ICMI is part of the Informa Tech Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them. Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.


How to Reduce AHT While Balancing Other KPIs

When running a contact center, it can be challenging to balance customer experience, employee engagement, data security and other pressing contact center metrics, all while handling calls and delivering a differentiated level of care. Contact center leaders often looks to key performance indicators (KPIs) such as average handling time (AHT), first contact resolution (FCR) and customer satisfaction scores to determine whether or not they are successfully establishing this balance. Can lower AHTs co-exist with higher customer satisfaction scores and reduced speed to answer to increase cost efficiency? This complicated question only gets more difficult when a contact center is tasked with taking payments over the phone.

Reduce call handle time

The belief that AHT is one of the single most important metrics emerged during an era when “brick and mortar” call centers dominated the industry and the phone was the only channel available. More recently, industry views on AHT have evolved and become more nuanced, with many experts realizing that it can be difficult to reduce AHT without sacrificing customer satisfaction. That’s because AHT comprises more than just total talk time plus total hold time. Numerous other factors impact AHT, as well as a customer’s perception of whether their call was handled sufficiently.  

One of the biggest, and often overlooked, challenges impacting both AHT and customer satisfaction occurs when customers make payments over the phone. If you require customers to read their payment card numbers out loud, you are almost certainly increasing AHT and reducing customer satisfaction as agents input card details, confirm and reconfirm numbers to ensure important payments don’t fail. Furthermore, you are putting their security at risk and making your contact center’s compliance with Payment Card Industry Data Security Standards (PCI DSS) more costly and complex.   

Asking customers to read their payment card details aloud often results in misspoken or misheard numbers, especially if the customer and the agent have varying accents, or if customers are travelling and on cell phones with typical coverage issues. Time is added to the call when agents need to repeat the card numbers back to the caller to make sure they’ve accurately captured the information, or when they have to correct a mis-keyed number. If errors result in the Payment Service Provider (PSP) rejecting a payment, the contact center might even face a financial penalty, along with the cost and experience challenges of informing a customer of a payment failure.

Fortunately, better alternatives to this all-too-common headache exist. New technologies that help streamline payment processes can reduce AHT while maintaining and improving other key metrics such as customer satisfaction, FCR, and data security and compliance. Today’s tech-savvy millennial customers actually prefer self-service processes – but only if the process works well and feels intuitive and low/no-effort. One technology that has not typically worked well is interactive voice response (IVR) systems. While IVR systems can automate processes and are secure, they can also cause significant frustration and drive down customer satisfaction metrics – particularly when it comes to taking payments. A mis-keyed number by a customer using an IVR system can be notoriously difficult to correct. Without an agent on the line to provide assistance, the customer is far more likely to end the call, thus driving down FCR metrics and causing the company to lose a sale… or worse, lose a customer completely.

The solution, instead, is to use technology to automate and secure just the payment transaction portion of the call, while keeping a live agent on the line who can continue to converse with the customer and assist them when needed. With this approach, the agent stays on the line while the customer enters payment card information using their phone’s touchtone keypad. By providing a single point of numerical entry, the opportunities for error are significantly reduced. The agent is no longer responsible for capturing the card information, so valuable time is not spent reading card details back to the caller. In fact, the agent can be free to carry out other wrap-up activities while the customer types in their card information, multi-tasking while improving the experience

Meanwhile, the technology can automatically perform BIN and Luhn checks, ensuring that the payment is processed only once, correctly and successfully. Equally important, the tones from the customer’s phone keypad are masked so the agent cannot hear the card numbers, and data is securely transmitted directly to the payment provider. This takes the contact center out of the scope of PCI DSS compliance, better protecting the customer’s data and saving the company significant time and money.

The benefits of this type of approach are many:

  • AHT is reduced because there are fewer errors and no need for customers or agents to repeat payment card numbers. Also, the agent is able to handle wrap-up tasks while the customer is entering card information via the keypad, always aware of where the customer is in the payment journey.
  • Customer satisfaction scores improve because customers enjoy the ease of self-service, yet a live agent is still on the line to assist them if needed.
  • FCR increases because unlike with automated IVR systems where customers may hang up when they mis-key a number, the agent is available to help if challenges arise.
  • There are fewer rejected payments and associated charges from PSPs.
  • Data security is strengthened and regulatory compliance is maintained because the card information is no longer exposed to the agent or the contact center’s technology infrastructure.
  • Employee Satisfaction scores (e-Sat) improve because agents are not subjected to strict rules of a “PCI Clean Room” environment that limits the availability of pen and paper, and other policies designed to prevent them from recording cardholder data. Agents are free to work under normal conditions in an environment that they can personalize.

Using such an approach, one large telecommunications company in North America was able to reduce AHT by as much as 26 seconds per call (an eight percent reduction) while maintaining all the other key metrics listed above.  

As contact centers continue to evolve, so will industry experts’ views on AHT. Using new technologies and an approach that blends automation with the use of live agents, contact center managers can reduce AHT while balancing important KPIs. The result is a more successful, secure call center and satisfied customers who come back time and time again.