I’m still on hold.
It’s been 25 minutes, and I’m losing patience. I want to hang up and call back later, but I know the wait won’t be any shorter then, and it might be longer.
This isn’t an insurance company or my dentist’s office. I have to stay on the phone because, as the recorded message intones periodically, I’ve reached the COVID vaccine line of a major Boston hospital.
I’m trying to make an appointment to get vaccinated, and to do that I’m enduring excruciating hold music, a loop that alternates between a grating lite jazz melody in the key of G ― Kenny G, that is — and a fragment of something that sounds vaguely classical and entirely annoying.
This is relatable not just for people trying to get a vaccine. Over the past 12 months, with in-person connections dramatically curtailed, millions of Americans have been put on hold and left there. While waiting to speak with a doctor, or pharmacist, or to the customer-service rep for the company that made the ultrasuede armchair bought with a stimulus check, people have been spending more time than ever on hold. A recent study found that hold times have increased by 50 percent during the pandemic, with half of all callers waiting more than 30 minutes.
The experience, as I’m discovering, can be deeply dispiriting. It’s not only the music. Worse — for me, at least — is when the cacophony quits and a voice comes on. Every time, I think it’s an actual human and, heart racing, I scramble to grab the phone. Alas, it’s just that guy again, the recorded one who explains, with a slight Boston accent, that all of the associates are busy helping other callers.
Ugh. Does it have to be this way? Is this what Alfred Levy imagined when he filed his patent application in 1962 for the “telephone hold program system”? Levy, the story goes, got the idea after his factory’s telephones suddenly picked up a nearby radio broadcast, and callers on hold liked what they heard.
It was an aha moment: Music, however insipid it might be, was better than silence and signaled to callers they were still connected. One thing led to another, and before long companies big and small were playing music to placate waiting callers. Standing by to schedule a podiatrist appointment or to reach a salesperson at Sears, people were thus treated to Pachelbel’s “Canon in D Major” — a popular selection during the holidays — or a Muzak version of Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle.”
Eventually, businesses viewed the folks clinging to their phones as a captive audience, and overlaid the music with recorded messages —corporate branding, special deals, hours of operation, and the obligatory apology for putting the caller on hold, which, after a while, sounds pretty insincere.
“If someone’s been waiting for 30 minutes and you’re still telling them their call is ‘very important,’ you should maybe rethink that,” says Ron Schott, chairman of the Experience Marketing Association, which aims to optimize the “customer experience.”
Schott says hold music is like hygiene: When it’s bad, it’s odious and off-putting. I tell him the hospital’s vaccine line is definitely unwashed, but filthier by far is the hold music at the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles, a colorless drone that my wife somehow survived for more than an hour recently.
“If it’s excellent, it can be memorable,” says Schott. “And that’s what you want, to create a memorable customer experience.”
The EMA actually gives out awards — they used to be called the Holdies — to companies that get it right: music that’s engaging without being monotonous; messages that are clear and concise; and voices that vary, male and female.
But choosing the right music means knowing your audience. A funeral home, for example, should not subject callers to, say, Offenbach’s rascally can-can riff. Music can stimulate heavy emotions, and perhaps even influence purchasing decisions, so companies are advised to choose their hold music carefully. Justin Ginsberg, president of OnHold.com, which customizes music and messages for phone systems, says the pandemic has prompted industries of all sorts — medical, travel, retail — to reevaluate what they’re communicating to their customers on hold. Often, he says, the answer is not much.
“People don’t like having their time wasted,” Ginsberg says. “If you’re making them wait, you might as well answer questions, direct them to resources that can satisfy their needs right now.”
What I need right now is a handful of Advil. The audio quality of telephones is typically terrible — they’re designed for conversation, not cantatas — so the hospital’s hold music, the clamorous Kenny G-meets-Mozart mix, is distorted and, after 30 minutes, seriously headache-inducing.
Danny Turner has heard this complaint before. Many times. The senior VP of creative programming at Mood Media, one of the world’s largest providers of background music, says the on-hold experience has improved a lot over the past 20 years. But, he admits, it still can be infuriating.
“You’d be amazed how many CEOs have never called their own business and taken that customer journey,” Turner says. “If more did, you wouldn’t be hearing what you’re hearing.”
I stay on the phone a few more minutes and then hang up. Holding, I decide, is a virus of a different sort.