How Being On Hold Affects Customers

Customers feel their time is valuable and they’ll respond better when they feel that you recognize the value of their time, too. By using a quality on-hold service, you’re showing them that you value their time and you’re less likely to have to deal with impatience and irritability when you or your customer service associates are finally able to speak with them.

The science behind on-hold services relies on the psychology of time and the perception of how time passes differently, depending upon the stimuli we’re exposed to.

Customers Spend a Lot of Time on Hold

on-hold-services-convertYou’d be surprised at just how much time people spend waiting on hold to talk to a real person. A 2012 study performed by ResearchNow found that the average person spends between 10 and 13 minutes on hold per week, which doesn’t sound like all that much. The minutes add up, though, to a lifetime average of around 43 days on hold. It’s no wonder customers are irate at spending time on hold while waiting to speak to a customer service agent.

The study also notes that, of 500 surveyed participants, 86 percent report being put on hold when calling a business. A total of 58 percent of those surveyed became angry when calling a business and being put on hold, and 48 percent felt that calling a business was useless.

How You Spend Your Time Changes Your Perception

A 1985 study by former Harvard Business School professor David Maister proposed eight concepts that influenced people who were waiting for customer service.

  • The first proposition, that unoccupied time feels longer than occupied time, posits that if a customer is busy or otherwise engaged while waiting, their perception of time is altered to feel as if it is passing more quickly.
  • The second proposition is that pre-process waits feel longer than in-process waits. In short, if you answer the call and say “I’m sorry, can you please hold?”, that wait time feels shorter than if you were to send the customer straight to your on-hold service.
  • If a customer is anxious, submits the third proposition, the wait feels longer.
  • By putting customers at ease, you’ll experience a greater customer satisfaction rate. If the customer knows how long they might have to wait, they’ll feel like the time spent on hold is shorter, according to the fourth proposition.
  • The fifth proposition, that unexplained waits seem longer than explained waits, stresses the importance of answering customer calls before sending them on to your hold music or message.
  • The sixth proposition indicates that consumers feel that unfair waits seem longer than equitable waits – something usually out of the business’s control.
  • The seventh proposition suggests that a more valuable service or product will make customers wait longer, and the perceived wait is directly proportionate to the quality and value of your goods or services.
  • The eighth proposition from Maisters states that solo waiting feels longer than group waiting. This largely applies to in-person queue management, but using inclusive, group-centric language in your on-hold message can convey the same ideas over the phone.

Maister uses these propositions to create what he terms the First and Second Laws of Service. The first law is explained by a formula: S=P-E. Maister explains:

“In this formulation, ‘S’ stands for satisfaction, ‘P’ for perception and ‘E’ for expectation. If you expect a certain level of service, and perceive the service reviewed to be higher, you are a satisfied client. If you perceive the same level as before, but expected higher, you are disappointed and, consequently, a dissatisfied client.”

Maister goes on to explain his second law through the phrase “It’s hard to plan catch-up ball”. This colloquialism he explains as:

“The corollary to this law is the proposition that there is a halo-effect created by the early stages of any service encounter, and that if money, time and attention is to be spent in improving the perceived quality of service, then the largest payback may well occur in these early stages.” (

Reduce Negative Perceptions by Offering More Value and Information

Confirming Maister’s propositions that value increases customer satisfaction, a 2000 study by Gerrit Antonides, et. al., studied customer perceptions of telephone wait times. Unlike Maisters and previous studies, which measured only the relationship between the objective factors in on-hold or wait times in queues and their effect on the subjective factors, the Antonides study sought to measure the psychophysical effects, or how the brain processed the effects and any subsequent physical effects on the body of the customer.

Antonides and his colleagues conducted two experiments wherein customers called an informational telephone number. Researchers varied the wait times and measured the psychophysical relationship between the objective and perceived time, as well as the monetary costs of waiting. Researchers also studied the effects of music and information on expected wait times

Antonides explains the psychophysical effects of waiting as follows:
“The estimated effect of objective waiting time on the consumer’s perceived wait was marginally decreasing, as predicted by psychophysical theory. Furthermore, wait evaluations were influenced by the difference between the stated acceptability of the waiting time and the actual perceived waiting time. Moreover, the monetary costs of waiting increased the negative effect of perceived waiting time on the consumer’s evaluation of the wait. Information about expected waiting time had a significantly negative effect on perceived waiting time. Furthermore, waiting time and queue information moderated the effect of perceived waiting time on wait evaluation.”

Simply put, how long a customer felt they were waiting differed from how long they actually waited, and depended on the overall experience, it differed. A positive experience decreased perceptions of wait time, while a negative experience made customers overestimate how long they had been on hold. In addition to changing perceptions, the more valuable the service, the less a customer felt they were waiting, and the more that was explained (with regard to how long a customer would wait and how many people were ahead of them waiting to be served), kept customers from feeling like they were waiting longer than they actually were.

You can use the Antonides study to your advantage by offering customers information about expected wait times and how many customers are in the queue to increase customer satisfaction and make the wait seem shorter.

Hold Music Matters

In addition to providing wait time information to your customers, playing on-hold music helps fill the time while giving value to that time (as demonstrated by Antonides and others). In a 2014 study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, researcher Karen Niven illustrates that the type of music you play matters.

Using a 2012 study by Barbara Krahé and Steffen Bieneck, which found that customers who listened to pleasant music, such as classical, reported a more positive mood than those exposed to aversive (hardcore, heavy metal, techno) music or no music at all, Niven further expounds on these findings:

“ … lyrics can influence people’s interpersonal behavior in desirable ways; specifically, listening to music with lyrics about helping (termed “prosocial” lyrics) reduces people’s aggression,”

Serene music with positive lyrical themes is more likely to appeal to your customers and put them in a pleasant mood when you finally get to their calls. Unless you know specifically that the bulk of your target market are fans of hardcore heavy metal, steer clear of loud, driving, angry music with negative lyrics in order to make customers feel like their time has been spent well.

This theory is not carved in stone, however. A 1992 study by James J. Kellaris and Moses B. Altsech examined how the type and genre of music affected customers (by gender) who were exposed to on-hold services. Kellaris found that light jazz decreased customer perceptions of wait time, though the type of jazz preferred differed between men and women. Men felt time was decreased when classical music played, while women experienced the opposite effect when exposed to classical.  Rock was the least preferred among both groups, and adult pop/alternative had the least positive or negative effect among both genders: it was the least divisive.

Knowing your target market and taking into account their preferences when choosing on-hold music can create harmony in telephone queues.

Providing the Best On Hold Services

Providing the best on-hold services, as explained by science, involves valuing your customers’ time and demonstrating that fact. By taking into consideration their needs and wants when it comes to a queue management situation, you can make customers feel that wait time is shorter, while influencing their mood to evoke a positive response.