In call center metrics, average handle time (AHT) is the typical duration of a call from start to finish, including hold time and after call work.
To calculate AHT, use the following formula:
Average Handle Time (AHT) = (Total Talk Time + Total Hold Time + After Call Work)
/ # of Calls
Why Is AHT Important?
Average handle time is important because the lower it is, the more calls your agents can handle in one shift. And the more calls your agents can handle, the more productivity and money your call center generates (theoretically). Additionally, customers generally want to spend the least amount of time possible on the phone with a call center.
However, place too much importance on AHT, and true productivity, customer satisfaction, and employee morale could suffer, which we’ll talk about below.
What Is a Good Average Handle Time?
A good average handle time depends on the industry and each individual call center. Broadly speaking, a “good AHT” is one that is the lowest possible while taking into account the importance of other metrics, such as first contact resolution and customer satisfaction. There’s no use in decreasing your AHT if it causes your FCR and customer satisfaction to decrease with it.
Average Handle Time by Industry—The Complicated Truth
If you’ve ever Googled “average handle time by industry,” you’ve probably seen the data circulating the internet attributed to Cornell University and its Global Call Center Report. However, when I looked into this report, I could not find the aforementioned AHT-by-industry data anywhere in it. So I cannot verify that it’s true. (However, the report does say that the average call handling time of all the worksites included, regardless of industry, was three minutes and 10 seconds.) On top of that, the Cornell report is from 2007—14 years ago! So even if it did contain the data we were looking for, it would be outdated.
Instead, I found two sources of data that might be useful for determining average handle time by industry.
First, data from Call Centre Helper based on inputs into its Erlang Calculator found that, according to over 190,000 entries, the average AHT across industries seems to be six minutes and three seconds.
Second, data from Talkdesk’s 2021 Global Contact Center KPI Benchmarking Report shows average talk time and average hold time by industry. It’s missing after-call work, but it gives you a starting point that can serve as a baseline for determining if your call center’s AHT is on par with industry standards. If AHT is the sum of talk time, hold time, and follow-up divided by number of calls, we know, then, that the AHT for each of the following industries must be higher than the average talk time plus the average hold time for each, which I’ve calculated for you below:
Average Talk Time + Average Hold Time by Industry
(Rounded to the Nearest Second)
*Data gleaned from Talkdesk’s 2021 Global Contact Center KPI Benchmarking Report
- Agriculture: 3 minutes, 33 seconds
- Consumer/Professional Services: 3 minutes, 36 seconds
- Financial Services & Insurance: 4 minutes, 5 seconds
- Government & Public Sector: 4 minutes, 12 seconds
- Healthcare: 3 minutes, 28 seconds
- Hospitality: 3 minutes, 11 seconds
- Manufacturing: 4 minutes, 13 seconds
- Media & Communications: 3 minutes, 30 seconds
- Mining, Oil & Gas: 6 minutes, 8 seconds
- Retail, Ecommerce & Consumer Goods: 3 minutes, 29 seconds
- Telecommunications: 2 minutes, 36 seconds
- Transportation & Logistics: 4 minutes, 8 seconds
- Others: 1 minute, 21 seconds
Positive Reasons for a Higher AHT
In general, call center managers do not want to see an above-industry-standard AHT or a rising AHT. But, there are cases where an increasing AHT is a good thing. For example:
✅1. Your agents are taking the time to listen to your customers’ needs.
An unwanted result of too much emphasis on AHT is that agents will rush their customers in order to get a good score on AHT. If your AHT is rising, it might be that your agents are taking the time to listen to your customers’ needs rather than rush them. If this is the case, then a rising AHT is a good thing.
✅2. You’re leveraging technology to resolve basic issues, so your agents are now handling only the more complex issues.
As you get better at leveraging AI and other technology to empower your customers to resolve their own issues, your AHT will naturally rise. The basic issues that customers can get answers to by visiting your knowledge base, for example, will no longer be taking up your agents’ workload. Instead, your agents will receive the more complex issues that cannot be handled via the knowledge base or a chatbot. These more complex issues naturally take more time to resolve, which ends up driving up your AHT. In cases like these, a higher AHT is not a bad thing but simply a result of a good thing: You’re getting better at answering customer questions so they don’t need to call you. And that’s a win-win!
Negative Reasons for a Higher AHT
Conversely, there are also times when a rising AHT is a bad thing. For example:
❌1. Your agents need more training.
Inexperienced agents will need to ask more questions, place more holds, look up more information, and transfer calls more often—all of which drive up AHT. Providing sufficient training is the fix here.
❌ 2. Your calls are being routed incorrectly.
Look closely at how often your agents are transferring calls. If it’s happening too often, you might have a call routing issue on your hands, which is why your AHT is increasing. Make sure that you get your customers to the right specialist the first time around, if possible, and make the most of IVR technology in your call center software for smart routing.
❌3. Scripts and processes are inefficient.
Review your scripts and your processes to spot inefficiencies. If the script wording is too rambling or confusing, for example, you can edit it to cut down on AHT.
9 Ways to Reduce Your Average Handle Time
1) Provide sufficient training
Giving agents proper training to be able to handle calls effectively is the number one way to reduce AHT. When an agent doesn’t understand the processes in place at the call center or doesn’t know the answers to the most common questions, AHT rises as the agent has to look up answers and ask questions of their supervisors.
According to a report from ASAPP called CX: The Human Factor, “In our in-depth interviews, agents expressed their frustration with lack of training and identified it as a key cause for poor performance, unhappy customers, burnout, and attrition.”
As one agent, James, told ASAPP: “I just feel like the companies that take the extra time to actually train you how to do your job, the people are typically happier. If you gave just a little bit more time teaching them how to do their job, you wouldn’t have to have them bothering you for help every five seconds.”
Further, in the same report, 77% of agents said that “hands-on training and shadowing is more effective than reading a manual.”
2) Shorten scripts
Scripting is a valuable tool that helps agents do their job more effectively. Review your scripts to ensure they’re as short and effective as possible. For instance, it may not be necessary to include a long, rambling greeting. A short, “Thanks for calling ______, how can I help you?” might do the trick.
3) Allow agents to veer off script
Although you may have optimized your scripts to the best of your ability, trust your agents to know when it’s okay to veer off script. Sticking strictly to the words they’re supposed to recite, when they know a better way to handle the call, can lead to redundancy and a longer AHT.
4) Create specialized teams
The more specialized you can make each team, the more you can optimize AHT. By having a team that is too broad, you turn agents into a catch-all generic resource that can’t dive deep into specific knowledge of one area. That means longer AHT because they’re constantly needing to look things up or ask questions.
Instead, specialize your team so each member can be an expert in their domain. This also helps you route the call to the most effective agent. For example, you might have one team that handles all calls that have to do with technical issues, while another team handles all calls related to billing.
5) Make the most of Interactive Voice Response (IVR) Software
Interactive Voice Response (IVR) allows you to reduce AHT by ensuring callers get connected to the most relevant department. While it may be irksome to some callers to have to listen to a menu and dial the right choice, it prevents them from getting an agent who doesn’t know the answer to their question, thus increasing the call time. Most contact center software companies include IVR in their offerings.
6) Minimize the need to look up customer information and history
When a customer calls your contact center, your agent should already have some basic information about the caller.
This can be accomplished in two ways:
- Contact center software that stores customer information and allows for easy look-up.
- Training agents to take good notes during a call. This has a two-fold purpose: It ensures that the agent doesn’t forget what the customer just told them and thus force the customer to repeat themselves. It also ensures that if the customer calls again, the next agent will have the relevant customer history based on the last call.
By minimizing time spent looking up customer info, you can reduce your AHT.
7) Take advantage of Artificial Intelligence
It’s helpful to invest in software that uses AI to optimize your call center performance. Some contact software options, such as Freshdesk, provide an AI-powered feature that offers real-time guidance to agents during a customer interaction. Based on the conversation, the AI bot will tell the agent what to say or do next. This can help cut down on AHT.
Another AI-powered software that every call center can benefit from is Krisp, a noise-cancelling app that TIME called one of the top 100 inventions of 2020. When agents can’t clearly hear your customers, or vice versa, AHT rises as the caller and agent must repeat themselves. The Krisp app works in real time, identifying and eliminating background noise so your agents and callers can communicate better.
8) Pay attention to Quality Assurance
The QA team is an invaluable resource when it comes to understanding what your AHT means and optimizing it. They review and analyze calls and have the metrics to give you more context around your quality of service.
If you want your AHT to be the best it can possibly be, have your QA team coach your agents based on the calls they’ve reviewed. Sitting down for one-on-one coaching is a great way to ensure your AHT is as low as possible while maintaining excellent customer service.
9) Tighten up ACW with templates and documentation
One aspect of AHT that you can usually tighten up is after call work (ACW). By creating a checklist and templates that agents can follow, you can make the follow-up as efficient as possible, thereby optimizing AHT.
A Final Caveat on Average Handle Time
While AHT is an essential part of measuring call center performance, it’s not the only way to do it. And placing too much emphasis on AHT, at the cost of all else, is no way to provide quality service. It also encourages call manipulation. In the ASAPP report, 78% of respondents believe agents “frequently” or “occasionally” manipulate calls to make their metrics look better. And 20% of agents don’t even think AHT is an accurate measure of success.
So go ahead and measure AHT, but be sure to look at other call center metrics to get a more accurate picture of how your call center is doing.