Operations and Management: Now Hear This

In a perfect world, you would never have to put customers on hold, but the reality is your customers probably have to wait in a phone queue at some point. To make the on-hold time as pleasant as possible for callers, most catalogers opt for music. But how do you decide what tunes to play?

Many marketers evidently assume that consumers won’t let annoying on-hold music deter their purchase. Call center expert Liz Kislik, president of Rockville Centre, NY-based Liz Kislik Associates, says that’s one reason many catalogers repeat the same “elevator music” and circa-1980s tunes over and over. Economics are another: Catalogers can buy a package of prerecorded music from an on-hold programming company for a flat fee of $900-$1,000. The catalogers then don’t have to worry about royalties or licensing fees; the company that sells the music takes care of those.

Some companies have on-hold programming set to a particular radio station, which is illegal unless you pay royalty fees for use of the music. Radio stations can also subject your customers to commercials; not only can that be irritating, but it can also hurt your business if they hear an ad for a competitor.

But on-hold silence isn’t necessarily golden. If they don’t hear anything, callers might think they’ve been disconnected. “It’s a cultural norm to expect that something is going to be played while you’re on hold,” Kislik says.

Indeed, the goal is to find something that won’t turn off callers — a surprisingly daunting task, says Kathleen Peterson, chief vision officer of Bedford, NH-based call center consultancy PowerHouse Consulting. “I have one client that sounds like it has the death march on hold,” she laughs.

The idea of tailoring on-hold music to suit the demographics of your audience is great in theory but nearly impossible in practice. “My bet is that for most companies there is too much diversity in customers to say what their taste is,” says Kislik. “The more you have a niche market, though, the more you can predict what would be enjoyed.”

Even then, you have to be careful. A snowboarding cataloger, for instance, might think that rock and rap music would appeal to the male teens who make up its audience, Kislik says. But the company still has to worry about offending the middle-aged parents calling in to buy gifts for their sons — not to mention the matter of royalties.

While you may not be able to appeal to every caller’s taste in music, you can minimize the annoyance factor by limiting the recorded announcements during the hold time, Peterson says. On-hold recordings with interruptions every 20 seconds thanking customers for their patience and telling them that the next available customer service representative will be with them shortly, can be tedious. Instead, alert the customer just once, and if possible let him know approximately how long the wait will be.

Likewise, don’t overdo the on-hold promotional recordings. “If you have lengthy delays, after 90 seconds there should be no more sales pitches,” says Peterson. Otherwise the customer may think, Since you can’t even take this order, don’t try selling me anything else right now.

And during busy times, Peterson suggests, reprogram the phone system so that it takes more rings for the call to be answered — four instead of two, perhaps. “Sometimes all you need is another 12 or 15 seconds to redistribute another percentage of calls that might have been abandoned,” she says.

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