"The Psychology of Telephone
'On Hold' Programming"
by Dr. Jim Will
According to a survey conducted by USA Today,
52% of Americans became upset when being placed on hold. In light of
these findings, it is imperative that business owners be aware of the
implications their on hold music and information has on their overall corporate image.
information and music on hold serves two basic functions: (1) lowering the
incidence of caller hang ups, and (2) acting as a "sales tool" to inform
callers about products and services. These functions, along with optimal
strategies, are addressed below.
Lowering the Incidence of Hang Ups
To a business,
the worst possible outcome of an incoming phone call is a hang up (with
resultant anger and frustration in the mind of the caller). Similarly, a
poor outcome is achieved for the callers who do stay on the line but foster
resentment and negative feelings, (due to the ineffectiveness of the music and
A primary cause of caller discontent involves the concept of "perceived time"
on hold. Obviously, this time perception should be kept to a
minimum. It is proposed that, for a consumer, unoccupied time feels
longer than occupied time (Maister). Likewise, unexplained waits
seem longer than explained waits. If a surrounding (such as being "on
hold") is unstructured, the experience will be more unpleasant than that
encountered in a structured surrounding (Lewin).
most effective message hold program will both lower perceived time and provide
structure to the holding period. Music selections have long been regarded
as being effective in the lowering of perceived time. However, the proper
choice of the specific type and length of music on hold selections is critical.
function of music should be to keep callers involved and interested in the
information provided. The music selections should be created differently
in type and instrumentation to provide variety for callers "on hold." In
addition, the possibility of a particular song evoking negative associations in
the mind of the caller must be avoided. The optimal music on hold
selections will thus utilize upbeat generic music that is unrecognizable to the
caller (as opposed to using live radio broadcasts, well-know song, etc.).
In this way, psychologically effective music selections are employed without
the risk of compromise due to negative summary memory associations.
In order for
properly selected music in an "on hold" program to be most effective, two
additional factors should be addressed: the length of the music selections
themselves, and the overall number of music selections contained in the
program. As noted earlier, structured environments are more enjoyable or
palatable than unstructured environments. A well-designed "message on
hold" program should, therefore, provide as much structure as possible.
This is most effectively accomplished by adjusting the music on hold selections
to have relatively the same duration. In this manner, potential anxiety
will be kept at a minimum because the structure is predictable and easily
defined by the caller. Music on hold selections should be slightly longer
than on hold message spots, thereby, allowing the caller time to absorb more of
the message on hold for the greatest recall.
The length of
the overall message on hold program is also an important factor in reducing
potential anxiety. In the area of marketing research, it is well-known
that excessive repetition in the advertisements is likely to produce "wearout"
(the loss of overall effectiveness of the targeted stimulus). Because
unsought repetition invites negative responses, it is desirable that the length
of the "message on hold" program be maximized. If the on hold message
program is too short and the information repeats itself frequently, caller
anxiety is likely to be increased.
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to best reduce anxiety (and subsequently lower the incidence of hang ups), the
ideal "on hold advertising" program should incorporate the following:
Generic upbeat music on hold
Predictable, 30 second music on hold
selections of varied types that terminate and tension release the caller
Longer, less-repetitive on hold
message program formats
The Message On Hold Program as a Sales Tool
Because callers process an inherent interest in a business dialogue, a
well-designed "message on hold" program offers great potential as a sales
tool. Within the context of overall anxiety-reducing function of the "on
hold" program, verbal advertising information (inclusive of goodwill/public
service announcements) provide a mechanism to transform a negative consequence
(having the potential for additional sales/goodwill).
presentation is most effective when subjects are involved and attentive.
Higher levels of involvements tend to be associated with more elaborate and
systematic processing of central (factual) information. Likewise,
attention serves as an important "tuning mechanism" in the active selection
information for additional processing (Bargh). A higher degree of
involvement and attentiveness present (since the initiative has been taken to
call) will make a caller on hold especially amenable to well-conceived verbal
A number of effective options are possible as selections of sales
presentations. Callers will react to verbal messages in different ways
(e.g., the "Need for Cognition (NFC) subjects enjoy effortful analytical
activity (Cacioppo and Petty, 1982), while non-NFC subjects are stimulated by
different advertising methods). As a result, the employment of a variety
of message genres in an "on hold message" program (e.g. humor, trivia, public
service, straight factual, etc.) will be optimal in increasing caller interest.
cognitive process of subjects may be eroded by the presence of "interference"
(Kerr, 1973), such as verbal information with the simultaneous application of
background music, the ideal verbal information should be free of these
effects. Such interference could divert attention or cause confusion for
callers during the holding period.
"wearout", as mentioned in the previous section, the length of the message on
hold program should be maximized in order to alleviate unsought repetition.
variable is the rate of speed at which the verbal information is
presented. Because faster rates have been shown to decrease attention and
disrupt cognitive elaboration (Moore, Hausknecht and Thamodaran, 1986), verbal
portions of the "on hold message" program should be of adequate length to avoid
the "machine gunning" of information.
Ideally, verbal information should be adjusted to have relatively the same
duration (in order to maintain the structured environment of the overall
message on hold program). Structural integrity will be furthered if
verbal information and music are employed in a predictable pattern throughout
the on hold message program.
an optimal "message on hold" program consisting of music on hold and verbal
presentations should incorporate the following:
A variety of information genres to
maximize caller interest and cognitive functions, placed in a structured
Maintenance of longer message on hold
program formats to minimize "wearout"
Upbeat and personable verbal
Information with no background music
Bargh, J.A. (1982), "Attention and
Automaticity in the Processing of Self Relevant Information", Journal of
Personality and Social Psychology, 43 (3), 425 - 436
Cacioppo, J.T. and R.E. Petty (1982),
"The Need for Cognition", Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,
42 (1), 116 - 131
Kerr, B., "Processing Demands During
Mental Operations", Memory and Cognition, Vol. 1 (4), 1973, 401 - 412
Lewin, Kurt (1946), "Behavior and
Development as a Function of the Total Situation", in Manual of Child Psychology,
ed. L. Carmichael, New York: Wiley and Sons; 791 - 844
Maister, David H. (1985), "The
Psychology of Waiting Lines", in The Service Encounter: Managing
Employee/Customer Interaction in Service Businesses, eds. John A.
Czepiel, Michael R. Solomon and Carol F. Surprenant, Lexington: Lexington
Books, 113 - 123
Moore, D.L., D. Hausknecht, and K.
Thamodaran (1986), "Time Compression, Response Opportunity, and Persuasion", Journal
of Consumer Research, 13 (1), 85 - 89