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Phone anger

Call centres: The three most annoying things customers hear on hold

25th Oct 2019
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Being kept on hold used to be seen as a pastime. A rite of passage for people looking to be indoctrinated into the world of a new brand, or a test of willpower for those trying to find an epiphany whilst attempting to solve an unsolvable problem.    

Those days are long gone. We are in the age of instant gratification; the culture of impatience. No longer is it acceptable to put customers on hold for any length of time. We’re increasingly sensitive to how brands keep us waiting, too.

According to a 2007 study comparing different types of hold messages, the most acceptable way of keeping customers happy was to tell them what position they were currently in line, and to keep updating them as they got closer to speaking to a call centre agent.

In contrast, a Which? study from 2016 found that nearly half of consumers (47%) feel the most annoying part of waiting to have a call answered by a brand was “being told your call was valued”. Next on the list was being directed to the company’s website (28%), followed by an apology because “all operators were busy” (11%).  

But what really gets customers' hackles up, the study states, is music.  And when it comes to the types of sound deemed most detestable, the following were hardest to bear.    

Background music

21% of people find the somewhat generalised resonance of ‘background music’ most annoying. The kind of thing that sounds like it was created by an early 90s algorithm, or at best by a work experience kid charged with knocking something up on their lunchbreak using Garage Band.

Not all background music is reviled though. Cisco’s hold music has proved so popular it has been kept on their IP phones since 1989. HMRC, vilified for so many reasons in the UK, has managed to create a cult status around its own, seemingly computer-created jingle.

Rock music

22% of consumers find the sound of ‘rock music’ the most inaudible whilst kept on hold. No specific songs were mentioned in Which?'s 2016 study, but a cursory glance at Twitter helps determine the most likely culprits. They're the kind where even hearing the opening note of the song subjects you to day-long, fear-inducing headaches, let alone if you’ve been forced to listen to the whole thing over and over again.

The latter here, for instance:

Engaged tone

The most hated of all the hold sounds, and why not. Who can possibly bear listening to an engaged tone for longer than 4-5 seconds? Amazingly, just 29% in Which?'s study cited the dreaded engaged tone as the most frustrating. Here’s one that lasts 30 seconds, if you're feeling masochistic. 

“Waiting on hold is a waste of time, but some organisations make the experience needlessly annoying through objectionable messages and music,” says Richard Headland, editor-in-chief at Which?.

“If these drive you round the bend, vote with your feet and take your custom elsewhere. The best companies know the value of answering your call quickly.” 

Of course, some hold music can be glorious. The Which? survey found that around half (48%) of people said that classical music was the most soothing while waiting. And as anyone who has been kept on hold prior to entering a Powwownow conference call can attest, sometimes a bit of 80s workout music can stir the soul too:


Replies (4)

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By kferg.premcx
24th Oct 2016 16:23

Good article and of course the best thing for the customer is to have their query resolved by the first person they speak to the moment they finishing dialing the number. However we all know that whilst companies are getting better at this,it is still unrealistic. Let's also not forget whether we like it or not, a companies audio branding is, most the time, the first touch point which gives the consumers first impression. This will tell the consumer a lot about a company, making it essential to be the best it can.

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Replying to kferg.premcx:
Chris Ward
By Chris Ward
24th Oct 2016 21:09

Thanks kferg.premcx.

Although intended as a bit of Friday fun, the Which? survey results within the article raise some important points - that companies have to invest some time and money into getting the message right for people contacting their customer support lines/ call centres. And that it DOES make a difference.

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By PaulineAshenden
28th Oct 2016 08:41

Setting aside musical choice, customers increasingly won’t put up with hanging on the telephone waiting to be answered. Businesses therefore need to find ways of improving speed of response – this Eptica blog outlines some ways of achieving this

Thanks (1)
By mooresy
08th Nov 2016 13:32

A number of companies are now giving you the option of keying in your phone number so they can call you back once a rep is free. Saves you valuable time and certainly limits the painful torture normally associated with long holds.

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