How many times per day does your company place customers on hold? If you have no idea, it might be more than you think. If you want to find out, head over to the customer service area when the phones are busy with a notepad and a pen. Over a half hour time period, make a tick mark every time you hear the word hold. That should give you a pretty good idea. Or, if you don’t want to do the work, ask your team to make a tick mark every time someone is placed on hold. I bring this up because one of the questions I constantly address is, “How long should we put people on hold?”

After I let someone tell me all of the “great” reasons that customers are asked to endure that experience my answer is always the same:

You should never place a customer on hold.

This is upsetting to most people who ask about hold length, and they immediately start in with, “But what about…?” I will listen to all of the “necessary” hold scenarios, but then I ask how much hold they would tolerate from a service they were spending money with. The first answer is always something about needing correct information, and some other excuse that relates to the reasons they mentioned earlier, but I ask the question again. How much hold time would you tolerate from a service you are going to purchase?

The answer is always some form of “Not much, but…” with the “but” in that thought being the explanation as to why their customers should be different from themselves. In my mind, it all boils down to customer experience, and any time on hold is too long. Once whoever I’m talking to about this calms down and is willing to listen, I challenge them to do that exercise I mentioned earlier — marking down every time they have to place someone on hold and why. The goal of this exercise is not to add on to your team’s already busy day, but to figure out what we can do to eliminate as much of the hold as possible. The only way we can cut down or eliminate time on hold is to find out why the customer was put there in the first place.

Time flows at a different rate when you are on hold. Say your customer service representative (CSR) asks someone to hold on for just a minute while they get them an answer. Your CSR might try calling the extension of the person who knows, but they don’t always pick up. In fact, the odds of that person just sitting there with nothing else to do but answer a random question are thin. So, your CSR runs to the office as fast as they can only to find that no one is there or the door is closed. The same reason the phone wasn’t answered usually means that person isn’t able to talk right now, but the CSR is still hustling to try and get an answer.

The customer has only been on hold for a couple minutes in your employee’s mind, but that is an eternity from the customer perspective. And, once the CSR picks back up they still haven’t found an answer. This does nothing for the perception of your organization. Once you find out why people are being placed on hold you need to begin to address these reasons one at a time. I will give you a couple examples:

  1. The person on the phone has asked to speak with someone directly. You should explain that you could pass on a message or send the caller into that person’s voicemail, but everyone is extremely busy throughout the day. This eliminates the hold by giving your people a direct action that would be the most likely result of placing them on hold to see if the person could take a call.
  2. The person has a question the CSR can’t answer. Then, the CSR should take ownership. Set an expectation for finding the answer and getting back to the customer. Then, meet or beat that expectation.
  3. The person demands a manager. Try to find out what is going on. If the caller won’t elaborate, try and determine if this is a customer or someone attempting to sell your company something. If it is a sales or general information call, then your team should know exactly where to transfer the call. If it is an upset customer, then you should have a detailed procedure that includes printing their information and delivering it to a manager; the manager will then contact the technician who ran the call. Once that is completed, the customer should expect a call back within 24 hours. Once again, here you are setting an expectation for the consumer with the goal of meeting or beating it.

You can find an alternative to most “let me place you on a brief hold” situations, it just takes some time to figure out why you are putting them there in the first place.

And one final question: What does your hold sound like? Everyone who puts someone in your system should know what they are listening to while they wait. I listen to a lot of recorded calls in my job and there are few things worse than listening from a customer’s perspective to an on-hold message talking about how fast and reliable the company is. You should not only know what they hear, but how often it repeats. If your hold loop is 30 seconds and your average customer hold time is two minutes, then they are hearing the same thing four times, and no one likes that.

Publication date: 4/12/2017