Something to think about the next time you’re on hold…

The other day I needed to call Rogers, and to my complete non-surprise I was placed on hold (but to my positive surprise, not very long).  While the poor-quality (not entertaining and the sound quality was poor) music played, I started wondering about the science of hold music.  I’ve read plenty of material about the impact of music in fast food outlets, restaurants, shopping malls, grocery stores and other commercial locations (seriously, look up some of this stuff – you’ll be shocked at the psychological and business impact of music), but I don’t explicitly recall reading anything about music played while you’re “on hold”.

Luckily, we live in a remarkable age – one in which pretty much the entirety of human thought and achievement is available within seconds of asking a question.

After only a few minutes of research, I found out four things:

  1. There is definitely a great deal of literature on the subject
  2. Apparently we’ll each spend an average of 1.2 years (!!!) of our life on hold (this figure was repeated, but no citation was provided…so take with a grain of salt)
  3. One identical paragraph in particular appears in many different sources, so its an uncreative business
  4. The word “Muzak” is both a generic term and the name of a specific company

So, what fun stuff did I discover?

Apparently, we can thank a cynical French composer named Erik Satie for the birth of background music.  From The Daily Beast:

Simon Morrison, a musicologist at Princeton University, says that we can thank a French composer named Erik Satie for the birth of background music. Satie is best known for his three-piece Gymnopédies (piece No. 1 is the instantly recognizable theme to the 2008 documentary film Man on Wire), but starting in 1917, he also wrote a number of compositions he referred to as “furniture music.” “Playing in the background of bordellos where no one was listening,” says Morrison, “[Satie] developed a very cynical attitude toward the listener.” Satie was so obsessed with the idea that music could no longer communicate to the audience, he concluded that music in the 20th century was destined to be a vacuous, comfortable apparatus best used as a background for other activities, much like a favorite chair.

What’s the right approach to hold music?  Well, it’s complicated.  From that same article:

Anat Rafaeli, a professor at the Israel Institute of Technology, and her former graduate students Nina Munichor and Liad Weiss have looked specifically into what keeps us on the line—and happy—when we’re on hold. In a paper Munichor and Rafaeli published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, the two compared hold music, estimated wait times, and recorded apologies for their effectiveness. In the first of two experiments, Munichor and Rafaeli found that callers who were given information about their place in line reported more positive experiences—and hung up less frequently—than those who were played background music. And as for recorded apologies? They can make the situation worse, said Rafaeli. Given that apologies often interrupt background music without providing any useful information, she suggested it is possible that “you sort of drift into the music, and go with the flow, and forget that you’re really waiting, or wasting your time. But then this apology awakens you to this unpleasant effect that, hey, I’m waiting!”

In the second experiment, Munichor and Rafaeli found that the feeling of progressing toward the front of the line, rather than the perception of a short wait, improved caller reactions the most. Rafaeli said that it doesn’t generally matter whether a caller is given an actual estimate of the time left to wait, or the less useful statistic about the caller’s place in line (knowing your place in line doesn’t tell you much, since being second could mean waiting three or 30 minutes), since both work equally well. We just need to be convinced that the line isn’t too long, and that we’re moving toward the front.

“In the second experiment, Munichor and Rafaeli found that the feeling of progressing toward the front of the line, rather than the perception of a short wait, improved caller reactions the most.”

Next, I found myself on the website of a company called Evolved Sound, who have had their music “played on hold for a diverse range of organisations such as Government, multinational banks and the medical sector.”  They have a number of pages on the subject, but keep in mind they have some skin in the game.  Plus, their page on the “Science behind On Hold and In-Store Music” seems to have lifted, without attribution, a good chunk of the article I cited previously.

Phonetel Inc, another vendor in the space, offers some best practices that are consistent with the material I found during my search:

  1. Hold music makes time go by faster, unless it’s a song everyone’s heard a thousand times before.
  2. It’s scientifically proven to create a more enjoyable business phone system atmosphere, and keep customers on the line.
  3. Keep your selection up-to-date and seasonally relevant.
  4. Avoid generic apology messages; they’re impersonal and only frustrate clients.
  5. Consider interspersing music with time checks so clients feel acknowledged.

That last point is pretty important – we’re psychologically programmed to respond well to feelings of advancing towards a goal, so a message about our rank in the queue or a decreased estimated wait time give us a little reward and keep us on the line.  Curse our simplistic hard-wiring!

So remember this the next time you’re on hold: if the company has done things right, they’ve chosen a musical muzakal selection that has a scientific basis in making you lose your sense of time and calm any confrontational emotions, without being so recognizable that it backfires and reminds you how long you’ve been on hold (although personally I’d rather be listening to some Metric, Sam Roberts, or Matt Good).  And if they’re really on their game, you’ll get periodic (but not too frequent) updates that trigger a reward your brain’s pleasure receptors.  Huzzah – I’m closer to talking to a person! *endorphin release*

In fact, with all this big data flying around (including detailed personal profiles), I wouldn’t be surprised if some companies have already started personalizing their hold music.  If no company yet exists to provide this service, then someone should start one, and that person should also cut me a piece of the action without requiring any associated legal liability.

Finally, this brief research project makes me wonder: if waiting on hold is so incredibly frustrating even with all this optimization research, how bad would it be without the science and music?!  Now that is a scary thought.


Lee Brooks is the founder of Cromulent Marketing, a boutique marketing agency specializing in crafting messaging, creating content, and managing public relations for B2B technology companies.

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