Average Handle Time: 5 Strategies to Reduce It

Written by: Josh Brown

Last updated: May 26 2022

Reduce average handle time to minimize angry customers

Let’s be real:

Neither your customers nor your employees want to spend more time than they have to on service calls.

Yes, it’s important to spend an appropriate amount of time on each service call your team receives. But you also want to be sure that your customer service team is handling these calls as effectively and as efficiently as possible.

This is where Average Handle Time comes in.

What is Average Handle Time?

Average handle time refers to the average amount of time it takes to complete a customer service instance from beginning to end.

The “handle time clock” starts once a service ticket has been submitted — and stops only once all related processes and tasks have been completed.

This includes:

  • Ticket submission
  • Customer intake
  • Hold times
  • Transfers and escalations
  • Service provision
  • Wrap-up
  • Internal admin tasks

Note that the clock starts running before your first direct engagement with the customer — and continues to run after your last engagement with them. In other words, AHT isn’t just about the hands-on moments of a customer service instance, but rather the entire instance from start to finish.

How Do You Calculate Average Handle Time?

The formula for calculating average handle time is:

[(Total Talk or Service Time) + (Total Hold Time) + (Total Admin Time)] / (Total Number of Tickets)] x 100

It’s important to define the above events (i.e., customer intake, hold times, etc.) in terms of your organization’s customer service policies.

For example, say a company offers live customer service from 9a-5p EST. If they receive a support ticket at 4:59 one evening and complete it the next morning, the overnight hours wouldn’t factor into the equation.

(For teams offering 24/7 live support, there’s no such stoppage time to account for — the AHT clock will always run continuously from start to finish.)

Why Should You Track and Minimize Your AHT?

As we said at the start, keeping customer service instances short and sweet is usually the goal for both involved parties.

(Note that we said “usually”. More on this in a moment.)

To this end, tracking your average handle time is the first step toward minimizing it.

Now, let’s unpack what minimizing your AHT will actually do for your customers, and for your team.

Customer-Facing Benefits

Improving your AHT will immediately benefit your customers.

Firstly, it will lead to a decrease in hold times and other points of friction throughout the customer service experience. As we’ll discuss, eliminating these bottlenecks will be a main focus for your team moving forward — which will mean much less frustration for your customers.

A lower AHT again means your customers will be spending less time and effort solving problems that hold them back from being productive. In turn, they’ll have more time and energy available to invest into more fruitful ventures with your products.

Putting this all together, improving your AHT essentially ensures that even the not-so-ideal moments your customers have with your brand are as painless and productive as possible.

Internal Benefits

To be sure, your customer service team (and your business as a whole) will also benefit from a decrease in average handle time.

For one, removing bottlenecks will make your service team more productive on the whole. In turn, they’ll continually be able to handle more and more calls in less and less amount of time.

What’s more, your service team will have more time and energy “left over” that can then be reinvested into more impactful initiatives. From spending more time with those facing more advanced problems to making continuous improvements to your customer service processes as a whole, improving AHT gives you the leeway needed to make these changes happen.

Pitfalls to Avoid When Tracking AHT

Before we discuss best practices for improving AHT, we need to talk about the potential pitfalls that can derail your efforts altogether.

Don’t Just Look at the Average

Knowing your average handle time gives you a general idea of how long it takes your team to process a typical service call.

Putting it like that, it all sounds pretty vague, no?

Say you have the following data set:

  • Call 1: 3 minutes
  • Call 2: 2 minutes
  • Call 3: 15 minutes
  • Call 4: 4 minutes
  • Call 5: 1 minute

Here, your AHT would be five minutes, even though four of the five calls took less time to complete. In such cases, the average doesn’t exactly tell you all that much — and can actually be misleading if just taken at face value.

The solution is to go back to your grade school days, thinking also of the median and mode of your data set.

(Source / Woo, math class!)

These numbers will provide the context needed to fully understand what your current AHT is actually telling you. You’ll also be able to identify anomalies — which can potentially lead to further exploration and eventual improvements to your processes.

Lower Doesn’t Necessarily Mean Better

Speaking of taking a closer look, you should never assume that lowering your AHT is the best course of action.

(Similarly, you don’t want to assume that all longer-than-average service calls are bad for business — and that all short calls ended on a positive note.)

You do want your AHT to steadily decrease over time — and a steady increase here would definitely be cause for concern. But, when analyzing specific service instances, handle time should only be one part of the picture.

You’ll need to consider:

  • The complexity of the issue faced
  • The number of team members needed
  • The value delivered throughout the experience

The goal is to know whether a specific call should have taken as long as it did — and if the value of the engagement was worth the time that it took. Again, you simply can’t know all this if you just take AHT at face value.

Best Practices for Managing Average Handle Time

Let’s now look into the key things you can do to optimize your approach to average handle time.

To reiterate, there’s more to this than just decreasing AHT. 

Really, it’s knowing what your AHT is telling you about your team’s ability to serve your customer — and improving your processes to do even better in the future.

Here’s what you need to do.

Lean on Your Knowledge Base

Making use of knowledge base software is crucial to improving your average handle time — and your customer service efforts, overall.

Your internal customer base, for one, is the place your service reps will rely on for technical information and such when serving the customer. With this Single Source of Truth in place, you can also be sure that your service reps always provide accurate and consistent guidance to those in need.

Your customer-facing knowledge base can help improve your average handle time, too. 

(In some cases, it can eliminate the need for hands-on assistance in the first place. Check out our post on creating a self-service portal for more.)

Even when a customer does require help from a service rep, your external knowledge base can again act as a Single Source of Truth for both parties to refer back to. Both parties can literally stay on the same page, even when engaging remotely — making for less downtime and more productive efforts on both sides of the equation.

Going beyond AHT for a moment, you can provide additional resources to your customers via your external KB in certain circumstances. For example, after helping them solve a simple, surface-level issue, you could point a customer toward further info in your knowledge base that will help your customer get better acquainted with your product or service.

All customer service exchanges rely on information — period. If you’re looking to decrease AHT, then, your first step should be to make this information as comprehensive and accessible as possible.

Segment and Contextualize Your Handle Time Data

This goes along with everything we discussed in the section on the pitfalls of AHT.

Sure, knowing your overall average handle time is important.

But it doesn’t provide much context.

To get a more complete understanding of what your AHT is telling you, you’ll first need some additional performance data, such as:

  • Average talk time
  • Average time to answer
  • Average wait time

You then need to organize and analyze this data in a number of different ways.

For starters, you can organize your AHT data based on specific time ranges. This will narrow the focus of all future efforts in this regard — and simply makes the data more manageable in each instance.

Some other ways to filter your service-related data:

  • By service area
  • By service complexity
  • By service rep
  • By customer value

From there, you can stack filters and assess your data from multiple perspectives to further contextualize and make sense of the info you’ve collected.

Prioritize the Right Aspects of Your Customer Service

Before you go making changes to your customer service processes in the name of decreasing AHT, it’s important to:

  1. Pinpoint the specific root cause(s) of increases to your AHT
  2. Prioritize your efforts for addressing these root causes over time

Basically, you want to know that your efforts to improve will actually impact your customers’ experiences. You’ll also need to nail down the business case for the improvements to be made.

Now, it’s up to you how to invest your efforts here. Depending on the circumstances, you might need to…

  • Amend your current workflows to remove bottlenecks
  • Create performance reviews for your customer service reps as well as give appropriate feedback
  • Provide additional training to your customer service reps
  • Add new members to your team to handle increased workloads

…and the list goes on.

Truth be told, you’ll likely need to make each of these changes (and more) to some degree.

The point, though, is to prioritize the changes to be made based on a holistic understanding of the situation..

For example, you might focus on making quick tweaks to your workflows before investing too heavily into additional employee training. But, you’d then need to make adjustments to your employee onboarding experience to reflect the changes made to your workflows.

(Conversely, you may determine that additional team training is needed before you introduce new workflows to prevent a true customer service catastrophe.)

Instead of looking for a “textbook” way to improve your AHT, focus on what will enable you to deliver more value to your customers with every engagement.

Automate Everything You Can

Okay, I know we just said there’s no single, failproof way to improve your AHT.

But the reality is, injecting automation into your customer service processes is pretty much a surefire way to make it happen.

(As long as your customer service efforts are otherwise up to snuff, that is.)

You’ll essentially want to use customer service automation wherever hands-on assistance isn’t necessary.

This includes:

  • Customer Intake: Chatbots can be used to collect info and deliver it to your helpdesk ticketing system.
  • Acknowledgments: Automated messages keep customers updated on progress throughout the service initiative.
  • Service Provision: Templates and macros allow service reps to quickly handle common issues — and get a head start on more complex problems.
  • Follow-Ups: Automated emails and other messages sent once services have been rendered. Potentially, more info can be collected from customers via these means, too.
  • Administrative Tasks: All known information is automatically injected into reports and other forms as needed.

Whether completing menial tasks entirely, or simply helping your service reps be more productive, automation technology is vital to decreasing average handle time — and, more importantly, doing so without sacrificing quality in the eyes of the customer.

Revisit and Improve Your Organizational Knowledge

We said earlier that both your internal and external knowledge bases are critical to your customer service efforts.

In looking to directly improve average handle times, you might:

  • Improve the quality of your knowledge base content
  • Make your knowledge base content more accessible
  • Create additional multimedia resources for applicable KB content

You also need to amend your internal knowledge base content to reflect changes in workflows and the evolution of organizational knowledge.

Your efforts to improve your average handle time (and your customer service efforts as a whole) will only stick with constant exposure and reinforcement. With an ever-evolving Single Source of Truth in place, your team will have the resources needed to deliver top-notch service to your customers — and the direction needed to do it as efficiently as possible.

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