If Your Customers Have to Wait…


hold message

In years of running a direct marketing firm that included a small call center, my objective was to eliminate, or at least minimize, waiting time for phone customers. We knew (from those times when we didn’t have enough staff in place) that the longer callers waited to speak to a representative, the higher the probability was that they would abandon the call. And, if they hung up, they might never call back.

Zappos, legendary for customer service, strives to answer 80% of its calls within 20 seconds.

While one can’t argue with delivering great service and minimizing customer frustration, there’s a way that short waits can be used to good advantage. What do your customers hear if they have to wait for a representative? Elevator music? Recorded ads? Mindless statements telling the customer how important her call is? (Important, no doubt, but not important enough to answer right away!) Instead of those common and boring solutions, try something a little different: building in “social proof” messaging might actually keep callers on the line and, when the call is answered, boost conversion rates.

A classic story from direct marketing (I ran across it most recently in Guy Kawasaki’s Enchantment) is that of writer Colleen Szot’s tweaking of an infomercial for exercise equipment. Szot changed the ubiquitous “Operators are waiting, please call now to “If operators are busy, please call again.” This seemingly trivial change caused sales to skyrocket. In Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive, Robert Cialdini and his co-authors attribute the jump to “social proof.” In essence, the implication is that lots of other people may be buying the product and that the operators may be swamped.

While this example was from an infomercial, where else could you improve sales with messaging exploiting social proof? Here’s one possibility:

Current Hold Message: “We are experiencing higher than expected call volume. Thanks for holding.”
Better Hold Message: “Due to high order volume during our holiday sale, our wait times are a little longer than usual. Thanks for holding.”

An interesting question is whether there is an optimal hold time to go with this message. I think regardless of how well crafted the copy is, long hold times will result in lost calls and lost orders. A very short hold time – perhaps just long enough to deliver the message – is still likely best. The customer will feel lucky that his call was answered so promptly under the circumstances.

Naturally, this kind of message will wear out its welcome over time. Regular rotation is a must. And any automated attendant messages must be consistent with the overall marketing story and whatever promotion is generating the inbound calls.

The best part about this small step is that it costs nothing. What’s on YOUR hold message?

  1. Markus Herzberg says

    Hi there

    The topic is quite interesting and absolutely underestimated by the most call centers.

    When customers become part of the process waiting times will not seem as long as the actually are. See for example the queues in front of a roller coaster: “At this point you are waiting no longer than 15 min.” etc. This number does not need to be absolutely accurate, but it helps.

    Have you ever heard while being on hold “You are the second waiting for the next operator, your approximately waiting will be 7 minutes.” Now the customer is part of the process and knows what is going on. That is a really enhanced customer experience. Furthermore, sounds, voices and the way how the customer is informed while being on hold must not be forgotten, as mentioned above, especially in terms of brand management and emotions.

    Another solution could also be to make us of AI like for example the artificial intelligence Microsoft has recently published. I have written about it here: http://www.globalemotionsforum.com/?p=302


  2. Scott Greggory says

    Another take: If your customers have to wait…entertain them!

    We’ve had great success mixing “real” information with humor for several of our On Hold Marketing clients. I’m convinced that part of the reason is the element of surprise. Most callers don’t expect to laugh after being put on hold. Yet, we’ve received feedback just like this many times over the last 20 years: “We absolutely love the work you do for us, and, more importantly, so do our customers. We have even had customers ask to be put back on hold to finish hearing the message.”

    When executed well, humor on hold can create instant value for callers, drawing them in and engaging them. It can generate a positive impression about your company, and even lighten the mood of callers who initially might be unhappy about being put on hold. It’s also a great tool for differentiating your company from others in your industry. Here are a few examples of humor on hold: http://www.businessvoice.com/humor-on-hold-messaging.html

  3. Sci Teach Madison says

    We’re on the same page here, Roger. Great point about social proofing. I also like the strategy from Scott about humor–as well as just being unexpected. When companies overlook this decision and go with the old standby’s, their customers inevitably associate them with other unpleasant experiences being put on hold. In some ways, anything that is different is good. About the only standard practice that I do like and does seem like it’s becoming more popular is giving customers an estimated wait time or number of callers ahead of them. I also think these strategies are only going to become more important as people grow weary of marketing/robo-calls hitting their phone. Things have changed a lot over the last 10 years, that’s for sure.

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