When was the last time you called a business number, got put on hold and heard dead silence? In all likelihood it was some time ago. So why play music when customers are forced to wait? It’s not like anyone really enjoys hearing pabulum played at the highest fidelity permitted your phone’s speaker so there is a real question here for why firms should go through the effort. Slate has an article that tries to get at this question (Your Call Is Important to Us, Sep 8). If you prefer to listen instead of read, here is an NPR interview with the article’s author.
The first thing to recognize is that playing something for callers placed on hold aimed to solve a practical problem: If all you here is nothing, how do you know that the call is still connected?
But in the spring of 1962, an application appeared in the U.S. Patent Office, humbly titled “Telephone Hold Program System.” “In the course of receiving telephone calls,” it began, a bit grandly, before settling into the problem at hand: What to do about that dead silence the caller endured while calls were transferred, their respective parties chased down? Operators were supposed to check in again on callers who had been waiting; but what if they got busy? “In any event,” the application went on, “listening to a completely unresponsive instrument is tedious and calls often are abandoned altogether or remade which leads to annoyance and a waste of time and money.”
So the thought was that using music could improve customer service and operation efficiency. People would be more willing to hang on the line and thus would not need to call back later. Does that actually work?
Today, it is taken as an article of faith that “silent hold” is commercial death (you probably cannot remember the last time you had a telephone wait unaccompanied by something). Hazily sourced statistics blare from the websites of hold message companies: 70 percent of callers put on silent hold will hang up within one minute! The industry is these days so established that its trade group (the On-Hold Message Association) even has its own award show (last year’s winner was a Canadian commercial cleaning company).
Apart from the original intention of signaling that one is still on an active line, the growth of music and messaging on hold was driven by a simple construct of human psychology: the so-called “resource allocation model.” As the Journal of Retailing put it, “[M]usic reduces the negative effects of waiting because it distracts attention from the passage of time, and, as a result, consumers perceive the length of the wait to be shorter than that when there is no music.” The less you pay attention to time, the faster it seems to go. The longer one feels one has waited, the thinking further goes, the lower one’s satisfaction with the experience.
The article goes on to discuss other studies on the psychology of waiting although most are over 15 years old. Arguably the world has changed since then since more people are likely to be out some where on a cellphone. Further, the information given to customers has changed as call centers now often provide information about how long the anticipated wait is likely to be. For example, the other day calling about my daughter’s lost Ventra bus past, I was told the anticipated wait was nine minutes. Just what am I suppose to do with that information?
If you think about for a bit you should realize that there is not an obvious answer. There are two issues here. First, I have no way of knowing just how good the quoted estimate is. I don’t see the line. I don’t see the staffing level. Plus the whole system is subject to variability. If enough people ahead of me abandon, I could be at the front of the queue before I know it. And the point is, I won’t know it. When the Ventra people tell me nine minutes and then answer my call in 14 minutes (or five minutes for that matter), it doesn’t mean that they are crappy forecasters or liars. Now if I call about lost bus passes daily, I can learn that nine minutes really means 14. But I mercifully don’t have to call with any regularity so have to accepted that I just got a bad draw.
But suppose I think that nine minutes is a tolerable wait. What should I do as I start to approach that mark? This gets to the second problem. I can abandon after nine minutes, but that doesn’t get me my nine minutes back. They are gone; chalk it up as a sunk cost. Baling after nine minute would make sense if I can reasonably infer that waiting all of nine minutes implies that the wait is going to be WAY longer. But I don’t know anything about the nature of the system. It may be the case that waits are essentially never over ten minutes and that at nine minutes I am almost to the promised land. The other consideration is how my cost of waiting changes as I soldier on. The nine minutes might be sunk but additional time on hold might get more expensive as the wait increases. After all, I’ve got to pick up my daughter because, you know, she lost her bus pass.
All of these issues matter to those running call centers. Is there a magic number that is just too long that gets a large number of customers to bail out? How do people react to multiple rounds of announcements? This is actually an active area of research (see, for example here) that is facilitated by the sheer volume of data call centers produce which allows for some quite spiffy econometrics.