Average Handle Time, or AHT, is one of the most important Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) in a contact center. It gives an idea of how long agents typically spend on a call with a customer.

Learn more about AHT — including what a good Average Handle Time looks like — and why it matters for your contact center.

Defining AHT

Jesse Martin, content marketing associate for customer service platform Zendesk, defines AHT as measuring “the average length of contact for a customer on a call." Martin claimed it can be an effective metric for establishing benchmarks or new customer service goals.

Data shows that 66% of customers (registration required for report) still resolve their queries using the telephone. Therefore, keeping handling times low can greatly increase customer satisfaction.

Average Handle Time doesn't just count the time agents spend talking to customers. It factors in: 

  • Total talk time
  • Time spent on hold
  • Total numbers of calls handled

AHT can be useful for identifying which agents are most efficient. It can also determine which departments spend the longest amount of time on calls, which can in turn find routing issues.

Martin noted that AHT allows the comparison between telephone support and other channels. "A company that takes an omnichannel approach to their customer service can use AHT to compare their phone support AHT with other channels, like the duration of live chats."

Related Article: 4 Reasons Why the Call Center Should Be Omnichannel

What Is a Good Average Handle Time?

Every contact center, and sometimes each department within that center, will have its own AHT targets. 

For instance, a person paying a bill will stay on the phone for less time than someone with a complex computer issue. As such, it would be impractical to ask that the payments and IT departments hit the same metrics.

Instead, organizations should calculate custom AHT targets with an emphasis on customer experience. While shorter call times are typically better, managers should be wary of stressing speed over quality. 

According to Call Center Helper, the industry’s standard AHT is 6 minutes and 3 seconds. As mentioned above, this number can fluctuate based on the department contacted. It can also change between industries. 

A report from Cornell University shows that AHTs of 282 seconds are common in business and IT focused-centers, but in telecommunications, AHTs can reach up to 528 seconds.

Because of these fluctuations, companies shouldn’t use AHT as a standalone metric, but instead, use it alongside the Customer Satisfaction Score (CSAT). Customers abandoning calls or giving poor CSATs could be a sign that the AHT is too high. 

If, however, the First Call Resolution (FCR) and CSAT ratings are both good, a slightly higher than average AHT is nothing to cause alarm. 

How to Improve Average Handle Time

Microsoft's Global State of Customer Service Report (registration required for report) notes the importance of a good customer experience. Customer expectations are high, with 55% expecting an improved experience year-over-year. 

Today’s consumers are also unwilling to accept poor customer service, with two-thirds stating they will sever a relationship with a business due to it. 

High AHTs — especially in conjunction with other unsatisfactory metrics — could be a sign of many issues, including poorly trained agents or less than optimal call routing. 

Centers that need to reduce call handling times and improve customer experience can: 

  • Reevaluate and improve agent training
  • Record calls and monitor agent performance
  • Optimize call routing to reduce long holds and call forwarding
  • Build a comprehensive knowledge base that allows quick access to information 
  • Streamline processes to reduce redundancies and improve workflow

Related Article: How Customer Data Platforms Can Benefit the Call Center

Learning Opportunities

Other Important Metrics to Consider

AHT is just one of several call center metrics. Other data you should analyze includes: 

Average Idle Time

Anwesha Roy of CX Today explained, “You can define idle time as the interval between the moment when an agent completes post-call activities for one interaction and the moment when they start the next interaction.” 

If agents spend a lot of time between interactions entering call data, improving tools or processes to streamline the workflow could allow employees to answer more calls and boost other KPIs.

Average Time to Answer

Average Time to Answer is the length of time it takes for an inbound call to reach an agent. This metric is partly included in the AHT metric. If a company reduces this metric through improved routing and queuing, it will increase the number of available agents and, in turn, reduce AHT.

Lori Mankin, integrated marketing manager at Lifesize, said, “The industry-standard service level is 80/30, answering 80% of customer calls within 30 seconds.”

Average Abandonment Rate

The Average Abandonment Rate is the number of callers who hang up or get disconnected before speaking to an agent. All companies should have a low abandonment rate goal and a plan for how to improve this metric. 

Customers want resolution at first contact, and they’re willing to turn elsewhere if they can’t get it. For this reason, contact managers must balance these numbers via efficient call routing. 

Transfer Rate

The transfer rate calculates how many calls an agent puts through to another department. The more transfers it takes to resolve an issue, the unhappier a customer will be. 

Andrei Costea of Performance Magazine, published by The KPI Institute, says there are several reasons to keep an eye on this metric. “Tracking the call transfer rates helps fine-tune the routing and call handling strategies. It can also help identify any gaps in the level of staff call handling performance.” 

AHT Should Not Be Considered in a Vacuum

Contact centers are dynamic environments, and balancing the desire to handle calls quickly with the need for efficiency and good customer service isn't always easy. It’s important to remember that while AHT is a key metric, it’s part of a larger, more complex system.

According to the North American Quitline Consortium (NAQC), “Workforce management — the art and science of getting the ‘just right’ number of staff in place to respond to customer contacts, meet service goals and minimize costs — is one of the most critical functions in the call center.” 

While managers must look at KPIs like the ones above, NAQC said expectations need to be “defined at a behavioral level for employees to fully understand what is expected, and to measure their performance fairly and objectively.” 

By providing employees with the tools and training needed to do a good job, all key metrics, including AHT, can improve.