Holding onto customers you put on hold

I used to like a particular brand of high-end vacuum cleaner — let’s call them Trysumm — but then I had to call their customer service. I expect the brand’s vacuums to suck, not its phone line.

My 26 minutes on hold did get me thinking, though. It’s a reality of many businesses that we have to make customers wait when they call, so how can we do it well and not sour the relationship?

Time to go vs place in queue

If you are waiting for a bus or train, knowing how many minutes away it is helps you relax by giving you certainty. You retain the sense that the wait time is your own — you may choose to grab a coffee or make a call rather than twist yourself in knots wondering whether your transport will turn up.

The biggest problem with Trysumm’s on hold message was it failed to tell me where I was in the queue or how long I would be there. That meant I was left wondering whether it would be three minutes or 30, and I couldn’t make an informed choice about how best to use my time. They were holding me to ransom, and boy, did that poison my mood.

So it’s good to tell your customers how long their wait will be, but is it better to tell them the amount of time to go or their place in the queue? Either is good, although place in queue is probably best because it has the dual benefit of acknowledging real people are being looked after and giving customers certainty that they have advanced.

According to researchers who studied the effects of on-hold messages: “It is not an issue of time; it is an issue of obstacle. What makes me happy is when I realise that I am getting closer to removing this obstacle and getting what I wanted.”

The lesson: Customers will hang on if they feel like they are making progress, so let them know they are.

Music vs silence

Imagine you’ve finally navigated your way through an interactive voice response (IVR) menu and been greeted with … silence. If you were like 60% of people AT&T studied, you would hang up for fear you had been disconnected.

To this end, Trysumm did the right thing and had some music playing to both amuse me and indicate that I was on hold.  

The lesson: Use music and avoid silence. Be deliberate in your choice of music with regard to tempo, genre and lyrics. As was noted by Musicworks, “Fat-bottomed girls” for a plus-size womenswear retailer was not an ideal choice.

Ads vs information

Every few minutes, Trysumm interrupted the hold music with ads for their products. While I’ve seen some claims that on-hold ads generate additional sales, I’d hazard a guess that these were results for in-bound sales phone lines, not customer help lines. If my reaction is anything to go by, having the audacity to spruik additional products may irritate your customer who is calling about a fault in a product they have already purchased from you.

Instead, you could include helpful tips for your customer. Share common answers to customer issues or point them to online resources. This type of information has been found to keep people on line longer, and is even much preferred to messages of apology.

Be sure to do this early in the call so customers who are willing and able to resolve their query in another way can do so without wasting more time. Trysumm botched this by burying an invitation to access information through their YouTube channel 15 minutes into the call.

The lesson: Remember this is about them, not you, and you need to match your approach to your customer’s state of mind. If they are seeking to solve a problem with your product you should be very careful about taking the opportunity to pitch. If you are determined to include ads, consider the sequence. Start with information for them before you intersperse messages about how great you are.

Recorded vs live apologies

“Your call is important to us” is possibly the most irritating platitude you can include in your hold message. Indeed including recorded apologies can backfire, further irritating your customer because if it was really important you would resource the phone line adequately and reduce hold times.

Live apologies, on the other hand, could go a long way to placating the customer. That the Trysumm representative failed to acknowledge that I’d been on hold for 26 minutes only added to my irritation, and made for an unpleasant conversation for them. A brief apology such as, “Sorry for the wait, my name is xxx, how can I help?” would have helped me feel that he was attuned to my situation.

The lesson: Avoid platitudes and have your reps acknowledge the customer and their patience.

Perception of time

When placing a customer on hold, there is the reality of time and its perception. Disney makes queuing for a ride part of the joyful experience. Airports deliberately place baggage collection a long way from the arrival gates because having to hang around waiting for their bags is more annoying to customers than having to walk.

The lesson: Think about what you can do to amuse or relax customers while they are on hold so they don’t perceive the wait to be as long as it may in reality be.

Above all, remember that people want to feel their time is being respected and you need to invest in reducing wait times and/or making the on-hold experience as enjoyable as possible. While a short hold time is likely to be taken for granted, you can be sure that a long and clumsy hold time will severely impair the relationship with your customer.

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