’s questions get answered quicker, they are less likely to churn and more likely to renew.

Omnichannel usage of average handle times

With the introduction of email, live chats, and social media, finding AHT changes from talk time to interaction time.

Like all metrics, it’s necessary to consider the subtle differences between call centers and contact centers.

For example, a customer might initiate a direct message (DM) on Twitter looking for help installing software. If they spend a good part of their day with Twitter open, it’s convenient to send a message here instead of picking up the phone.

In this case, the handle time shifts to when you received a Twitter DM instead of when the phone call began.

In omnichannel cases, it’s key to distinguish the difference between average handle time and average talk time.

Related: Call Center Best Practices to Delight Your Customers

Average handle time vs. average talk time

In a call center, average handle time and average talk time are easily confused.

We know average handle time includes hold time and the average duration of actual conversation. And in an omnichannel contact center, we must factor all elements of the customer experience (like email response times).

Tim Banting, Practice Leader of Digital Workplace at Omdia, feels: “No agent should feel rushed to handle a call. Their metrics should be related to service levels i.e. 80% of calls answered in 20 seconds.”

Average talk time only measures the time an agent spends talking to a customer. Today, customer experience leaders consider this call center metric outdated as agent training revolved around how long agents spent on the phone.

KPIs years ago encouraged agents to decrease talk time rather than improve customer satisfaction.

Why use average handle time?

As metrics go, average handle time is simple to measure. But that’s not to say it doesn’t play a crucial part when improving customer experience.

When customers spend longer than they’d like interacting with your support team, they form a negative view of your business. In a perfect world, the average handle time is zero — as they’d rather not need to contact you at all.

On this basis, it’s easy to think the lower the AHT, the better. But there’s more in play than time. Here's a view from a customer experience analyst discussing average handle time:

“The costs of customer callbacks and increased agent recruitment and onboarding are much higher than any savings that could be gained through shorter calls.”

Max Ball, Principal Analyst, Forrester

Contact center leaders recognize that the entire customer experience is more valuable than an individual call. So we’ve evolved from asking, “how was this call?” to “how do you view our company?”

Despite the shift to customer experience, contact center leaders still recognize the importance of AHT. Handle time impacts the total hold time, which influences customer effort and customer satisfaction scores.

Rather than as standalone service metrics, leaders should be using AHT to drive improvements in their processes. For instance, high call times can be avoided with in-depth articles published regularly on a knowledge base.

As your business takes a closer look at AHT, it’s essential to use a defined formula consistent with contact center industry best practices.

Related: 4 Ways to Scale Customer Support Capacity While Keeping Quality High

AHT industry benchmarks

One recommendation by DeAnna Kerley, Customer Success Manager at Kustomer, is to lay out AHT’s per service type. She suggested the following handle times for these call centers:

Service Type Average Handling Time (Minutes)
Delivery 4.45
Marketplace 7.5
Retail 6.25
Services 8.7

The average handle time across these services is 6.73 minutes.

Another report by Cornell University tracks AHT by company size and sector:

Sector & Company Size Average Handling Time (Minutes)
Large Business 8.7
Telecommunications 8.8
Retail 5.4
Business & IT Services 4.7
Financial Services 4.7

The average of these industries is 6.46 minutes.

What is a good AHT?

If we accept around six minutes as the industry standard, is it a good AHT?

When delivery teams are averaging under four and a half minutes, it’s easy to expect the same from your other units.

Of course, your business may already be performing at a lower AHT. Does this mean you should make an effort to lengthen your handle time?

You can only determine a good figure in conjunction with NPS and CSAT scores. NPS measures how willing your customer is to recommend your product or service. CSAT measures how satisfied your customer is with your product or service.

Once you’ve got your AHT metrics and customer feedback, decide whether you’re spending too much time with customers.

Launch an inbound call center in hours, not weeks.
Cut the cord and move to the cloud.

Tips to achieve a lower average handle time

There are many tools and techniques you can use to lower AHT. A short average handle time often correlates with high NPS and CSAT but doesn’t necessarily result in more profitable customers.

Follow these five tactics to decrease average call handling times and improve your customer experience.

1) Specialize agent training

When a new agent starts, what do they do in their first week?

If they only receive generic company training, you could hurt your handle times on day one.

Specialized agent training lets you tailor your customer service function around select inbound inquiries or customer segments.

Document all your products and segments, and then note how many staff specialize in these areas. Next, conduct a gap analysis to identify which areas need more resources.

When you train agents this way, you can apply skills-based call routing to your queues. Customers then choose their topic and get routed to the best agent to solve their issue.

2) Assign high AHT agents a low AHT buddy

Training shouldn’t end at the end of your onboarding process. Identify successful agents with low AHT and pair them up with an agent who has a high AHT.

Working in real-time next to an agent means the low AHT agent can document and provide tips to avoid unnecessary delays.

These might be standard contact center practices or personal habits they can share with your wider team. Perhaps, there are macros and shortcuts available to speed up after-call work (ACW) tasks.

If your resource doesn’t allow for buddying up in real-time, you can use call recording to apply the same process after the call.

3) Record calls and live monitor agents

A staple of any call center is access to recorded calls. Let supervisors or agents with a shorter handle time listen to calls from those with a high AHT. Doing so can uncover triggers and behaviors that result in unnecessarily long calls.

Call recording is a great feature to determine if agents adhere to call center best practices and to uncover the causes of high call times.

When you listen to a call, document how agents can improve the customer experience. Is your team forgetting to acknowledge a high wait time? Identify if there are gaps in product knowledge or having to find the right place to enter information.

Go a step further and monitor your agents in real-time. While it might sound creepy, live monitoring is interruption-free for both the customer and agent.

When supervisors have access to in-progress calls, they know what is happening in the heat of the moment. If an agent needs help, they can use advanced features like Whisper to coach the agent or Barge-In to take over the call. Intervention here helps the agent for future calls.

4) Leverage workflow automation

Part of your extended interaction times could be time spent transferring customers to the correct department. This overhead can add unnecessary minutes to the average handling time of your customer.

While it’s easy to blame a customer for not selecting the right option, tools like interactive voice response (IVR) help customers pick the right option and remove unneeded call transfers.

Your AHT may also include “short call outliers.” These are common questions with a short answer that customers call in to get a quick response. Consider adding things like business hours and how to pay invoices to your IVR.

The result? A more accurate AHT and a better customer experience.

5) Review what gets displayed on your wallboards

While the customer experience is crucial in any call center, the employee experience is paramount.

Disengaged employees pass on their negativity to customers — and average hold time can surge in just a matter of minutes. Pay attention to your call queues so the overall service level stays in check.

Make sure your scorecards and displays are beneficial for agents. In some cases, the added pressure of being an underperformer is a burden rather than encouragement.

Rather than displaying a league table based on talk time, try gamification to motivate employees.

Call Center and Contact Center Analytics - Nextiva

Related: 6 Call Center Campaigns Proven to Work [Inbound + Outbound]

Use AHT to improve the customer experience

All the above tools and techniques should form part of a comprehensive customer experience strategy. Prioritizing AHT improvement starts with a plan that's specific and measurable.

“There is a trend in customer experience where metrics like average handle time are becoming less important in isolation. There is now a trend toward using a more holistic approach when measuring CSAT. By using a combination of different metrics, like average handle time, a business can analyze its genuine CSAT. They can measure this with broader indicators like Net Promoter Score (NPS)—but AHT remains a key indicator as processes get revamped.”

Patrick Watson, Senior Analyst, Cavell Group

Rather than firefighting and trying quick fixes, contact centers must plan for the future. Otherwise, you’ll end up in the same position six months later and have to revisit the amount of time people spend on the phone.

When documenting your plan, include these five tools and techniques. But, also spend time assigning an owner and a delivery date.

Remember, a plan without benchmarks and dates is a plan doomed to fail.

Make sure you have the right communications platform that call center agents and supervisors enjoy.

When businesses adopt a cloud-based contact center, they exert more control over their calls and customer experience.

Related: What Is a Hosted Contact Center & How Does It Work?

About the author

Dominic Kent is a content marketer specializing in unified communications and contact centers. After 10 years of managing installations, he founded UC Marketing to bridge the gap between service providers and customers. He spends 50% of his time building content marketing programs and 50% writing on the beach with his dogs.