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I am on hold right now while calling my internet provider for a service question, and all I am hearing is some music and a voice saying "please be patient" every 30 seconds or so (for 30 minutes now).

It came to my mind that there is so much more a customer being on hold wants to hear. For example:

  • If I am in a queue, which place I am in?
  • What is the usual waiting time for this company, for this time, for this topic?
  • When another call has ended and I moved up in the queue.
  • When really no-one is in place and I should call later again.

I never came across something like this. Is it that this is too much technical effort? Or is this information about inner workings which a company usually does not want to provide publicly? Or is it maybe that I am wrong, and users will be even more annoyed by this information?


Many thanks to all the answerers and commentors. It seems I always had particularly bad luck with the companies which put me on hold, or if you want so, never had to wait for so long that these services were presented to me. I am amazed by the fact that these ideas are implemented all over the world, especially for doctors (which I have never recognized for any doctor here in Germany).

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    The only thing that would make it less annoying would be: "all lines busy; press 1 for being called back; 2 for waiting 30 minutes before being asked again; 3 to terminate the call". – pmf Nov 15 '17 at 9:46
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    @pmf Why not "press 1 to be told your current position int the queue and expected waiting time"? Calling back is also a good option indeed. – M. Winter Nov 15 '17 at 9:58
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    In Sweden, when I make a doctor's appointment, I call, get a position in the queue, hang up, and get called back automatically when my positino is due. Why not all call centres do this is not understandable. – gerrit Nov 15 '17 at 12:10
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    IMO it'd be nicer if they just left the music playing rather than interrupting it ever 30 seconds to say "Your call is important to us" – George Nov 15 '17 at 12:58
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    Go check out Freakonomics, where they describe "perverse incentives". Basically, your ISP has an incentive in you dropping off the call and figuring stuff for yourself. Any manager that makes the wait easier to bear will end up with bad marks for "increasing support queries". So, it doesn't happen. – Jeffrey Nov 15 '17 at 14:24

12 Answers 12

3

A few things that haven't really been covered in the other questions, but which I have personally had to work around in my career...

Technical Limitations

  • Simple MOH queuing is very easy to configure and every system that handles call queues has some mechanism for providing it.
  • Setting up a queue that provides feedback on position and predicted time remaining is not possible on a lot of the phone systems out there. Period.
  • Phone systems that do provide that information are expensive.

Social Limitations

  • Telling me that I have to wait 20 minutes at the start of a call, then making me listen to 30 minutes of updates to my expected time, is going to aggravate me more than not telling me how long.
  • Telling me that I am first in the queue (or fourth, or whatever) and not answering my call (or updating my position) for 10 minutes is pointless.

The reality is that 90% of the time the queuing systems that play music with occasional breaks to tell you that you're still on hold (as if that weren't obvious already) are simply lazy implementations, generally because the company didn't want to spend the time and money on a full implementation.

One client I work with updates their MOH recordings regularly and I often get requests to update their MOH files. They spend on the order of $3,000 per year on scripting, recording and composition for these recordings. I spend about half an hour on re-coding the provided files, uploading them to the phone system and changing the recording sequence each time they make a change. And that's for a simple MOH system with no position or wait time feedback.

Another client has a similar system, same capabilities, and they never bother to change their MOH recordings. They get me to flip a switch for outages and that's about it.

I've spoken with both of these clients (and others) in the past about improving their on-hold experience, and the main feedback I've received is that the only complaint they get is length of time on hold.

This lines up with a post-call survey we ran for a year at a call centre, where the most common complaint was length of time not what was being played (which was basically a series of adverts for the company's services).

Reducing the length of time on hold - by reducing operator inefficiency or increasing operator count - seems to have the best effect on caller satisfaction.

73

It's just a matter of costs and resources.

In germany for example it's really common these days to get:

  • approximate waiting time in minutes

  • news regarding other products to keep you "busy" and maybe sell you something else

In my opinion companies still underestimate the impact of waiting time when calling. If you frustrate customers or even worse potential customers you will make less money.

I was at a meetup a few weeks ago and a little startup integrated Amazon's Alexa to their waiting time, so people could talk/interact with Alexa while waiting, which made the time waited less bad since you were really busy to try out the AI.

I think this is the right direction, lessening the perception of waited time in the line.

But of course, Alexa integration for example is technically harder.

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    How accurate is the "approximate" wait time? I have had that on some calls, but the estimate is generally shorter than the wait ends up being. – Michael Richardson Nov 15 '17 at 14:59
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    Its pretty accurate and mostly you wait less, i would add a buffer-time just in case because it feels better to expect to wait 2 minutes but get through in less time then the other way arround. – Pectoralis Major Nov 15 '17 at 15:00
  • @MichaelRichardson It depends on the company, really. I had cases where the wait time was significantly shorter. But I also had some cases where I had to wait 30 minutes after an approximate wait time of 3 minutes. – Haris Nov 15 '17 at 15:52
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    I've read complaints about companies that put ads for their services in their hold recordings. If you're calling about a problem with your service, are you really in the mood for them to try to sell you more services? – Barmar Nov 15 '17 at 23:02
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    @Barmar if I get played an ad when I'm on hold, I'll do everything in my power to never do any business with that company. It's bad enough to make me wait, but to have the nerve to force me to listen to ads as well?! It must work on some people though, or they wouldn't do it. – Kat Nov 16 '17 at 7:53
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Very practical reasons:

  1. It is worth more investing money in actually fixing the wait times (i.e. hiring more personnel), than investing in infrastructure that needs to be maintained/connected to provide all this information.

  2. Companies are not interested in keeping people on the line. They want each interaction to be as cheap as possible, and want to keep out "undesirable" calls (like people who call just to chat, a common problem).

  3. Source of income for paid hotlines. If you know how many people are ahead of you, you won't stay on, thus not pay for connection fees (the latter is prohibited in many countries though ... many prohibit charging for hold times.

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    Some companies charge you for staying on the phone. I doubt a company would want you to stop giving them free money. Also if I know how many people are in line I will stay on longer. I have a sense of knowing when it's my turn and would rather have that then not knowing anything at all. This answer is just purely based on speculation. – Yates Nov 15 '17 at 11:53
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    like people who call just to chat, a common problem -- Does this really happen? – Captain Man Nov 15 '17 at 13:39
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    @Thomas-yates See case 3 about pais hotlines. Whether you stay on depends on how large the numbers are. There is a pretty clear threshold where people will stop staying in line, but sure, at lower numbers, it can actually make people more likely to stay in line. And please don‘t assume things about me or my answers. – uliwitness Nov 15 '17 at 15:29
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    "And please don‘t assume things about me or my answers." Such as? – Yates Nov 15 '17 at 15:45
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    @CaptainMan - I can confirm this first hand. I used to work in the circulation department of a newspaper. We took a large number of calls related to subscription changes, purchases, etc. However, we also received calls each day from people who just wanted to talk about the news with us. – indigochild Nov 15 '17 at 18:00
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Some queue systems already do tell you where you are in the queue - I have encountered this calling my local doctor.

However, with some places you call, the queue system is complex - a friend of mine worked as a programmer on a system that would dynamically prioritise callers based on how "good" a customer they were. You might assume calls are answered in the order they are received, but that's not true everywhere! If your switchboard is taking more calls than you can comfortably handle, you might very well decide to prioritise the calls from your best customers, who spend a lot of money.

This being the case, you can't very well tell people where they are in the queue, because someone "more important" might come along and bump them back a slot.

  • If someone more important comes along, can't they just not notify the caller that their number has changed and only notify them if they move up? – dexgecko Nov 16 '17 at 5:06
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    they can, but it gets tricky when the bet bumped down two places and then progress one place forwards "you are fourth",[silence], [silence],"you are fifth". a bettwer programmer can perhaps fix that if there is enough state connected with each call to record their best standing. – Jasen Nov 16 '17 at 6:43
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    @dexgecko The thing you're missing is that on the phone, the system does need to interact with the customer so they know they're still connected. Only notifying them when they move up leaves you with all the same frustrations while they wait to move up. The alternative is what Jasen mentioned, which is lying to your customers. – jpmc26 Nov 18 '17 at 1:45
  • Queue position gives no estimate of scale. Consider hearing you are in position 100. It matters if there's 200 agents answering, or 2. It also matters if the expected call length is 10 seconds to route a call, or if it's 30 minute tech support. Therefore, wait time is much better information to provide because it considers all these factors. – user71659 Nov 21 '17 at 18:51
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Your suggestions are all great, and it turns out that it is already being implemented. For example, here in India, some of the companies that put me "on hold" give me the following:

  • Annoying background music
  • Advertisement of their latest features or products
  • Your call is important to us.
  • You are customer number 6 in the queue.
  • Your estimated wait time is 4 minutes, 20 seconds.
  • Please continue to hold the line or call back later.
  • To leave a voice message, press 1. (or) To receive a callback, press 1. (They do callback!)

In addition, they also "update" me whenever I move up the queue.

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    "Your estimated wait time is 4 minutes, 20 seconds." You forgot what happens 10 minutes later: "Your estimated wait time is 4 minutes, 50 seconds." – jpmc26 Nov 18 '17 at 1:47
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    @jpmc26 It hasn't happened to me, so there is no question of "forgetting" it. – Masked Man Nov 18 '17 at 2:03
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    @jpmc26 it's only happened to me once. Government office.... never happened with a company though haha – user108534 Nov 18 '17 at 17:31
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    @MaskedMan wow, amazing how things are different in different places. Here (the UK) I probably wouldn't even conciously hear that option, it would just be dismissed as a lie. I have heard your whole list used though. I think the thing I find most annoying is companies who always claim to be receiving an unusually high volume of calls, regardless of when you call them. – Joseph Rogers Nov 20 '17 at 12:01
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    I also have this in the USA, depending on the company. "You are 7th in line, with an estimated wait time of 15 minutes" (the 'wait time' usually being rounded up to the nearest multiple of 5). If it's a long wait, this is usually followed by, "We're sorry for the long delay, this time of the year is very busy for us. As a 'thank you' for your patience, use coupon code FALL17 to get $5 off your next order." – Jamin Grey Nov 21 '17 at 19:10
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Most telephone services give an estimated or minimum waiting time. But I agree more feedback should be given. Something equivalent to a progress bar. Two possible options are :

  • The music can become progressively louder as you approach the end of the line

  • one beep when you are at the middle of the line, two beeps when you are at the 2/3 of the line and three beeps when you are almost at the end, with a stable background music all the time.

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    Jaws theme progressively getting louder and faster. "dun dun...dun dun dun dun... dundun dundun dundun DUNDUN DUNDUN DUNDUDNDUNDUN DUNNNNNNNNNN..Thanks for calling this is Dave how may I help you". – DasBeasto Nov 15 '17 at 15:39
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    The mountain king would be perfect for this (if the call was about 2 minutes and 45 seconds long it would work out really well) – yitzih Nov 17 '17 at 3:06
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    I think music getting louder is not very obvious. I probably wouldn't associate it with the time I have to wait. – idmean Nov 17 '17 at 15:30
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    Progress bar makes me think of the Windows file copy progress bar... – Mehrdad Nov 19 '17 at 23:08
  • I think a progressively more enthusiastic series of announcements of your position would be more effective than music changes. "You are tenth in line, your estimated wait time is 20 minutes." "Won't be much longer now. you're 5th in line now, estimated wait time is 9 minutes!" "You're almost there! Only one person ahead of you! Should only be two or three minutes now!" – barbecue Nov 22 '17 at 15:28
5

I've certainly rung call centres where they do exactly this. A fair number of systems will interrupt the hold music every 30s or so to say where you are in the queue, as well as the obligatory "your call is important to us". I've not yet met one which updated its expected waiting time during the call, but a number of systems also tell you at the start of the call what the expected hold time will be.

Getting notified as you move up the queue is probably not a good idea - it's a lot of extra processing to notify every caller as that changes.

And as far as there being no-one to take your call - in that case the system can simply go to answerphone, or to a recorded message saying "our centre is now closed". Every system can do this, without exception, and if they don't then that's just a sign of how little they care about their customers.

5

I question the premise of the question. I find that it is being made less annoying in some cases. Most of the suggestions in the question are already commonplace (there are N people ahead of you in the queue), but hardly less annoying.

One way of handling this is what I encountered when making a doctor's appointment in Sweden:

  • Patient phones hospital / doctor's office for information or a non-urgent appointment.
  • Doctor's office is not immediately available. Two things can happen:
    • If the system estimates the queue will be handled before the office closes, the patient gets assigned a number in the queue.
    • If the system estimates the queue is too long to be handled today, the system tells the patient to call back tomorrow.
  • Connection is terminated.
  • System calls the patient back as soon as their spot in the queue is available.

I have rarely seen this system used by for-profit companies. But do you choose your electricity provider or airline based on how frustrating their customer service is? Most people probably don't, so there may not be much commercial incentive to innovate. On the other hand, I would imagine solutions are available commercial-off-the-shelf, so it's not all that innovative really.


As Peter Taylor noted in the comments, one should be careful to design such a system while remaining resistant to identity theft.

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    This is not the "only proper way of handling" it: it is the worst possible way from an identity theft perspective. The golden rule should be that you never give identifying information (ID card numbers, birthdays, mother's maiden name, or whatever your culture uses) to someone who calls you: only to someone whom you have called using a number obtained from a reliable source. This kind of callback will train people to identify themselves when they don't know who is on the other end. – Peter Taylor Nov 15 '17 at 15:04
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    @PeterTaylor If I remember correctly, I gave the identifying information in the initial call, so they already had it when they called me back. But I don't remember the details, it was a while ago. And it's not like the doctor's office doesn't already have this information anyway. I don't quite understand the details, but identity theft is uncommon in Sweden as most information is public anyway. – gerrit Nov 15 '17 at 15:13
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    I spent a long time on the wording of that comment and still got it wrong because I didn't make clear that giving identifying information includes confirming information (other than name) offered by the caller. The shared secret is the obvious technical solution, but it has at least two flaws: requiring me to accurately record and validate the secret; and increasing the vulnerability of certain already vulnerable demographics. E.g. people in the early stages of dementia who receive a call claiming to be a callback from the doctor will think that they called, forgot, and lost the secret. – Peter Taylor Nov 15 '17 at 21:42
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    The golden rule is perhaps too strict, but it's intended to fail safe. If it's internalised over a lifetime then by the time dementia takes it away I'll already have signed over control of my finances to a trusted relative. If that call from a credit card company is really someone who got some leaked data and is trying to amplify it, my insistence on calling back will frustrate that plan. And on a telephone under time pressure is not a situation conducive to an accurate risk analysis. – Peter Taylor Nov 15 '17 at 21:43
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    @PeterTaylor You're right. There are downsides to the "calling back" alternative. I will reformulate my answer. – gerrit Nov 15 '17 at 22:23
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The answer to why for your first bullet could be:

  • If I am in a queue, which place I am in?
    • This at least is available in available in some places. However some companies have the same support for different customer groups, so if a "premium customer" calls they get ahead in the queue (and then they wouldn't want to tell you that you have been bumped)

Another improvement is when you call, get in the queue and be notified that i can key in my phone number (if i don't want to wait) so they can call me back when they have time. I.e providing a callback (literaly) so I can go ahead and do other stuff.

The other simple answer to why they don't have the cool features: it is a cost to upgrade the support tool and they don't want to invest.

  • The place in a queue is misleading without proper context. Consider a queue of 100 with 75 agents, versus a queue of 100 with 2 agents. Wait time is a better metric. – user71659 Nov 21 '17 at 18:46
  • As long as you hear the number decrease rapidly it would be fine either way. But wait time is better, but can be unpredictible if length of calls differ alot if people have complex issues and it is a small number of agents. – Viktor Mellgren Nov 22 '17 at 12:47
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Good systems now give you the option to record your name and a callback number and receive a callback when the next customer service representative is available. These are readily available for any company who thinks good customer service is worth spending the money on upgrading, so if you're not given that option, it just means they don't think you're worth it.

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    Note - if you call an 800 number and are holding for 30 minutes, the company you are calling is paying for that wait time. It may be a few cents per minute but it adds up. Calling people back actually cuts down on the number of phone lines you have open, and reduces cost. Whether that outweighs the cost of the upgrade I can't tell. – Floris Nov 17 '17 at 17:14
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    @Floris: Perhaps more importantly, they're paying for the number of channels necessary to accommodate the maximum number of callers who might be on hold, which might be a lot. With callback you can get by with a lot fewer channels. – R.. Nov 17 '17 at 17:38
  • you are right. I intended to imply that with my "number of phone lines you have open" comment but could have been more specific. – Floris Nov 18 '17 at 17:36
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As someone who sets up "being on hold" or queues I can say that a lot of it comes down to businesses not knowing what they want and wanting it "basic". If I setup anything really fancy and nice I get tickets in to remove all those features because they just wanted something basic. So I tend to setup all queues as basic queues unless they specifically request something special.

Then there are also limitations to how a queue is designed and what options you can configure but I rarely ever get to play with those because very few want it, we just got our first person that actually wanted to tell people what number they are in a queue.

1

It sounds like an area ripe for gameification: Allow users to work their way to the head of the queue by completing fun tasks.

Anyone who has worked in customer support would want the fun tasks to be answering questions taken from the user manual, thus proving that the caller has at least attempted to answer their own question by Reading The Friendly Manual. :)

  • Such an approach would get me to give my money to the competition instead. – Phil Nov 20 '17 at 3:14

protected by Benny Skogberg Nov 20 '17 at 12:00

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