Waiting on hold shouldn’t have to be so painful

Like most people, I don’t enjoy waiting on hold. As an IVR specialist and CX enthusiast, I can’t help but see a lot of old habits and missed opportunities. Why are call volumes so often exceptionally high? Would it be possible to have some idea of how long I’m going to wait? Why are they trying to sell me something when I’m calling about technical support? Why is that music so loud? And why do they make me think that my call will finally make it to an agent, only to play another marketing message instead? Hopefully, things are not always that bad, and several organizations are making the experience better, for example by offering to call me back at my convenience.

Of course, what constitutes a positive caller experience varies a lot from one individual to another, and several factors influence that perception. A tedious IVR, for example, will likely make the caller more impatient. What the caller is doing while waiting on hold is also a factor; maybe they’re multitasking and wouldn’t mind just listening to music. Personal preferences play a significant role, and the only on hold strategy that could possibly please all callers is to eliminate waiting altogether. But since this is a bit of a utopia, I suggest we take a closer look at what’s commonly seen today, and what could be done to make waiting on hold a little less painful for most of us.

On-hold music and messages are viewed as something necessary, and organizations often use this waiting time to play marketing messages or offer promotions. Some organizations invest a lot in designing and recording professional sounding on-hold messages. Although they are well implemented and rarely questioned, several practices commonly observed during hold times do not provide a positive customer experience and should be challenged. Here are a few:

  • Tell the callers that they can find help and tips on the organization website. They know. And chances are that’s where they found the customer service phone number in the first place. So don’t insult your customers by stating the obvious.
  • Play a long introduction to explain that all your advisers are currently busy and that you’re sorry and so on and so forth. There is not much added value in doing that. Be brief.
  • Promotional messages: unless the message is telling me something useful or something helpful, I don’t want to know. I probably don’t want to buy anything if I’m calling about my password, and I’m probably not interested in upgrading my internet service if I’m calling technical support. I just want to speak to an agent about my issue.
  • Play loud and/or very upbeat music. Low volume and low beat are probably safer choices, unless you want to invest in focus groups and voice of the customer activities to pick the better music for your customer base. Otherwise, it should be as unnoticeable as possible.
  • Interrupt the music every 10 seconds to apologize using the same message in a loop. There are different schools of thought about this one: you can either use different messages, or no messages at all (see experiments reported in Practical Speech User Interface Design, James R. Lewis, CRC Press, 2011). Indeed, callers often multitask while waiting, especially if they call from their workplace. Therefore, interrupting them regularly just to tell them that you are sorry to make them wait is not very useful, and could literally drive them crazy. Every time the caller hears the music being interrupted, they anticipate that maybe their call is finally making its way to an agent. Every time it’s not the case, they’re disappointed and they like you a little less…
  • Entertainment and humor are often presented as appropriate ways to help the caller pass the time while they’re on hold. While this might work in very specific situations with some callers, humor in particular is very tricky and what is perceived as funny or entertaining by someone may be seen as annoying or even insulting by someone else. You run the risk of alienating callers by trying to be funny.

How can you improve your on-hold experience?

Reduce hold times: Adding more agents can seem like the obvious way to go, but this is costly and since call volumes vary a lot throughout the day, this might not be the best or most efficient solution. A better way to achieve this may be to define better routing rules. This will be the topic of an upcoming post.

Tell the caller how long they may expect to wait: When possible, let the caller know how much time they can expect to wait, by using available statistics such as Estimated Wait Time. Even an approximation, let’s say, “your expected wait time is between 10 and 15 minutes”, can be helpful. Let them make the decision to wait or call later.

Offer to call back: Several products, for example Genesys Callback, allow the caller to schedule a call from an agent either when they reach the front of the queue, or at a later, more convenient time.

Reduce the interruptions: Play fewer, shorter messages, and consider removing all promotional messages (if your marketing department agrees!).

You might also want to give the caller the choice to hear informational messages or to hear uninterrupted music. If they are multitasking while waiting on hold, that’s an option they may appreciate.

If you decide to play information or promotional messages, follow a few guidelines:

  • Make sure these messages are useful to the caller: provide answers to FAQ’s, tell them about a new functionality on your mobile app that might solve their issue, give them money saving tips.
  • If the caller is identified, tailor the messages to their specific situation, but make sure that there’s something in there for them.
  • Be careful about how the content of the messages relates to the choice the caller made in the IVR; for instance, if they are in a technical support queue, it might not be the best time to try to sell them something.
  • In all cases, be brief and to the point.

Collect useful information from the caller: In certain situations, when the wait time is significant and you know that the agent will need to collect certain pieces of information, it may be relevant and useful to do so while waiting for an agent to be ready. The system could then display the information on the agent desktop or provide it to them via a whisper.

Warn the caller when they’re about to reach an agent; when the waiting time is very long, many people multitask or turn the phone volume down, and some even miss their turn! Using a different message or a special earcon to get their attention shortly before their turn is coming could be quite useful.

Turn the volume down: No one will complain that the music is not loud enough.

If possible, do not play the same music segment in a loop, as this can be a little maddening after a while. A great example of how to use music on hold is to play various movie themes; an important Canadian financial credit card service uses this strategy and they received positive feedback from their customers.

And never, ever tell your customer that their call is important to you.

Contrary to popular belief, call centers will not disappear any time soon. While eliminating on-hold waiting might not seem possible, we can at least try to make it a better customer experience.

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