Hold on, I’m comin’: waiting music in Customer Service

10 min read
Artwork by Mantraste

I just called to say I love you – is not what you expect to hear when you call the service line of your local water utility. But that’s exactly what happens if you live in Lisbon’s metropolitan area and get surprised by an unannounced water shut-off. I don’t know about you, but Stevie’s classic croon piece isn’t what I want to hear when I just want to take a shower.

I’m not one to shy away from humor even in customer service. But in this case I think it’s a bit much. First, the wait to speak to someone at the water utility is ridiculously long, so long that even the most amable customers would fall out of love with it while waiting. Second, and most importantly, no one in their right mind would ever willingly wait on hold on the phone just to compliment a business or profess their love for it.

Being put on hold doesn’t always happen when customers call a company’s service line, but when it does, it might strain the relationship. Broadly speaking, waiting is almost never a pleasant experience and waiting on the phone is even worse. At the dentist’s office, I can calmly watch overfed tropical fish flare their gills. On the phone, I might clumsily stir pasta, clutching my phone with neck and shoulder as Stevie blares from my cell’s tiny speakers.

Setting the right tone for each situation is a complex science, and not all businesses have fully grasped this idea yet. But some companies have started to dedicate their business entirely to composing the best on hold music for other companies to implement in their customer service lines. And there’s a lot to it. Whatever song you choose to play, you can’t please everybody.

What’s in a song?

When it comes to music, personal taste plays a huge role. No two people have the same emotional reaction to any given song.

However, scientists have observed that, regardless of the musical genres we listen to, we all experience very similar reactions when our favorite songs come up. A team of Montreal researchers conducted a study on 217 people to look at how the brain reacts while listening to music. After analyzing the subjects’ fMRIs and PET scans, they concluded that the cerebellum, the brain region that regulates motor movements, becomes strangely active. They were also able to observe the release of dopamine, also known as the “happy neurotransmitter,” in different regions of the brain that are associated with pleasure.

Further research has shown that “music holds the key to the body’s pharmacy,” which means it not only makes the brain release dopamine, but can also increase adrenaline or reduce noradrenaline levels. The former — often activated by loud and rhythmic music, e.g., System of a Down’s Chop Suey —helps us stay awake during a long drive. While the latter — easily triggered by, say, Weightless, by Marconi Union — gently sends us off to sleep.

Daniel Levitin, researcher at McGill University in Canada, explains that songs with a slow tempo and a gradual chord progression tend to calm listeners down, while more uptempo tracks usually do the opposite. The effects of the rhythmic and melodic cadence of the song are very much related to people’s taste in music and vary from individual to individual. One song might make someone nervous, but help another someone fall asleep.

Don’t play it again, Sam

Music’s highly personal nature makes it hard for companies to choose the right soundtrack for the hold. Innocent as it may sound, on hold music can provoke strong responses in callers, as we saw perhaps most famously with Dr. Steven Schlozman.

Dr. Schlozman is the co-director of Medical Student Education in Psychiatry for Harvard Medical School and a staff child psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital. One day, he heard one minute too many of CVS’s on hold music and snapped. Dr. Schlozman proceeded to write an open letter to CVS asking them to change the track. He explained that he spent a lot of his time having to contact their support line and hence spent 25 days of his 52 years on earth so far listening to the same on hold tune. He started to hear it in his sleep. He deemed this unhealthy — something he must know about, being a doctor and all. But Dr. Schlozman’s aural future looks promising, as CVS is reportedly changing its support line waiting music later this year.

A lot of times, the problem with on hold music isn’t necessarily the song choice itself, but the amount of time you’re forced to listen to it. The average American will spend 43 days of his or her life in a customer service phone queue. Hold time can easily stretch up to 45 minutes, with 2 hour waits definitely not unheard of. In some extreme cases, wait times of 15 hours have been recorded. This could mean listening to the same track for equally as much time. And while the dopamine release in the brain is great, the neurons responsible for it quickly adapt to known stimuli. If we get too familiar with a song, it will become predictable and it will no longer have the desired effect on the listener.

Providing good customer service is hard enough without having to agonize over what song is most likely to soothe your customers. The music businesses play for their customers on the phone might seem like an unnecessary luxury, but given the effect music has on listeners, it might just be a very important factor to consider. Data from 2012 shows that most customers are willing to wait on hold from 5 to 10 minutes, while only a few say they would wait for longer than 30 minutes on the phone. As a company, it’s all about shortening that waiting time, or at least making it seem shorter.

Elevator music to my ears

Playing music to callers is better than having them wait in silence, because it’s a distraction and it generally makes it seem like the waiting time is shorter than in reality. If they can’t do it themselves, companies can seek out professional help from other companies who specialize in creating the optimal on hold music for each specific audience and line of business.

Waiting music isn’t anything new, though. It’s been around since 1962, when Albert Levy, a factory-owner from New York City, discovered that his callers had been listening to music while waiting for their calls to get picked up. As with many great inventions, the discovery of on hold music happened by accident. There was a loose wire touching a steel girder, which caused the factory’s phone system to pick off the signal of a local radio station. What Levy would have deemed to be a malfunction was actually a pleasant surprise to the person waiting on the phone. He filed the patent for a “Telephone Hold Program System” and on hold music was born.

Fast forward more than 50 years, and on hold music has become a business of its own. The biggest and probably most well-known company dedicated to it is Mood Media. The name might not ring a bell, but Muzak probably sounds more familiar. Muzak was the original provider of background music for stores, restaurants, and office buildings, also known as elevator music. It had a good run, but people got tired of listening to the same type of tunes everywhere, and the name Muzak began to have a negative connotation. It eventually filed for bankruptcy and was purchased by Mood Media, who branched out into other music-related solutions like on hold messaging.

Other companies like Business Voice, On Hold Communications or Cloudstream have fully dedicated their business models to creating the on hold music and messages that best fit their clients. And they take it seriously. So seriously that there is even an award that honours each year’s best On Hold Messaging productions. Formerly known as The Holdies, they are now called MARCE awards, short for MARketing Creative Excellence. And you can enter the run to win one.

Play it right

If you’re in the customer service business and would like to win a Holdie one day, there are some things you can take into consideration while setting up your on hold messaging service.

Business Voice, for example, starts with an audit of the client’s caller experience. They determine how frequently people call the company, how long they are put on hold, the caller demographic, among other things. From there, they develop a plan to make the whole experience better for the customer. For instance, if the average waiting time is five minutes, it’s not ideal to have a three minute long song playing on repeat.

Another factor companies need to be aware of is the sound quality over the phone. Nothing is ever going to sound as good as if played on a hifi column (or even twin desktop speakerettes), so experts recommend instrumental music without many abrupt shifts in tempo or energy. Business Voice also suggests switching between music and verbal messages that can either be business advertisements or a voice assuring the caller that they haven’t been forgotten and, even though they’re still on hold, someone will take their call soon.

Regarding the musical genre to play, there’s no real consensus. There are several studies about the effects of specific genres on people. Generally speaking, jazz is said to relax listeners, as does classical music, which apparently also helps lower crime rates. Research shows that pop music can boost performance while we’re working out, and rap may help fight depression. The effect on hold music will have on each caller, though, is going to depend almost entirely on their personal taste.

As for choosing merely instrumental tracks or ones with lyrics, it can go either way. If you choose a well-known pop hit with neutral lyrics, it might be a nice surprise for the caller and actually keep them entertained for a few minutes while they sing along. But it will soon become old-news, since customers know exactly how the song starts and ends, and it won’t have the desired effect of making the wait go by more quickly. On top of that, experts advise against choosing songs with so-called “prosocial lyrics”, or songs about helping people, that might make customers even angrier if they’ve been waiting for a long time and no one is actually helping them.

Generally speaking, it’s good to avoid any song whose lyrics could be interpreted ironically or sarcastically. Some people might revel in the dramatic irony, but others might get really annoyed if they call to complain about a service and they’re forced to listen to a song about professing one’s love for someone or something over the phone.

The bottom line is, on hold music will never please all callers who reach out to your customer service team. The best approach is always to find the track that is most appropriate to your business and your audience. What’s more, a lot of customers and companies are shifting towards a written customer experience. But as long as there is phone support, the best practice is to try to keep waiting times as short as possible.

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