Your Call is Important to Us, So Please Continue to Listen to This Horrible Music

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The most dreaded words ever spoken over the phone might be, “Due to heavy call volume, all of our service representatives are busy helping other customers — please hold.” Then things go from bad to worse when the call switches over to an ear-gouging sax solo already in progress, dug up from the shallow grave of 80s pop music. Chances are pretty high that the song playing is the sultry hit Careless Whisper by Wham!, George Michael’s band, but instead of the actual recording it’s an instrumental “elevator music” shadow of the original. And in the worst of all possible cases, the tune gets stuck in the head of the caller long after hanging up.

Why do companies do this to their customers, and can they improve their call center quality by fixing this problem?

With all the customer support channels available today, from email to Twitter, statistics show that many customers still want to talk to a live representative over the phone. That doesn’t mean they want to sit on hold, though. An AT&T study found that 60% of callers hang up when placed on hold, and 30% of them never call back. One might think that playing cheesy, grating music would drive away callers quicker than silence, but research conducted by North American Telecom shows that while callers subjected to silence will hang up in under a minute, callers listening to music will stay on thirty seconds longer. Interestingly, callers given informative messages will listen for up to three minutes longer than silence.

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Going on the basic assumption that music — any kind of music — will keep callers waiting longer is one of the main reasons the technique is used. Music lets the customer know that their call hasn’t been dropped, and rhythmic sounds have a way of distracting the mind, pushing back boredom and making time appear to pass quicker.

One factor in choosing the right music has nothing to do with music taste, but rather the medium of telephone transmission. Line sharing by telcos squeezed the audible bandwidth available, and their use of digital compression beginning in the 90s reduced sound quality significantly. It turns out that hold music really did sound better in the 70s and 80s than it does now — it’s not just a matter of the music seeming outdated. To compensate for the sound loss, instrumentation in the midrange to moderately high frequencies like acoustic guitar and violin, which is crisp and clear, will come across better than booming bass lines and heavy drums, which will get clipped and distorted over the phone.

Copyright laws probably restrict music choices more than anything else. Unfortunately, you can’t just play a groovy jazz number like Dave Brubeck’s Take Five without paying fees to various recording industry licensing firms like the RIAA and BMI. This is why you’re likely to hear elevator music rather than Top 40 originals.

Here are some basic recommendations for improving the hold experience of your customers.

Keep the sound volume at moderate levels. “Nothing is more annoying than hearing a soft ‘Please hold’ message followed by blasting, distorted music,” says Jonathan Marigliano, a partner at Prieto Marigliano. Blasting your customers with loud, tiny, distorted sound is a good way to encourage them to hang up.

Intersperse the music with information and news relevant to your company’s business. Include educational and entertaining facts. Include enough content in these messages to prevent repetition for even the longest wait times, and keep the information fresh. Also, customers waiting on hold are a prime audience for listening to promotional offers. Make sure your call center staff are aware of these offers and equipped to give further details and fulfill them.

Give your customers choices. If your call center system supports such features, allow callers to skip songs or choose to listen to informational messages instead.

If you expect the same callers to call in regularly, update your music periodically so you don’t subject them to the same experience every time. Consider playing holiday music when appropriate, but just make sure you’re not still playing Christmas music all the way into the new year.

Go with classical music. This is a pretty popular choice, and it has the quality of soothing familiarity without cringe-inducing sentimentality. The relative complexity of classical music as compared to basic tunes tends to draw the listener’s attention and distract the mind, helping to pass the time. Furthermore, many classical performances can be acquired free of licensing and royalties, and the frequency range of orchestral arrangements happens to fit the phone medium quite well without clipping or distortion. Sometimes it seems as if Vivaldi, Mozart, Handel, Beethoven and Bach were all composing music for call centers.

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