The Checkout

Hang Tight for Better Phone Holds

The next time you're on interminable phone hold, consider this: If you're hearing music--and you like the tune--the wait probably won't seem so bad.

That's what two Georgia professors discovered in an experiment they conducted at a private company's call center where customers seek technical help. The results, just published in an article in "The Journal of Service Research," show that customers' satisfaction increased if they liked the music they heard while on hold. The music made the wait seem to go faster.

Naveen Donthu, a Georgia State marketing professor, and Anita Whiting of Clayton State College say an important piece of customer satisfaction is the perception of how long a customer thinks a wait is, whether it's in line at a store or on hold on the phone. They pointed to several earlier studies that showed the longer customers believe they waited, the more negatively those customers evaluated a company's service.

Donthu and Whiting set out to study how to improve that wait--or more accurately the perception of the wait--while on phone hold. In their experiment, half the customers heard music; the other half heard nothing. Each of these groups was further divided into four more categories. One group was given no information about how long the wait would be before reaching a help-desk agent; another was told how many minutes it would take. A third group was told how many people were waiting ahead of them while the fourth was given both the time it would take and the number of people in the queue. After transactions were finished, the customers were surveyed in e-mails about their wait-time experiences.

The experiment found no difference in perceived waiting times between those who were told how long the wait would be or their number in the queue--or both--and those who did not. However, the study did find that people who liked the music they heard while waiting thought they had a smaller wait time. Some of the respondents said they liked to hear the music because they knew they were still connected to the company; no music made them wonder if they were still on hold.

So what does this mean? The professors say companies should try and play music that fits their target audiences. And firms should try to change the songs because customers get tired of listening to same, old music every time they call in.

"If possible give them a choice," said Donthu in a phone interview. Let customers press 1, for jazz, 2 for rock, etc. I told him I thought that was a horrible idea. "That's one more button to push!"

But Donthu said, "based on our studies, if you give consumers a choice, it will work." However, he added, one of those choices should also be silence. He also said some companies are offering music choices now. Do you know of any? If so, post them here.

In their paper, the professors also disclosed a wonderful research nugget that helps explain a question I'm sure you've probably never even asked: "Why do hotel lobbies have mirrors all around their elevators?" Well, it seems that one hotel, after being inundated with complaints about excessive waits for the elevator, decided to reduce the perception of the wait. It installed mirrors, and learned that "perception of the wait decreased and complaints declined" as guests checked their appearances in the mirrors.

Maybe that's the real solution to long phone holds -- put mirrors by our phones!

By  |  April 6, 2006; 10:28 AM ET Consumer News
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

I never thought about the mirrors by the elevator thing, but that's pretty crafty.

The thought of being given a choice of what music to listen to while on hold is annoying, though -- it's like saying "this could take a while, what would you enjoy listening to while you wait endlessly." Still, decent hold music does make things easier--I've also heard some companies that will use a news broadcast when you're on hold, and that's actually the best for me because sometimes I'll get sucked into the news and forget how long I've been on hold. Haven't come across this too many times, though.

Posted by: Justin | April 6, 2006 11:08 AM

I don't care what kind of music or news I listen to when I'm on hold. I like it when a company has music or news to listen to, because as long as I can hear it, I know that I haven't been cut off.

Posted by: Just Me | April 6, 2006 11:25 AM

How to Stop waiting on hold: Don't call.

Do your homework, research your problem online and find the solution yourself.

Can you access your accounts online and take care of the transaction yourself? Then do it.

If you're calling about fees and penalties, think about why you were penalized and what you could have done to avoid them. Think about problem prevention , not bullying a phone agent to waive a fee your own actions or lack of action, caused.

Posted by: Ken L | April 6, 2006 11:46 AM

I work in an industry (hospital) that requires patients, practitioners and clinic staff to call and schedule their appointments with a real live nurse-scheduler. Callers wait in a que until a nurse-scheduler or me (a call-fronter, non-nurse scheduler) can answer the phone.

The "phone" culture has given people the sense that immediate responses require nothing more than dialing the number and all their problems, questions, concerns will be solved.

The corporate advertising tells them so, the success they have had with reaching family and friends tells them so, and certainly the telephone industries tell them so.


Posted by: Maria in Columbia | April 6, 2006 12:47 PM

Please give me a choice and make one of them SILENCE! I have an active mind that has already tuned into some fascinating material or piece of classical music, and I don't appreciate having to hear ANYTHING that I didn't choose. Also, not listening to something helps me remember what I want to say when I do finally connect with a human being. And obviously, having to hear ads is just plain insulting.

Posted by: Gene | April 6, 2006 2:13 PM

I think the data that people didn't care if they were told how long the wait would be / how many were in the queue is misleading.

While this information may not influence how long you think the wait to be, but I think it can be a factor in whether or not to wait (or call back later). If they say it's 3 minutes, I'm probably happy to wait. If they say 20, I probably won't.

Posted by: nashpaul | April 6, 2006 2:55 PM

I love the idea of being given a choice. My favorite place to be on hold right now is Disney. I remember actually feeling sorry when a song I was enjoying was interrupted when someone finally picked up.

Posted by: Nell | April 7, 2006 10:30 AM

I like listening to music while on hold, but not when it's interrupted every 20 seconds by a voice saying something like "Thank you for continuing to hold, we know your time is valuable" etc. It kind of ruins the music.

The voice is also distracting if you are trying to work on something else while on hold; everytime you hear the music stop you stop working because you think your call is being answered, but it's just the voice again.

Posted by: Clarissa | April 7, 2006 2:45 PM

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