Call Center AHT (Average Handle Time) – Wrong Measure, Wrong Solutions

I just finished reading Blake Landau’s blog (at  The blog is titled An “AHA!” Moment About AHT Average Handle Time and talks about how agents may “hang up” on customers to keep their handle time down to meet their target or quota.  I have seen such foolishness in almost every call center I have visited.

The Problem with AHT:

The problem here is deep, rooted in command and control thinking born from scientific management theory (F.W. Taylor).  Not only is this thinking old, but is displayed both in the podcast interview and comments on Ms. Landau’s blog.  This productivity mindset is over 100 years old and has run it’s course.  Better methods are at hand, but require a change of thinking from command and control to a systems thinking one.

The AHT target is the problem.  The AHT becomes the de facto purpose of the call center agent meaning their focus is on the target and not the customer.  The agent is left with a choice to either serve the customer or risk being paid attention to or not receiving some incentive for not achieving some arbitrary numerical goal (target).

Additionally, the target does not account for the variety of demand that an agent receives. I have seen on many occasions where the customer demand is a hard call (time consuming) and no agent wants those calls when they are under the gun of an arbitrary target.  Sometimes they hang up and some times they don’t give complete answers to customers leading to more failure demand (call backs, errors, follow-ups, escalations, etc.), this just increases call volume at great expense.

The Command and Control Solutions:

One comment to the blog suggests that having someone with greater than 15% AHT need to have the agent paid attention to.  The arbitrary 15% bothers me where does that number come from?  Why isn’t it 20% or 7% or some other number.  This person clearly does not understand variation (see Service Metrics: What You Need to Understand). 

Almost all the responses were from command and control thinking.  Items like more quality monitoring, scorecards, coaching, training, etc. that only add waste to a poorly designed system.  Most of these solutions focus on the individual (except scorecards) and the problem here is that 95% of performance comes from the system (work design, technology, management thinking, constraints, regulations, policies, procedures, scripts, etc.) and only %5 is attributable to the individual.  Scorecards are just doing the wrong thing, righter (see: Balanced Scorecard . . . MBO in Sheep’s Clothing).  These solutions have the displeasing odor of command and control thinking.

A Better Way: Systems ThinkingOne thing I have found is that command and control thinking doesn’t work very well.  Systems thinking (by nature) focuses on the customer.  Decisions are made outside-in and not top-down starting with understanding purpose from a customer perspective, deriving measures from this purpose and liberating method.  The focus becomes serving the customer rather than some arbitrary target.  With an understanding of customer demand, we can design systems against this demand.  In a management paradox, this improves service and cut costs by eliminating failure demand.  This is something that command and control (production) thinkers don’t understand . . . to them there is always a trade-of between costs and good service.

The better way eliminates the need for quality monitoring, scripts, mandates, procedures, targets and the like saving organizations from wasteful costs.  Other benefits are improved culture from putting the decision-making back with the work and allowing agents to think again instead of “dumbing them down” with costly technology and monitoring.  The real question is  . . . are you ready to change thinking to get the benefits?

Tripp Babbitt is a speaker, blogger and consultant to service industry (private and public).  His organization helps executives find a better way to make the work work.  Download free from “Understanding Your Organization as a System” and gain knowledge of systems thinking or contact us about our intervention services at [email protected].  Reach him on Twitter at

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