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On Hold

November 28th, 2006

When an automated phone “service” puts you on hold to wait for a live person, they start playing music. They then interrupt the music every thirty seconds (that’s what Citibank is doing to me as I type this, I timed it) for the exact same 17-second “we’re still busy” message.

What idiot came up with this idea? Why does it seem to be an industry standard? Does anybody find it useful to hear the same stupid automated message three times every two minutes?

It is annoying enough to be teased with music and then denied the ability to enjoy it (assuming the music itself is not annoying), but what’s really annoying is the fact that when the automated message starts, it makes you think that a service rep is answering you call. You’d think that even a firm like Apple Computer would have figured out how annoying this is, but they are the same as everyone else.

How about this: start the music (and stick with some nice, quiet jazz, that’s usually the safest), and then every one or two minutes, incorporate a message into the music (lower the music volume a bit, but do not stop it, so the person on hold doesn’t think that a rep is answering) which says that if you want to hear options without losing your place “in line” on hold, then press “0” or something like that; then return the music to full volume.

If the caller presses the number key, then play a message which tells them their options–they can choose a different option from the main menu, or better yet, get the system to estimate how long they are likely to be on hold. Treat this interlude as still being on hold, and the live rep can cut in at any time; allow the caller to go back to listening to music without having to wait longer for having accessed the menu.

All of this should be eminently possible. Most systems like this, especially for big corporations, know the approximate length of their calls, and so an estimate of call length should not be a big deal. The caller will be happy to have an idea of whether they’ll be on hold for two minutes or two hours; just over-estimate the wait time a little just in case the regular time is exceeded–this will even help by making it seem for most people that their calls are being answered earlier than predicted.

As for incorporating the message into the music and allowing the caller to take a no-time-penalty options detour, computers are absolutely capable of handling this kind of thing. Maybe I don’t know of some crippling engineering factor involved, but frankly, I doubt that. I think it is more likely that these places want to discourage callers, and making the call-in system less annoying would mitigate that.

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