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One or more of these phrases might be familiar to you; many customer service supervisors use them as an attempt to lower your average handle time.
The average handle time is the mother of all metrics and is frequently used in contact centers to provide a service level baseline for customer communications. It is the metric that customer service agents are sometimes pressured to adhere to when there are calls, emails, or live chats waiting in the queue; the metric that could get you booted out of a prolonged wrap-up, or off an email that you’ve spent too much time responding to.
But there is one thing that management often leaves unclear: how do you manage your average handle time while still providing the superior service your customers and supervisors expect?
In this blog post, we will explore what exactly average handle time is, and how to go about reducing it without compromising the quality of your customer care.
Average handle time, commonly abbreviated as AHT, is a metric that is used by contact centers to measure how long it is taking representatives to resolve each call, live chat session, or email. The average handle time can be measured as follows:
Average handle time is a favorite metric amongst contact centers and is used as a leading key performance indicator (KPI) to measure agent abilities. However, it is not a perfect metric.
The average handle time metric does not differentiate between complex, involved cases, and simple ones. Another problem is that when you are measured by your speed rather than whether you are helping customers, it puts your interests in direct opposition to customers’ interests. Your priority becomes ending the call, rather than taking the time and care to make sure that you have provided the customer with the best solution to their issue.
If AHT is overemphasized, it can also lead to a de-emphasis of first contact resolution above all else, which can lead to frustrated customers and agents overwhelmed with repeat calls. The point to remember is this: A speedy resolution is great, but not if it isn’t actually a resolution at all.
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While the average handle time metric may have its problems, paying attention to your AHT does have its merits.
By paying attention to your average handle time, you can learn to differentiate between the quality and quantity of time spent with a customer. Making an effort to reduce your AHT also leads to greater efficiency, and can help you lower the number of calls, live chats, and emails in your queue, fast.
Reducing your average handle time can be easy, but it is also something that you have to do with care.
The answer to reducing your AHT isn’t to just do things faster—It’s to do things smarter.
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Here are some tips and best practices that you can follow to reduce your average handle time, without diminishing the quality of your customer service or killing yourself in the process:
When you are contacted by a customer, there are certain bits of information that you know you will need to proceed. This information might include the customer’s name, their account number, and/or the reason why they are calling.
You can save time by collecting a visitor’s information as early on as possible. This helps to ensure that the customer has been routed to the correct channel, and that you are the right person to provide them with the help that they seek. In some cases, you may be able to obtain that information through a pre-chat survey, an email questionnaire, or through the options that the customer dialed into their phone before they reached you. Other times, you might have to ask your customer for additional information.
Before you begin a process, it is also crucial that you collect the information that you will need for that specific process. For example, if a customer tells you that they need a statement to be posted to them, but halfway through processing the statement they tell you they’ve changed their address, you might need to run a different process to edit their address before beginning the statement. By having to start a process over due to a lack of information, you waste valuable time, and end up doing double the work. You can avoid this by using great questioning to anticipate problems later down the line, and by asking all queries upfront.
Another point to remember is to make sure that the information that you are gathering is relevant, and that you are listening to your customers’ responses; customers don’t like to waste time any more than you do, and will feel annoyed if they feel like you are going off track or if they have to give you the same information twice. If your computer system is malfunctioning, and has had a history of erasing a customer’s information mid-process, start jotting that information down on a sticky note so that you don’t have to collect the same information a second time should the system time out.
By collecting information at the right time, in the right way, you will save both yourself and your customer the hassle of having to do more work, while reducing your AHT.
Having to search for the correct information during a call can be a waste of time. That is why in order to reduce your average handle time, it is important to be in the loop and understand different elements of your company’s products and operations. This means being familiar with the following information:
Make sure to be aware of this and any other information that you see fit or find yourself referring to often. If you see a need to learn new information, learn it! You will be doing both yourself and your customer a favor, and will be able to reduce AHT through your efforts.
Although digging for the right information may take some time, it is always better than giving out the wrong information. If you are ever unsure of something, don’t be afraid to invest a little bit more time in figuring it out: remember, quality service always comes before speed! Just be sure to give your customer the most precise hold estimate you can while you look up the relevant information; customers typically don’t like to be put on hold without knowing for how long. Whether you ask them to hold for one minute or one moment, they will appreciate the guesstimate.
Using keyboard shortcuts can make a difference when it comes to the amount of time you are spending on live chat and email inquiries.
Live chat especially has a number of shortcut options available. By setting shortcut keys for frequently used operations, such as to access canned messages or to switch between chats, you can save time in the live chat console and reduce your average handle time.
With live chat gaining popularity among consumers, it is important to consider that the way in which you operate live chat means potential time-saving opportunities.
Customer service representatives often handle more than one live chat session at a time. The average customer service representative is often expected to handle at least two live chats simultaneously, and an experienced representative may be asked to handle upwards of three or four live chats at a time.
Your visitors don’t care about how many chats you are currently juggling – if you leave a customer waiting too long for a response, they could abandon the chat session and leave unsatisfied. This is why knowing how to effectively manage your average handle time for live chat is so important.
By improving your chat efficiency, you can save time and toggle more effectively between two or more chats. Here are some basic practices that you can adopt to improve your efficiency and lower your average handle time:
Love them or hate them, canned messages are great time-savers. A canned message, or a canned response, is basically any pre-set response to a customer inquiry that you can copy and paste into an email body or a live chat messaging platform. With canned messages, you can greet customers swiftly and save time by avoiding repetitive typing.
When using canned messages, be sure to revise each message according to your customer’s specific issue. This means making sure that you personalize your messages, refresh your repertoire periodically, and follow other canned message best practices.
Note that while using canned messages can save you plenty of time, you don’t want to cut corners when it comes to using them. Always look over your live chat or email messages before you send them, to double check that you are using your canned messages properly. Make sure that the canned messages that you send answer exactly what your customers are asking you, and that they address all parts of their questions. If a customer is forced to enter back in contact with you over something that was not addressed properly, then your canned message will have been misused.
While this might not hurt your AHT, your FCR will have been negatively impacted, which we want to avoid by all means necessary.
Cheat sheets are a great resource for any customer service representative. You can create cheat sheets for a number of things, including the following:
The goal of your call, email, or live chat session is to help the customer resolve their issue. Although you don’t have to do it at a running pace, it’s good to keep your contact with the customer focused and on track to speed things up.
Some customers may want to talk to you about things that are unrelated to their issue—like their weekend or their recent family events. This might happen if there is a moment of silence on the agent’s end, such as when the agent is waiting for the computer system to respond, or looking up relevant information.
If a customer gets off topic, respond in a polite, friendly way, and then gently nudge the topic back on track. When corresponding over the phone, it is very important to avoid interrupting customers or cutting customers off to try and get them off the phone faster. If you are unsure of how to keep the call on track without offending the customer, try something like the exchange mapped out below:
Agent: “Of course, sir, I understand. And how nice! Congratulations to your family!”
Customer: “It was a great party—we got my son’s band to play, and everyone just had a great time. My daughter—she looked beautiful. Do you have kids?”
Agent: “No, I don’t!”
Customer: “It’s a great experience. They grow up so darn fast.”
Agent: “Yeah, I may not have had the experience, but I believe it! Alright sir, so I see on your account that the payment was made on the 20th of February, is that correct?”
By giving one or two responses that show interest in what the customer is talking about, and then diverting the topic back to the issue at hand, the customer will leave feeling like he or she was listened to, and with his or her issue resolved in a timely manner.
Sometimes asking a customer a simple question might lead to a stream of irrelevant details that can actually slow down a resolution instead of helping achieve it. In order to avoid wasting time and reduce AHT, try asking your customers closed-ended questions.
A closed-ended question is a question that requires a yes or no answer. In situations when customers have a tendency to overelaborate, in can be beneficial to use closed-ended questions to guide them towards a more direct resolution. Closed-ended questions can also help customers who aren’t elaborating enough give you specific details that will help lead to a resolution.
When using focused questioning, it is important to know when to ask closed-ended questions versus open-ended questions. An open-ended question is the opposite of a closed-ended question, and it allows for a more elaborate, free-form answer. While closed-ended questioning can certainly save time, sometimes a customer might need to elaborate to help you better understand their issue. This is why it is important not to eliminate open-ended questions, but rather to know how to balance the two kinds of questioning.
Agent: “Hello, and thank you for contacting us! How may I be of service?”
Customer: “Hi, I bought a computer from you guys 3 months ago. It’s not turning on…”
Agent: “I’m sorry to hear that. Can you please tell me a little more about the problem?”
Customer: “Well…. charging light isn’t turning on. I don’t know, it’s just not turning on. I brought it to a party last night, and last turned it on around 11:00PM to play some music. It worked fine all night, and when I went home it was fine. Then this morning it just wouldn’t turn on.”
Example – Correctly Used Closed – Ended Questioning:
Agent: “Hello, and thank you for contacting us! How may I be of service?”
Customer: “Hi, I bought a computer from you guys 3 months ago. It’s not turning on…”
Agent: “I’m sorry to hear that. I’m going to ask you a few questions to try and diagnose the problem. Is it connected to the power source?”
Agent: “Is the green light on the charger on?”
Agent: “Is your computer making a humming sound, or any other indication that it is trying to start up?”
Both of these examples start out with an open-ended question: How can I be of service? The agent in the first example, however, asks an open-ended question where closed-ended questioning would have been more appropriate. As a result, the agent in the first example will have to wait for his customer to type back a lengthy and not particularly helpful response before continuing. The agent in the second example seizes the opportunity for using effective closed-ended questions, and will be able to troubleshoot her customer’s problem with greater focus and speed.
Making holds and transfers fast not always be in your power. For example, there are times when a customer might need to speak to a supervisor or a particular agent who is currently occupied.
But other times, you might need to put a customer on hold to look up information or check the status of an order. In this case, make sure that you are leaving the customer on hold for only the time that is necessary.
When transferring a customer, make sure to alert the person who you are transferring them to right away, to avoid prolonging the delay. Remember that for a customer who is waiting for a response, being on hold can feel much longer for them than it does for you. Before you put a customer on hold or make a transfer, ask them if they mind holding for X amount of minutes. That way, if the customer needs to rush to get back to work or go to an appointment, you can instead reschedule the call at a time that suits them.
Part of successful, quick transferring is knowing when to transfer customers. If you do not have the resources to solve a customer’s issue, make sure that you know to transfer the customer instead of dragging him or her along.
Rather than taking the time to write out a lengthy solution to a complicated issue, use screenshots and other resources to help guide the customer through the resolution of their problem and reduce AHT.
Screenshots, screen sharing, file transfers, and other file sharing methods can be used to help you reduce your average handle time, and solve your customer’s issue fast over live chat or email.
When using these resources, make sure to check that the screenshots or other materials that you have sent make sense and are clear to the customer. It is important to find the “sweet spot” between providing enough resources and not confusing your customer with too many resources.
At the end of your correspondence, there are a few wrap-up practices that you can use to reduce your average handle time.
By using keyboard shortcuts, you can further speed up the wrap-up process. You can also use your cheat sheet to copy and paste relevant wrap-up notes instead of typing them out.
Depending on the situation, you can also avoid prolonging wrap-up time by beginning wrap-up before hanging up on your email, live chat, or phone call. While this can be easier for a live chat or email, if you are on a phone call, make sure that you start wrap-up only while waiting for a transfer to take place or at the very end of your call as your customer is saying goodbye. If you wrap up early, it is important to do so at the right time so that you do not miss out on any vital information. Again, it’s about wrapping up smartly, not necessarily in a rush.
Nobody knows you better than you. How could you be spending your time more effectively? Are you hanging onto a live chat session that is over or a phone call that has already ended just so you don’t have to answer the next one? Did you get sent an email that is spam, but are letting it sit in your inbox for a few minutes anyway?
By reducing the time that you invest in things that don’t actually require your time, you won’t feel so pressured to speed it up when you do get a complex, time-involved issue.
Reducing your average handle time may come more easily to some than to others. The key is to be patient with yourself—as you learn to reduce your AHT in one area, you will open the door to reducing it in another.
While your contact center might forever push towards reducing average handle time, remember to always put quality, first contact resolution first. Then, reducing average handle time can make your customers’ experiences even more pleasant.
Want to see how your AHT compares to the benchmark? Check out our Live Chat Benchmark Report 2019 today to get the latest statistics!
For many live chat agents, it’s not enough to be well-versed in customer service techniques. To be a truly effective live chat operator, agents also need to pay close attention to optimizing their metrics – whether it’s average handle time, customer satisfaction, first contact resolution, or sales figures.Download now