How to Improve the Torturous Experience of Waiting: The Science of Keeping Customers “On Hold”

By July 2, 2018 August 13th, 2018 No Comments

“Please hold for the next available customer service representative.” These could be, I would guess, among the most annoying words people will ever hear. Being ‘on hold’ when you have a query or complaint is never an ideal situation, as it combines our societal hatred of waiting with the fact that we’re already annoyed enough to have to get on the phone to lodge a complaint in the first place. In fact, according to some studies specifically investigating what annoys or irritates people the most, waiting on the phone ranks as one of the worst experiences possible for people.

What makes the annoyances of the current on hold experience even worse, however, is just how much time we spend doing it. Analysts estimate that on average people spend 13 hours on hold every year, meaning collectively here in Canada we spend tens of millions of hours per year simply waiting on the phone.

All that to say, the experience of being on hold is torturous for customers, but the unfortunate reality is that businesses need people to be willing to wait, leading to a recent investigative documentary by The Current’s Josh Bloch (Podcast), looking into the science behind convincing people to keep doing what they hate doing; finding the best–or least irritating– ways to keep people on hold.

In our fast food, instant gratification society perhaps it’s no wonder that the unilateral response to what makes us the most frustrated or irritable is, in fact, having to wait. But for businesses this creates a particularly difficult dilemma, as the only response to such a log jam of customer services queries is to either A) hire more employees to field calls quicker, or B) place callers on hold.

With businesses always concerned about the bottom line it is no wonder that option ‘A’ has been dismissed in favour of making customers endure the torture of waiting, but this has given rise to a unique industry of on hold music and messaging; an industry focused solely on making one of the worst experiences in the developed world more palatable for people.

If you’re wondering how to tackle this tricky issue of keeping people in hold, studies have found that there are a number of ways to keep customers on the line, with options ranging from music that helps people forget the passage of time, to relevant advertising that keeps people engaged and interested.

In an effort to diffuse Bloch’s findings into a few salient points, let me say this: The vast majority of people hate their on hold experience because they hate what they have to endure while they’re waiting. Silence, studies have found, is absolutely the worst, but this is followed closely by the stereotypical elevator music we most often hear. Those same studies found that the best condition for keeping people on the line is high involvement, having customers enter information and choose options as a way of keeping them engaged in the customer service process. Once customers lose that engagement, which often happens within the first few minutes, they’re more likely to hang up.

What studies also found that often works best is to find music that blurs the sense of the passage of time while conveying a sense of calm or even transcendence. As one musician who specifically creates on hold music explains, it should be ‘empty calorie’ music, something you consume but don’t think about too deeply, for if you do think about it too much, you’ll remember that you’re on hold.

According to Bloch’s investigation, one of the most effective musical styles for achieving this is the Gregorian Chant, the melodic music of monks of the Roman Catholic Church, as not only does to soothe the soul, it makes people less aware of how long they’ve been waiting.

But the core message of solving the on hold puzzle is for businesses to recognize who is actually waiting on the line–what are the customers goals and objectives, and how can the on hold experience be tailored to help achieve those goals? For some businesses it could be mesmerizing customers with the panacea of panpipe music or Gregorian chants, for others it could be luring them with advertising specials, while for others still it could be engaging them in an interactive process, and let’s not forget the tried and tested method of simply entertaining them.

Of course my recommendation is to answer calls as quickly as possible, but even so, waiting on hold is a necessary evil in the business world, but that doesn’t mean companies shouldn’t strive to make it the best experience it can possibly be.



Author Digitcom

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