Get Those Buttons Right!

By Maggie Klenke, The Call Center School

As we all know, there are two essential pieces of information needed to calculate the workload in any call center forecast. These are the volume of contacts that are to be handled and the average time it takes to handle each. Great emphasis is generally placed on getting to the right number of contacts, but the average handle time (AHT) is just as important. This article is focused on that element of the forecasting process.

First of all, let’s define the components of AHT. Essentially, AHT is the total time it takes the agent to handle a customer contact, so it includes the time that the agent spent talking to the customer (if a phone call), plus any other time involved in the handling of the transaction. Most often, the other time is the post-call wrap-up or after-call work (ACW) time. Depending upon the type of ACD that your call center uses and the settings, this could be called “Not Ready,” “ACW,” or some other similar name on the button on the agent phone.

It is essential in obtaining accurate AHT that the ACW button only be used to track the time that the agent spends completing work on the call just disconnected. That means that the ACW and the talk time together make up all of the effort needed by the agent to complete the transaction. So when forecasting how many people are needed for a future period, it is clear that there must be enough to do both the talking and the after-call processing. And as the call volume fluctuates, the workload will fluctuate with it.

It is important NOT to capture time in the ACW state for processes that will not fluctuate with the call volume (such as breaks, projects, training, etc.). For example, if there are 20 more calls in this half-hour, the breaks will probably still be taken as planned, but the workload is higher. As the call volume drops, the center might decide to take some time for training, but this is not directly a result of the workload drop, but a separate decision. All of the time that agents need for other activities and tasks must be handled separately from the ACW so that the true workload can be separated from the shrinkage (time agents are paid for but aren’t available to handle calls).

Shrinkage is an adjustment that gets added to the process after the workload and service goals have been run through the calculations to determine “bodies in chairs” requirements (Erlang C or some variant). It is also somewhat adjustable, so that training might not be held on Mondays if that is your busy day, even though overall, training may account for three percent of your unavailable time in the year. ACW, on the other hand, must be accommodated every day and as the calls are received.

Let’s look at the implications of capturing inaccurate ACW time in the AHT and using it to forecast the staffing requirement in the following table.


Accurate AHT 135 30 165 13
10 seconds more 135 40 175 14
30 seconds more 135 60 195 15
30 seconds less 135 0 135 11

*Staffing required based on 100 calls in a half-hour and an 80% in 20 seconds answer.

As the table indicates, if the ACW is inflated, more staff will be scheduled than are needed. But the reverse is also true. If ACW is understated (due to pressure to “hide” time rather than tally it in ACW, or just incorrect button usage), the planned staff will be under what is needed to achieve the service goals.

In addition to the button used for ACW, some ACDs have one or more other buttons/features that an agent can use to account for their time. Some systems do not. So the training for agents on how to use their phones and when to activate certain features must be customized to your ACD and center. For example, some phones have “Not Ready” and this is used as ACW. So if the agents press this button to go to break or during a coaching session with the supervisor, this time will be added to the ACW in the forecasting process and skew the results. Agents may need to log out when they are doing these other tasks. Another phone system has an option for AUX that is a separate work state from the ACW. This allows this time to be captured separately and further categorized by dialed digits the agents add as they go into this work state each time. The other brands of switches may be like either of these or unique, but the important point is to know what your ACD is capable of and how it can be best used. Constant reminders to agents are also needed to ensure that they are using the buttons correctly so that an accurate forecast can be accomplished.

Check your AHT statistics that you are using in your forecasting process. Is it an accurate reflection of the true time needed per contact? If you aren’t sure, do some spot checking of agent behaviors and see if it is consistent with your training. Analyze the differences between ACW among your agents and look for outliers that may indicate improper button use. Pay attention to the variations in AHT that show up normally at different times of day or days of week and be sure to include this variation in your workload forecasts. This process should help ensure a more accurate staffing plan for your center.

Maggie Klenke is a co-founder of The Call Center School, a consulting and education company. You can reach her at