A couple of years back, Average Handle Time (AHT) was considered the most important call center metric of them all. That has all changed now. Empowered customers expect an agent to give them a tailored customer service experience that makes a human connection. In addition, with the increasing use of self-service portals such as FAQs and forums, customers are able to solve all the simple problems themselves.
This means that agents get the complex, difficult issues – as the customer has most likely already tried to find a solution and failed.
Customers who have spent an hour – or several – searching for an answer are also apt to be feeling frustrated when they call. The agent needs to calm them down, tactfully find out the problem, and fix it, ideally on the first call.
AHT does have its place in the customer contact center. It helps to determine the right levels of staffing, especially when expecting spikes in call volume. Controlling average handling times also ensures that customers don’t have to wait too long in the queue.
It is possible to maintain an efficient AHT while providing good customer service, without feeling rushed and stressed. It takes a bit of juggling, but with practice, an agent can keep all three balls in the air with ease.
Provide answers a click away
If there's anything agents are unclear about, they should be able to have a supervisor or trained agent on hand. Being a modern customer service agent is a process of continuous learning. Coaching and training should be a regular thing from onboarding onwards.
To promote the best AHT times, agents should have a thorough knowledge of the following:
- Customer relationship management system
- Software (chat, helpdesk, and any other programs you need)
- Hardware (computers, headsets, etc.)
- Business tools
- Company procedures, including return and refund policies, shipping times, current promotions and so on
- Product information
The entire customer service team should share information, tips, and tactics. You can brainstorm a list of common questions and create an open forum for agents, to save them time and avoid having to resolve the same issues over and over again.
Create a cheat sheet
Once you have a list of great answers, questions, greetings and other helpful information, create a cheat sheet. Share it with your customer service so they can take it and make it their own, which they can later copy and paste into their customer interactions. These ‘cheats’ shouldn't sound canned and robotic, even though they were prepared beforehand.
Give customer service agents the freedom to make the necessary changes so that the answer clearly addresses the customer's specific issue without sounding canned.
Give live chat and email customer service staff a list of keyboard shortcuts so they can save even more time. It might seem complicated at first, but shortcuts will be second nature in no time!
Live chat and email tickets were made for multitasking. With practice, a good customer service agent can keep three or four going at once.
Your CRM can help with this if it orders your tickets depending on the last time you interacted with them. The customer who has been waiting for the longest time should be at the top of the queue to prevent them from getting frustrated and hanging up.
Having to make multiple calls to resolve an issue is one of the biggest reasons for customer churn.
Always ask the customer's permission to put them on hold. An agent should inform them of what they're doing and how long it will take. Something along the lines of, “Is it OK if I put you on hold for five minutes while I look for the solution to your problem?” is a good start.
Agents can also complete wrap-up tasks at the end of the interaction as they say goodbye, or while they're waiting for the customer to type their replies.
Maintain complete customer logs
Up-to-date customer profiles are a necessity in modern customer service. Customers have always hated to repeat themselves, and with the advent of the computerized call center, they now see no reason why they should. They will expect the agent who replies to their ticket to be up on their case. All customer interactions should be recorded to the CRM, regardless of which agent dealt with the inquiry.
Establish control of the call from the beginning
When a customer calls, they are usually looking for guidance and direction. From the first, the agent should direct the call for maximum efficiency. Of course, some customers will be annoyed or frustrated and will need to get their feelings off their chest before they can proceed.
Agents should hear them out, apologize for their difficulties, and take ownership of the issue.
Never interrupt a customer when they are speaking. Instead, have agents ask open and closed questions at the right times. Open questions give the customer the opportunity to vent and feel heard, but they can sometimes wander off-track from the purpose of the call.
A closed question can be answered with ‘yes’ or ‘no’. For instance, “Is your phone currently connected to a power source?” and “Is the green charging light on?” are both closed questions that would elicit more useful information than “What’s wrong with your phone?” That question might very well leave the customer thinking, “I don't know what's wrong with my phone! That's why I'm calling you!”
It's important for customer service agents to try to put themselves in the customer's shoes and find out what their ultimate goal is.
For instance, a customer calling an airline about a late flight might have an appointment the next day. The issue isn't so much the flight, but the missed appointment. They might be perfectly happy to drive to another city close by and take another flight from there. Knowing what the real problem is from the customer's point of view makes the issue easier and faster to solve. In this case, the customer's point of view is the only one that matters.
With some practice (and a good cheat sheet) an agent can keep their AHT down while still delivering topnotch customer service. As the saying goes, “Work smarter, not harder.”
How do you keep AHT down while still providing quality customer service?