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Here’s a Better Way to Coach Average Talk Time

brick backgroundCatch a front-line agent in a candid moment and ask: “What’s your least favorite metric?” Few will hesitate: talk time (or talk time’s sister, ACW). Ask why and you may hear something like this: “My job is to help the customer no matter how long it takes. I try to stay within the target but it’s not my first priority. To be honest, I don’t care about hitting some number."

Ouch. But, if we’re honest, these customer-focused agents have a point. Average talk time targets don't accommodate the wide range of call types and unique customers agents handle, and the complex web of skills required to handle each call efficiently and differently.

But many contact centers are reluctant to let go of talk time targets. Average talk time outliers point us toward opportunities to become more efficient and provide better customer experiences. Talk time trends may point to a lack of agent call handling efficiency. Keeping an eye on average talk time trends makes sure we’re respecting customers’ time and maintaining contact center staffing efficiency. We can’t be expected to just ignore that data. However, how you coach agent talk time is just as important as the number itself.

Let’s consider this common scenario: You have an employee whose handle time is beyond the 3.5 minute average talk time target. Here might be the all-too-common Talk Time coaching approach: “Joe, unfortunately, your average handle time this week is 5 minutes. That’s quite a bit longer than the 3.5 minute target. I really need you to get it closer to that 3.5 minute goal - otherwise, you won’t hit it for the month."

This approach, with its focus on a number above all else, is one that’s likely to spur agent resistance, and even defiance. Also, it assumes the agent knows how to reduce their talk time without damaging the customer experience. After all, the easiest way to reduce my talk time is to go faster and cut corners, without regard for the customer or quality.

You might be surprised to hear that the best way to hit your talk time target is to never mention talk time to agents at all, or at least move it quickly into the background in coaching conversations. Instead, consider using individual agent talk time data as a gauge to identify opportunities and analyze the data to answer what are the behaviors driving the longer (or shorter) than desired talk time.

The right coaching approach for an Agent who struggles with call control is different from the Agent who hasn’t mastered knowledge base navigation. Your pre-coaching data analysis should lead to a clear and concise description of what the Agent needs to do to improve their talk time.

Get Started on Talk Time Root Cause Analysis

If you use a “handle time” target, make sure it’s talk time that’s boosting the average hold time outside the acceptable range.

Listen to call recordings to figure out the root cause for talk time outliers. Skills the drive efficient talk time include:

  • Call control
  • Listening and avoiding misunderstandings.
  • Quickly diffusing anger and smoothing the way with empathy
  • Crafting clear explanations and gaining agreement
  • Product knowledge, knowledge base use, quick access to “the right answer”
  • System navigation

Conduct additional analysis to learn more. How consistent is the agent’s talk time? Are there certain call types, types of callers, or even times of day that drive longer or shorter calls? Do longer calls result in better or worse CSAT scores?

Armed with this analysis, the coach is prepared to have a productive coaching conversation that will help the agent become more efficient in handling calls. Here’s what that call efficiency coaching might sound like: "Jake, when you look at the handle time trends comparison report, can you see how your calls average about a minute and half longer than your peers? Talk time can be an indication of call handling efficiency, but it’s not the number itself that’s important. I listened to some calls, and I’d like to share with you what I learned. Calls where you felt comfortable with the subject matter - new enrollments, policy changes - were quick and efficient, but when customers had more complex policy questions, you were much more likely to put the caller on hold to check with a team lead, or even read a knowledge base article while the customer waited. I think if we can improve your product knowledge and confidence, this will also help make your calls more efficient - do you agree? Great! Let’s talk about your ideas to work on this…”

Some takeaways:

  • Direct coaching away from numbers and focus on call handling efficiency, observations, comparisons and trends. This is especially important if talk time is a scorecard metric. Help agents understand why it’s there and, most importantly, how to handle calls efficiently.
  • Educate all team members about why we focus on efficient call handling. It demonstrates respect for the caller’s time, increases scheduling efficiency and capacity, so we are more likely to meet our service level goals and achieve high levels of customer satisfaction. Make sure everyone in the contact center understands: We don’t want shorter calls; we want calls that are handled efficiently.
  • Make sure agents understand they shouldn’t be getting nervous at 3.5 minutes (or whatever your average is) and try to quickly end a call when they pass that magical threshold. It's important for team members to know the average target is not a call-by-call goal.
  • As a coach, the best way to hit your team’s talk time goal is to use talk time as a jumping off point for analysis and exploration, rather than a final destination.