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February 2, 2005 12:09 PM

Broken: Call-center hold audio

Paul Roub writes:

So you call XYZ Co's customer service line. You get through the 9-level menu tree, and it's on-hold time. "Your call is very important to us. Please hold, and you call will be answered by the next available operator."

The music starts playing. Kenny G. Luckily, your mind quickly tunes that out, much like my nose used to when I worked on a garbage truck. You get on with your work while you wait, headset in place, speaker on, or phone cradled on your shoulder.

30 seconds pass, and there's silence followed by a voice. You snap to attention, losing track of your work. "Your call is very important to us..." Ack. Now back to Kenny G. Begin to regain focus on your work.

"You call is very important to us..."

This repeats so many times that when a *real* person finally picks up, it takes a second to realize you should pay attention now.

This is broken in so many ways. Why on *earth* do they do this? Leave the music on, that's enough to let us know you're still there. If you want to interrupt me to tell me what my expected response time is, great -- then shut up unless that prediction changes. Otherwise, you're making my wait seem much, much longer than it actually is, by depriving me of any meaningful way to pass the time, and forcing me to maintain low-level attention with no reward.


YES, YES, YES!!!! This is sooooo broken!!!, Actually, if my call was really so important to them as they claim, then, I'd expect them to answer it with a real person, within 5 or 6 seconds.

Posted by: sam at February 2, 2005 12:29 PM

The statement "Your call is important to us." has a rather false ring to it once you've hit the half hour mark while waiting on hold.

Posted by: Carlos Gomez at February 2, 2005 01:30 PM

no one can dispute that this is definitely broken

Posted by: Dragon at February 2, 2005 02:28 PM

This is so true. How important is our call really if you don't have enough people there to answer it? I DO like when they give you an estimated wait time, though.

Posted by: zakyam at February 2, 2005 04:21 PM

This is so true. How important is our call really if you don't have enough people there to answer it? I DO like when they give you an estimated wait time, though.

Posted by: zakyam at February 2, 2005 04:22 PM

Yeah, the first time you hear that voice, there is such a feeling of false hope. Then, BAM more muzak.

Posted by: Maurs at February 2, 2005 04:42 PM

What I hate is when a really good song is playing (NOT Kenny G) and THEN they take you off hold!

Posted by: MGD at February 2, 2005 05:25 PM

Grr... I hate that. And once you finally get answer they ask, "What's your problem? Uh huh. Ok, hold on." More hold.

I also hate the voice recognition design. I called iPod tech support and was asked to speak clearly whether I had a PC or a Macintosh. Apparently they sound the same, every time I was directed to the PC section (an hour later, mind you), then put on hold to talk to someone using a mac, because that's what I was using in the first place.

Posted by: Ilan at February 2, 2005 07:21 PM

Optus in Australia have neat twist on this to help you kill a few seconds of waiting time. The first thing you are asked to do is enter, with the keypad, the phone number of the service which you are enwuiring about (eg, if I'm calling with a query about my landline, I enter my home phone number).

This seems like a smart idea, but the first question that I get asked once I finally get through to a human being is invariably "What is the number of the phone line your calling about?"

So I can only assume that the autmoated request to punch in my phone number beforehand is just pointless busy work to keep me amused while I wait for my call to be answered.

Posted by: Gil at February 2, 2005 07:38 PM

How are the businesses going to know how many people is adequate staffing when they have no way of knowing how many people are going to be calling?? Besides, if half the people calling in would stop and think before calling in, they would be able to answer their own questions and not waste the time of the people that actually do need help.

Posted by: Dave at February 2, 2005 08:10 PM

The whole hold thing is broken, the voice recognition device cannot distinguish words spoken by someone in New Orleans or in New York, and they should at least change how they mangage messages.

Posted by: Cameron at February 2, 2005 08:43 PM

I usually start banging the 0 for operator button. This works sometimes. I fell asleep on hold once and was woken up when someone finally answered.

Posted by: rev_ty at February 2, 2005 08:48 PM

Ilan: There were two separate incidents mentioned in comp.risks a while ago in which Brits visiting the US were unable to reach an operator because they couldn't pronounce 'operator' in a manner the voice recognition system could understand!

Posted by: codeman38 at February 2, 2005 11:49 PM

On the NYC subway, they have a whole bunch of grating repeated messages which ring REALLY hollow. For example, while sitting stuck in the tunnel under the East River for about 15 minutes, every 30 seconds or so they repeat the message, "We apologize for the unavoidable delay." If you're apologizing, apologize yourself, don't get your stupid fake Southern drawl recording to do it.

They also reaalllly like to repeat the same two messages about keeping your personal belongings safe and in your sight at all times. It's like they have a quota that they have to fill, and so they fill it all within the course of 5 minutes during a delay.

Posted by: fluffy at February 2, 2005 11:53 PM

I worked inbound sales at Omaha Steaks, the worst is when people call the my line (and are on hold before I get to them) then want to be tranferred to Customer Care. We both have to sit on hold and both have to hear the same crap on how they care soo much about us. They interrupt the Christmas music every 15 seconds saying how much they care or to try the Boneless Strips. Why can't internal empoyees have a private line without all that excessively annoying balony.

(Sorry, I get kinda passionate about phone systems.)

Posted by: Jeff at February 3, 2005 12:53 AM

Streamlining A-B is the goal. Consumers length of call is determined by state of mind when they call and their goal, primarily an answer to a query; a request for a remedy, ie. fix it and make it better for me to move on; I need to vent on someone and's toll-free and totally irrepairable(angry callers, confused callers, lonley callers)or to say say, hey! thanks.

How simple? Some suggestions:

A. Know what your goal is.

B. Don't call if in an aberrantly emotional state.

C. Listen.

D. Communicate clearly.

E. If one does not understand or comprehend...ask for clarification.

F. Be reasonable.

G. Be rational.

H. Be grateful.

I. Be certain the person one is having an interaction with is empowered to fulfill your request. Ask them. If not, ask them to speak with someone who can.

J. Don't lose your cool.

K. Suggest--avoid DEMANDING.

L. Ask to speak to a "human".

Posted by: nina olson at February 3, 2005 03:04 AM

Some time ago I had a friend who worked at a small company that had recently converted to an automated system. He was put in charge of what the on-hold music should be. Since most of the employees at the company were dismayed by this automation, we decided to play a dirty trick on the company by changing their on-hold message to "your call is NOT important to us. Please hang up."

Anyway, it took them some time to figure out why people weren't calling anymore, and the system was shortly replaced by a human.

Posted by: nanomu at February 3, 2005 04:08 AM

I've called companies that do something similar, but they repeat the "please hold" message with MUCH more frequency-- like every 5 or 10 seconds. Shoot, 30 seconds seems like a luxury after calling one of the 5-second places...

Posted by: jbrandt at February 3, 2005 07:13 AM

All of these examples really blow, but to add a new dimension, some companies (Sprint PCS) use an automated robot lady named "Claire" to ask you asinine questions like "what you do you want?" or "how can I help you?" I usually say "get me a human to talk to because you are a useless machine" to which she replies "I can’t help you, let me get a human." THEN after all that I get put on hold and have to listen to Kenny G and the voice reminding me I’m on hold for 15 minutes only to be transferred back out to Claire because my question was too technical.

This, my friends, is truly broken.

Posted by: wilscobos at February 3, 2005 09:36 AM

That's kinda funny, wilscobos.

You expect a machine to be able to tell what you want from a complex sentence? What kind of thought process is that? "I'm irritated that as one of their customers, whom they no doubt have millions, they can't spare one person from their busy scheduals to answer my statistically asinine* question, SO I'm going to yell at a machine because since it sounds like a person and uses our language, it must understand that I'm calling it a 'worthless machine', even though really all it does it needlessly confuse it and give the tech whom I WOULD have been transferred to a good laugh and a reason to hit the 'too technical' / 'idiot customer' responce button. Also, I like run-on sentences."

* Meaning most people call with stupid questions, not that you are (though statistically, you probably are from their standpoint).

Posted by: Jim King at February 3, 2005 11:33 AM

Jim King is an Ass

Posted by: wilscobos at February 3, 2005 11:44 AM

"How are the businesses going to know how many people is adequate staffing when they have no way of knowing how many people are going to be calling??" -- Dave, there are simple mathematical models to predict both the number of calls likely to be received in a certain period, and the amount of staff required by a call centre to answer those calls within a certain hold time. I've worked in call centres where staff was literally varied on an hourly basis to meet specifed targets, and these models work. (They work so well, I once had a manager who couldn't understand why we were missing our targets almost exactly half the time, until we reminded him that he'd only hired enough staff to meet the *average* call volume. Statistically, that's exactly what you'd expect.) If it's truly important to management to answer their calls within, say 5 minutes, it is possible, although it can be expensive!

"I usually start banging the 0 for operator button. This works sometimes." That's actually a pretty good strategy with automated systems. Also try # 0 or # # 0 -- that will usually get you through to a real person who can direct your call more accurately than the voice maze. I feel justified in saying this, because I've been involved in the design of some of these systems, and they're basically just broken from step one.

Posted by: E.T. at February 3, 2005 12:42 PM

E.T.--I DO work in a major call center, and you can use all the models you want to ESTIMATE, but there is no way to exactly know how many people will call on a certain day. For instance, if there's bad weather in certain areas and statements get delayed, there's no way to predict in advance how that will affect call volume. Besides, if people would learn to not all call on Mondays or days after holidays, they wouldn't have to wait on hold so long.

Posted by: Dave at February 3, 2005 07:00 PM

My credit union has a nice system. You call, it asks for your phone number, and tells you the expected wait time, then says goodbye. Someone calls you back at the number specified in about the expected wait time.

Posted by: Justin at February 3, 2005 09:09 PM

wilscobos: My friend and I decided to check out what you said about the Sprint PCS automated chick Claire. We called and listened and when she said for us to ask our question we made a puke noise on the phone and she replied, "Okay. Let me transfer you to a representative." We cracked up. Thanks for the laugh.

Posted by: dellisbad at February 4, 2005 02:14 AM


The very fact that you can state "Besides, if people would learn to not all call on Mondays or days after holidays, they wouldn't have to wait on hold so long." indicates that you recognize the existence of call patterns. And as such you can staff for them. Of course there may be anomolously high call volumes to due to some unique incident, but on the whole, that's rare.

Posted by: Carlos Gomez at February 4, 2005 08:10 AM

Claire is my nemesis. What was wrong with typing in a number corresponding to your problem?

Claire: What can I help you with?

Conant: Operator.

Claire: I didn't catch that.

Conant: Speak with an operator.

Claire: I didn't catch that. You can say things like: What's my account balance? or How many minutes do I have left?

Conant: Customer service.

Claire: Okay, connecting to account information.

Conant: Arghh! No no no! You suck, Calire, you suck, I hate you!

Claire: Please hold for a customer service representative.

Isn't the whole point of these inefficient, irritating systems to convince you NOT to speak to a person? They make it an aggravation for the same reason they bury their contact info on their web site. The fewer people that call, the lower the cost to them. And, the more customers that give up on legitimate complaints, the less the company has to spend rectifying the situation.

So, from the corporate point of view, it's not broken. They just want you to pay your bill, buy their products and keep your thoughts to yourself.

Posted by: conant at February 4, 2005 12:55 PM

One thing I found irritating about Claire or any of the Say Anything systems is that they were supposed to make getting your call routed to teh right place easier by eliminating the supernested set of menus. Instead of navigating some arcane menu, you are now being misheard by an automaton and forced to repeat yourself or rephrase your request.

My own experience with Bell Canada (incumbent carrier for Ontario and Quebec in Canada) was that I had to identify which of their companies I was calling for (wireless, landline, internet), and then stating the nature of my problem and then getting connected to the wrong place. This of course caused me to have to call in again and go through the same agony hoping to be heard correctly.

Posted by: Carlos Gomez at February 4, 2005 03:02 PM

I agree, the talk into menus suck ass big time. I have a virgin mobile phone, i wanted to ask a question, i had to ask Lataylonal or some evil robot. I was forced to speak in monosyllables at one word every fifteen seconds. They cant understand you, so it is a major pain down there. i much prefer the old, hit the button menus. progress can be good, but it can really suck ass sometimes. if anyone wants to debate that, think of the "progression" from win95 to winXP. then put an annoying-as-hell robot behind it. that inst broken, that is deacimated

Posted by: zepfanman at February 4, 2005 07:30 PM

I've developed a system to deal with this.

If I get an automated voice asking me what I want then I remain silent or take a tone generator and play some tones into it.

(I got transferred to some back office once by doing that, they had no clue what was going on.)

When the real person comes I say "Your answer is very important to me, please hold and I will answer your response within 5 minutes."

Then I turn in the radio and put the phone next to it while I go to the bathroom or check my e-mail.

Posted by: BOB at February 5, 2005 04:12 PM

I have a deaf friend and he says it is particularly annoying for the deaf community. Imagine trying to distinguish between a real person and a machine when you are hard-of -hearing or profoundly deaf with hearing aids. Play music by all means, but please stop the voice and more importantly stop the ads/public services announcements, they're even worse IMHO.

Posted by: Cyberesque at February 8, 2005 01:58 AM

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