How the Average Handle Time Should Be Measured to Increase the Efficiency of Service Desk Operations

The Average Handle Time (AHT) metric is the subject for this week’s installment of our ongoing series, Metric Monday, which defines and explores service desk metrics.

At first glance you might expect that reducing AHT can lead to reduced service desk costs. After all, if the time needed to resolve a call decreases, you may be able to operate with fewer service desk agents in the long term. While that may be true, setting a goal to reduce AHT and then imposing those new goals on your agents will probably encourage them to rush through their calls, often failing to fully resolve the customer’s problem. So how does one improve AHT without threatening the quality of service rendered to customers?

What Is the Average Handle Time (AHT) Definition

This metric measures the average time a service desk agent spends in resolving a customer incident. That includes the time speaking (or chatting online) with the customer, any time spent on hold after the call has begun, the time spent wrapping up the call and any after-call work required to fully resolve the incident. After-call work might include updating the ticketing or CRM system, for instance.

For contacts that come in via email, fax or voicemail, AHT is the time an agent works to resolve the incident or, if it cannot be resolved at the first level, the time until the agent escalates the incident to a higher level.

What Is the Average Handle Time (AHT) Formula?

In any case, the AHT is the sum of these times, divided by the number of calls handled.



Not all service desk managers include On-Hold Time in this metric, which is a mistake. Not including the On-Hold Time can understate AHT.

For example, if On-Hold Time is not counted, agents can “take a break” or refill their coffee cups after placing the caller on hold. From the caller’s point of view, that On-Hold Time is definitely part of the investment the caller is making to resolve the incident. Not counting On-Hold Time is a disservice to the customer.

Further, when agents know their On-Hold Time is not counted in AHT, they can take steps to keep their AHT short by placing callers on hold while they, for example, log into a knowledge base to search for answers; or, when the agent seeks help from another agent or resource person. Placing callers on hold while the agent searches for answers artificially lowers his or her true handling time.

Where agents have been suitably trained to handle the calls they receive, Average Handling Time reflects the complexity of incidents the service desk handles. An agent resolving a complex SAP or Oracle issue, for instance, is likely to have longer average handle times than an agent answering basic questions about Microsoft Office or resolving a password update.

Average Handling Time can have a profound effect on the customer experience if management focuses too strongly on AHT. Agents, feeling under pressure to resolve every call as quickly as possible, may rush to complete each call or unnecessarily escalate it to the second tier of agents. In either case, agents do not resolve incidents to the satisfaction of the caller, which can impact customer satisfaction.

This leads to the question posed earlier: How does one improve AHT without threatening the quality of service rendered to customers?

The Impact of a Poor AHT Score

First, let’s recognize that improving AHT may not be the same as reducing AHT. It’s clear that very long AHTs require more agents to handle a given call volume. Likewise, very short AHTs may signal that agents are rushing callers off the phone.

Therefore, rather than trying to define “the impact of poor AHT,” let’s recognize that AHT and customer satisfaction are related. Your customer satisfaction metric—whether you use CSATNet Promoter Score (NPS)Customer Ease of Service (CES) or another means—does provide a meaningful measure of the success of your service desk. In the big picture, that’s where management’s focus should be.

An effective way to improve AHT is to let your service agents know that their individual AHTs are not measures of successful operation, but that customer satisfaction is. Putting the focus on customer satisfaction is what service desks strive to continually improve; it’s fundamental to their operation. As John Custy, Services Management Education, Consulting and Training at JPC Group, noted:

“The service desk is the front door to the organization. One CIO I work with calls the service desk the ‘tip of the spear’. It is how the customer feels that they were treated that is most important.”

“Measuring parts of the greater team can be helpful for local management and tweaking elements – but the key measure is overall success,” said Ivor Macfarlane, ITSM Training and Consultancy at MacfPartners.

This is not to say that agents with outlier AHTs shouldn’t be monitored and mentored. For instance, agents that fall at the far low end of the AHT scale may be giving callers sub-par service. Those at the far high end may need additional training. Place your attention on the outliers and let your agents think “customer satisfaction” during each call rather than worrying about keeping their AHT metrics in the “good” range.

How to Monitor AHT

As a service desk manager, you can monitor AHT by extracting data from your ACD, ticketing and related systems for individual agents and the aggregate for the service desk. Using software that imports data from your existing software systems into a single, comprehensive dashboard gives you a real-time understanding of how AHT and your customer satisfaction metrics relate to one another. Additionally, reports on service agent and service desk overall performance can be generated on a routine basis, standardized across multiple support centers and be made available between multiple levels of management.

A service desk monitoring tool such as ServeOptics allows for proactive monitoring for effectiveness and efficiency of service support operations when managers can make confident business decisions based on real-time data and trending. By connecting to multiple existing systems (ACD, ITSM ticketing, etc.) and centrally monitoring all your support centers and staff with prescriptive dashboards, you can make proactive decisions to minimize risk and maximize your budget. The customer experience will continually improve by monitoring your resources and the impact they’re making.

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