Average Handle Time

If you have ever done any operations analysis in a contact centre you will know all about average handle time, the average time it takes your agents to “handle” a customer call.

It is a key performance indicator (measure is a shorter way of putting that) designed to instil the fear of god into any call centre manager.

On the one hand you can’t ignore it, it costs money, a lot of money.  Ten seconds on every call in a 600 seat contact centre is, well, a lot of seconds.  And a lot of seconds amount to a lot of money.

On the other hand, you manage it at your peril.  The minute you try to incentivise agents to handle calls faster, to give them a target or a bonus, you end up with transferred calls, calls cut short, agents cherry picking jobs, people cheating on their telephony stats, complaints about rude service and best of all, a bunch of agents on performance improvement programmes.

It is a night mare, what are you supposed to do?

Well, in truth it is really quite simple.

The first thing to do is stop looking at the average call handle time of your centre as a whole, that way lies madness.  The trick is to look at the average handle time of individual agents.  If you do that you will start to see a pattern you can do something about.  Some agents will have low handle times all of the time.  The vast majority will be, well, average and some will have high handle times all of the time.

The question is then simply why?

For the agents who are the most “efficient”, the guys who turn customers around the fastest, listen to their calls.  What are they doing?

  • Are they super efficient?
  • Do they structure their calls properly?
  • Are they doing all the things they need to do?
  • Are they just giving customers short shrift?

Likewise for the agents who are always the longest

  • Are they just lazy?
  • Have they been taught how to deal with customer enquiries?
  • Are they being sent all of the difficult calls?
  • Are they following up to ensure that there is never a repeat call?

Unfortunately the only way to understand what is really going on in your service centre is to move away from your statistics and management information packs and to kill the incentives and targets.  It is to find out who is performing in what way and then go and listen, to find out why.  Then you can do something about it.

Of course this approach doesn’t just apply to call handle time.

  • Which of your staff consistently sells more?
  • Which of your staff always collects the biggest debts?
  • Which of your staff is invariably the fastest at repairing forklift trucks?

Look at the distribution, and then, before you impose a target, ask yourself why is that so?

You never know, you might just learn something.

Call Centre

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Image by Jamiefreaky


  1. James, you make a great point. The best way to understand what is going on is to go and see. Find someone who is having short calls and observe how they are handling calls. This will help the understanding of whether they are efficient and handling calls well or if they are short changing customers. You can do the same with people handling calls longer than the average time.

    I spent some time observing in a call center in the past and I learned a TON by just sitting and listening to the calls and then asking questions to clarify my understanding. It was amazing what I learned. Never underestimate the power of going and seeing.

  2. Hello James
    Cannot agree more: there is what is so and there is fiction masquerading as what is so. Theres is huge difference and not many people realise the implications. So your advice is sound – go see and experience for yourself what is so then act.


  3. James Lawther says:

    Thank you for your comments Gentlemen, glad you agree


  4. Hi James,
    I agree that we should be careful what we measure and that real insight is easily lost in averages. But, I am not sure about measuring call time at all as a metric. One of the heroes of a new way of providing customer service is Zappos and they eschew call time as a meaningless metric as all it does is try to homogenise a response. They have found that counter-productive given the breadth in styles and personalities of people they employ. Rather, the metric that they concentrate on is repeat purchase. More of a real business metric?

    What do you think?


    • James Lawther says:

      Interesting point Adrian,

      I have never worked for Zappos, so I can’t say for certain, but I think it is an urban myth to say they “eschew call time as a meaningless metric”. It’s simply not possible to work out the capacity of a call centre without it. And if you can’t work out the capacity you either don’t have enough staff to handle the calls or you carry a massive cost overhead.

      I think the real question should be “how do the manage call time?”

      There is an interesting Harvard Business Review article here http://www.tmi.dk/files/pdf/HBR_-_Zappo.pdf where Tony Hsieh talks about it. He says:

      “most call centers measure their employees’ performance on the basis of what’s known in the industry as average handle time, …. This translates into reps’ worrying about how quickly they can get a customer off the phone—which in our eyes is not delivering great customer service….At Zappos we don’t hold reps accountable for call times”

      I believe that Zappos obsess about the system that creates the length of the call (or the unnecessary call in the first place), they just have the sense to look at what is happening and work on the system, rather than targeting the agent

      But then, as I have said, I have never worked there


  5. Jason Morris says:

    In my opinion, stats are useful, but in a traditional non-sales customer service environment where you are troubleshooting problems and giving out information, if stats are what you focus primarily on, you can run blind to things that are way more important.

    It’s far more important to address the reasons why you need Customer Service reps, and so many reps, and address those system and process issues that are driving the traffic, and taking so long to process the traffic, first.

    To quote myself, it all reminds me of a line from ‘The Voyage of The Dawn Treader,”, one of C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia books; “One day the cat got into the dairy and twenty of them were at work moving all the milk out; no one thought of moving the cat.”

    For the Jeff Bezos perspective, see http://www.shmula.com/what-is-good-customer-service/9506/

  6. James Lawther says:

    Thanks very much for the Jeff Bezos link, a very worthwhile point.

    But I like the cat quote better.


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