We've all been there: stuck on hold listening to 80s pop music set to strings while a computerized voice breaks in to apologize and remind us that our call is important. It can get frustrating at the best of times, but it's even worse when we're calling about a support problem.

Being put on hold is part of modern life. In fact, a 2013 poll published in PR Newswire showed that 80 percent of callers are put on hold every time they call a company. On average, we spend 10 to 20 minutes a week on hold. People expect to be put on hold, but what you do for them in that time can score points for your company. Fortunately, many phone services, especially business VoIP services, give you flexibility in how you handle on-hold customers.

First off, don't apologize. Studies show that these kind of apologies actually increase customer frustration, and a recorded apology is even worse because it is impersonal. "We are receiving a high volume of calls" is another message that doesn't always have the effect it intends. Unless it's rare for your company to put someone on hold, this message could make people think you are understaffed; on a support line, you give the impression that people are always calling with problems. Finally, nix the message, "Your call is very important to us." How easy is that to believe from a machine that doesn't know if you are a customer, a telemarketer or a wrong number? As well intentioned as these messages are, they send the wrong signal to the savvy caller of today.

So, what can you do to keep your customers patiently waiting until you can get to them?

  • Offer Choices. Many phone services have on-hold features that announce wait times and offer your caller to opt out of on-hold music. Some give your caller the opportunity to leave a message that the system will forward to the next available agent. When customers have a degree of control over their on-hold situation, it reduces their stress level.
  • Reach Your Audience. If you run a gym that caters to a young, trendy clientele, you don't want the same kind of music or messages as the Senior Center's pool. Determine who your audience is: general age, income, culture and most importantly, interests they have that coincide with your business. When you create your messages, use that information so that you talk to your customers instead of merely broadcasting a message to a captive audience.
  • Don't Waste Their Time. The average hold time is 40 seconds, about the length of a commercial. You can get a lot of useful information to your caller in that time. If you have new products or services out, this is a good place to give them a mention. Your support line could give tips on solving common problems. Who knows? Your message could solve the caller's issue, increasing their satisfaction and sparing your employees time on a call. If you provide the kind of service that goes up or down, such as internet service, a comment on status could answer questions, especially if the service is down.

Take this time to share a little about your company. You can give facts about the company's history, the qualifications of employees and plans for the future; you can even congratulate an employee on an award or announce a new hire. These kinds of messages make your business more personal for the customer, which can improve customer relations.

Don't feel you have to be all business all the time. Share a little trivia. A bank, for example, could share some facts about the first banks in the United States, how dollar bills are made or how interest rates are determined. Consider providing some useful information. A doctor's office might give some tips on dealing with a sprain or a fever. A mechanic might give advice on winter driving. If you do this, try not to use information that's common knowledge. People enjoy learning new things, but hearing something they already know can come off as a lecture.

  • Have Fun! Unless you have a business where levity would be inappropriate, consider having some fun with your messages. Humor goes a long way in lightening a caller's mood and making the wait time seem smaller. You can find examples of humorous messages online or get ideas from funny commercials on the radio.
  • Don't Let Your Message Get Stale. Whether music or message, one way to get on a caller's nerves is to have him hear the same thing again and again. Determine what your longest wait time is and plan enough music or messages to fill that time without looping back. Not only is repetition irritating, it also makes wait times seem longer than they are. Also, change your messages often, especially if your business gets repeat callers.

Whatever you do for your on-hold messages, keep in mind that your customer is listening, perhaps with only half their attention. Make every word count. Read your scripts aloud, and if you stumble over anything as you say it, reword that part. Most likely, if you can't read a sentence easily, a customer will have problems processing it as well. Don't use a lot of large words or acronyms. Stay light, upbeat and entertaining when possible.

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