Anatomy of an On-Hold Message

I was recently placed On-Hold at a financial institution, and heard this On-Hold message:

Anatomy of an On-Hold Message

I was struck by a couple of things, and since Prosound did not produce this On-Hold message, I’m going to break it down for you here.

First of all, it’s not just a “thank you for holding” message. There’s more information in there to let me know I’ve called a financial institution.

It has holiday closings listed, which is fantastic! (It’s always good to communicate closings and hour changes with your customers as much as possible!)

There are tips for online shopping security, as well as shopping in the “real” world.

And there’s even a reminder to change your clock back to Standard Time on Sunday, November 7th.

So, what’s missing?

Nowhere…not once…ever…is the name of the financial institution listed. Go back and listen again, if you didn’t catch it. It’s all right; I’ll wait.

“So what’s the big deal?” you might ask.

Here’s the thing:

This strategy is quite brilliant actually—but only for the On-Hold message production company. It has created a set of messages that is recorded once, and sold over and over again to financial institutions nationwide.

The strategy is not so brilliant for the bank that’s using it, and here’s why:

  • It doesn’t reinforce the name of the bank to each and every customer.
  • It doesn’t help strengthen the bank’s other marketing and branding efforts outside the bank, like it could if it were part of those efforts.
  • It lacks a distinct relevance that only a unique On-Hold message can provide. Relevance is created by connecting with the perspective of the listener. The more specific you can be in your messaging, the more believable your message will be.

Every business has a story to tell.

Telling the story that is uniquely yours will create stronger relationships with your clients and prospects, making it a much harder choice for them to leave you, or to choose your competition.

I admit that finding your unique story is more difficult than simply selecting a few pseudo-customized-for-your-industry messages. But your customers and callers will thank you.

Keep these things in mind as you approve your ad copy…whatever medium it’s in:

  • Ads that fail in one medium will usually fail in others.
  • The medium is not the message; the message is the message.

And the message is what matters most!

What Should Your On-Hold Sound Like?

On-Hold Options


This TED video from Julian Treasure has a lot to teach about the use of sound in business. Take a moment to watch it, and then I’ll point out a few ways you can make the most of this information.


First, you may have noticed some pretty big numbers….a drop of 66 percent in productivity in open-plan office environments and a sales drop of up to 28 percent in a retail environment when inappropriate sound is present.

I especially liked his observation that we, “…move away from unpleasant sound and toward comfortable sounds.”

Telephone Sound is one of eight types of commercial sound that Treasure talks about. If you haven’t thought about the rest of your soundscape, your phone sound signature is a good place to start. A Caller Experience expert can help craft your phone sound to be a reflection of your business goals. You can go from there into more purposeful and directed tactics for every other element of sound in the business.

If you already have a unique soundscape in your advertising, in-store experience, products and services, you’ve made that expert’s job easier, but no less urgent.

Crafting and producing an On-Hold message is not good territory for Do-It-Yourself business marketers. As a business owner, you’re likely only to mention information that’s important to you, while failing to take a customer-centric view. You risk falling into instruction mode instead of taking an informative and (if appropriate) entertaining strategy.

But not all On-Hold message companies are created equal. Here are some of the pitfalls to watch out for from any On-Hold provider:


  • They offer “canned,” pre-produced, or fill-in-the-blank messages.
  • They expect the business owner to write the scripts.
  • They leave it up to you to remember to make changes to your message throughout the year.
  • They make no attempt to customize your message to match the sound signature of your business and other marketing efforts.
  • They provide equipment that doesn’t allow instant updates, flexible scheduling, and constant monitoring.


A great On-Hold message provider will:


  • Thoroughly uncover the key values of the business.
  • Dig deep enough to find the important facts for the message.
  • Provide turn-key support and quick response for updating messages.
  • Provide advanced playback equipment.
  • Monitor your system’s actual playback on a regular basis.


I like Treasure’s first three golden rules of commercial sound:


  1. Make it congruent (with the core values and other sound elements of the business).
  2. Make it appropriate (to the intended listeners).
  3. Make it valuable (by offering more than a caller expected to hear).


So, what’s holding you back?

If you’re abusing your customers by delivering a bad phone experience, it is one of the easiest marketing touch points to fix.

If you’re not sure what kind of experience you’re delivering, get it evaluated.

If you currently offer flat, dead silence, that’s the best place to start.

Do You Really Need an On-Hold Message?

One question I get asked in the On-Hold message consultations my company offers is whether or not a company can benefit from a custom On-Hold message.

So how will you, the busy business owner, know when an investment to reach your callers while On-Hold will return good results?

How many calls do you receive?

Over the course of a day, a week, or even a month…how many calls does your business receive? Have you ever thought about counting them? Have you ever tried?

You could get your receptionist or employees just to make a quick tally whenever they answer the calls. It might not be the most technologically advanced method, but it will give you a better understanding of how many calls you do receive!

How long are callers On-Hold?

I talk with some companies who tell me, “We don’t put people On-Hold,” but willing it not to happen doesn’t mean it never does.

Being On-Hold is a fact of life for most businesses. But On-Hold time really falls into two categories:

1. Long hold times…like call centers, tech support, and customer service. These are hold times counted in tens of minutes. (I know…I was On-Hold with American Express for forty-two minutes!)

2. Short hold times…these are hold times that we often don’t think about. Being transferred to another person, sent to voicemail, or waiting while someone looks up our order. These hold times are usually measured in seconds. You may be On-Hold for ten seconds while going to voicemail, thirty seconds while being transferred to the person with whom you would like to speak, or for a minute or two while someone looks up your order or checks the stock of an item.

These two very different categories require different approaches. But for category #2, which most small businesses fall into, optimizing that On-Hold time can bring great value to the caller.

So how do you measure it?

Spend two days asking your staff to track how many calls go On-Hold or are transferred. Again, a simple tally will work. Monitoring a few of those calls will give you a great idea of how long the average hold time is at your company.

With that information, you can begin to measure the value that a custom On-Hold message can bring to your company.

And if your business really is one of those that doesn’t put people On-Hold, you’ll find that out as well.

Quantifying the Caller Experience will give you a clearer picture of the areas where your Caller Experience can improve to maximize customer service.

Remember, you can’t improve what you don’t measure!

Hold the Cheese!

Most On-Hold messages are cheesy. Cheesy because they talk about things that callers don’t care about, in a way that doesn’t make callers want to listen. For example, reminding you that “Your call is important to us” and to “Please continue to hold” simply frustrates your caller even more! Cheesy because someone simply didn’t take the time to ask, “Will our callers think this sound cheesy?”

Most On-Hold experiences are not fun and engaging. Most callers would ask not to be put On-Hold…and some will demand not to be!

But with a little effort and thought, you can create an On-Hold experience that has callers asking to be put back On-Hold!

Do You Really Need to Change Your Message?


One of the keys to having a great caller experience is to keep the On-Hold message current and up-to-date. So how do you do that? How do you know when to change it, how often to change it, and what to change? That depends on a number of factors. What is the profile of your caller? In other words, does he call in regularly, once a week, month, or year? Or does he interact with you heavily for a week, then not at all for a couple of months? How long is he On-Hold? What are the top three or four things callers ask about when they call in? Is there information that would really be helpful for them to hear?

These are some of the questions that you need to consider as you walk through the process of creating a complete On-Hold program.


It’s not just as simple as slapping a message on your phones, and checking that off the To-Do list. If you really want a powerful Caller Experience, it takes understanding your business, understanding your caller, and understanding how people think.



Don’t Put Me On-Hold!

How often have you heard, “Don’t put me On-Hold!” I’ll bet you’ve thought that a few times yourself!

Being On-Hold is often a frustrating  experience. But let’s break it down to examine why it’s frustrating.
Taking your time

Number one, it’s taking up your time. Time that could be spent doing other things. And companies that have long hold times (we’re talking more than five minutes or so), really need to reevaluate their staffing or procedures for handling calls.



Ah…the dreaded silence. Have I been disconnected? Am I being transferred? Did I just get put into the phone system’s Black Hole? (Most phone systems have one of those—you knew that, right? Somewhere that callers go, never to be heard from again!) As a business, putting your callers On-Hold to silence is one of the worst things you can do to hurt your Caller Experience. It’s like asking people to stand in line with a blindfold on. They’re just not going to stick around! But give them something relevant and interesting to listen to while they’re On-Hold, and the wait time will seem very much diminished!


It’s all about me

If you do have an On-Hold message…congratulations on “getting it.” Now, what does it say? You see, callers want to hear about themselves. They want to hear how your service or products are going to make their lives better…how they are going to help them and change their lives for the better. They don’t want to hear a message that is all about you—all about how long you’ve been in business or how great you or your products are. This kind of message comes across the phone lines as “blah, blah, blah.” But tell a story, make the caller the star, and you’ll experience a much happier customer when you pick up the phone!

Give Callers Personal Value

The party line is dead.

It’s over.

Replaced by the sophistication of electronics. (That is, unless you live in one of the eighty-one cabins in Big Santa Anita Canyon high above L.A.)

Ahhhh, the steamroller of progress. A very good thing this time.

The party line’s completely non-private service made eavesdropping opportunities abound. If another caller were on the line when you needed to make a call…too bad…you were waiting.

But when it comes to business, have you realized that the party line is dead? No longer do multiple people share a phone call to your company.

It’s a direct, one-to-one relationship. Have you customized your On-Hold message to reflect that reality?


Talk to that one caller in his or her language.

“Well, how?” you say. “How can I have a customized On-Hold message? Lots of people call me!”

Right, but have you considered who those “lots of people” really are?


Mike Wittenstein, Chief Experience Officer at Storyminers, says the most important factor for delivering a great customer experience is to know your customer. Personally.

That personal knowledge allows you to understand how your product, service, or company fits into the customer’s life—what it is that makes him or her value your product.


Rather than build the Caller Experience with your entire customer list in view, pick one, and design it for that customer. Choose a customer you know personally, and build your message around how your product or service improved that customer’s life. Tell a story, with your customer as the star.

Sure, other callers will hear that. And when it doesn’t fit their exact situations, they’ll think, “Wow, if this company is ‘all that’ for that customer, it can probably solve my problem as well!”


Applying this tactic to other areas of your Caller Experience is even more straightforward. Here’s a great example from DSW Shoes.



You see, if you want to connect with an individual caller, you have to talk to them like an individual!


How to Think Like a Caller

Inside the Caller’s Head

My friend Roy Williams taught me that it’s hard to read the label from inside the bottle. What you think is your “inside reality”—the customer experience inside your doors—is only what your customer says it is. Nothing more. And thankfully, nothing less. That also means you have the opportunity to surprise and delight your customer with unexpected service.

A while  back, I ended up owning two identical, brand new iPads.  Well, when I found out I wouldn’t have to pay a restocking fee to Apple to return one of them, I decided to send one back. It was only after I decided to return one that I found out Apple not only would not charge a restocking fee, but they would send me a prepaid return shipping label, and the return wouldn’t cost me a thing. As in free! I was delighted.

And the reason I was delighted (aside from saving the money, of course) is because it was unexpected. Nowhere does Apple advertise “Free return shipping…you can send it back, and not pay a dime!” It’s just something Apple does, and it makes me like doing business with them.

So what do you do to delight your customers? What are the little…or big…things you could do to surprise and delight your existing customers? Strengthening the bond with your existing customer base is one of the best ways to increase your revenue.

So why is it that it often goes the other way? You woo customers in with fantastic ads and heartfelt promises, but then once they’re “in the fold,” they are no longer on the “To Be Delighted” list?

So here’s a way to have some fun, and maybe discover some ways to delight more customers:

  • Get out of the office…business…or whatever work environment you are in. That’s right, go ahead.
  • Grab a cup of your favorite beverage, and contemplate your business category:
  • Are there any preconceived notions or misconceptions that prevent more people from coming to your business, or buying what you sell?
  • What mistakes do some competitors make? That is, how could they create a more fulfilling customer experience?
  • Now, call your business, and ask for directions to your store. Pay attention to what this experience sounds like…how the phone is answered…what you hear as a customer.
  • Walk into your business and buy something. Was it easy? Did you enjoy the experience? What was the environment like?

Sometimes it takes getting out of the familiar to see things from another perspective. And even then it’s hard! You might be surprised at the view from outside the bottle!

Empower Your Customer Service People

I’m a huge fan of empowering your front line people to do what they need to do in order to make your customers happy. I’m constantly baffled at companies that give their Customer Service Reps the power to make very attractive offers to potential or former customers, but if I, as an existing customer, am unhappy or upset, there is virtually nothing they can offer to keep me as a customer.

Ann Brady talks about an experience she and her husband had with their satellite dish company. After more than four years as a loyal, paying customer, they noticed a problem with the reception. When they asked to have someone come take a look at it, they were told it would be $100. That is the only option customer service was empowered to offer. When Ann informed the customer service rep that she could get brand new satellite equipment for free from the company’s competitor, she was told to go ahead and switch, which Ann and her husband did. After they switched, the first company called to ask why they left, so Ann told them the story. The employee agreed that “After four years, we should have fixed it for free.” Too late. Ann had signed a new one-year agreement and couldn’t be happier with their new, free, digital video recorder.

Examples like these are not at all uncommon in the customer service world. Give your customer service people…your frontline customer contact points…the power to solve customers’ problems—to do whatever it takes (within reason) to make your customers happy.

Here are some tips for empowering your customer service department:

1.) Depending on the nature of the complaint, arm your customer service employees with the ability to offer incentives to unhappy customers to encourage them not to leave.

For example, if you normally charge for a service call, but you’re facing the prospect of losing a ten-year customer, allow the customer service representative to offer half off.

2.) If your company screwed up, and your customer calls you on it, allow your customer service people to admit that a mistake was made, apologize, and offer something to make up for it, perhaps a free month of service, or a coupon for a discount on a future order.

Nothing is more aggravating than having someone apologize without admitting any wrongdoing (i.e. “I’m sorry you feel that way,” or “I’m sorry you’re upset about that.”) Teach your people to say, “I’m sorry; we were wrong. What can we do to make it up to you?” While the customer isn’t “always right,” reacting this way can go a long ways toward keeping a customer.

3.) Toss the scripts. Giving customer service people lists of things to say to unhappy customers turns your people into nothing more than robots. With today’s voice recognition technology, you may as well use an automated response system.

Train your customer service people on how to act like human beings. Provide them with the kind of conflict-resolution training they need to turn unhappy customers into people who at least believe your company cares about their problems and wants to help them.

4.) Offer incentives to customer service people who retain unhappy customers.

For example, record your calls, and once a month give an award to the customer service representative who does the best job turning angry customers into happy ones.

5.) Don’t wait for the customer to insist on speaking to a manager. If the customer service representative’s authority to offer a solution is not enough to retain the customer, it should be standard procedure for the representative to request time to consult a supervisor and possibly bring him or her into the discussion.

Angry Callers

At one time or another, we all are going to have to answer the phone to talk with an angry or upset caller. When that situation happens, here are a few things to remember.

Don’t React in Frustration

If you match the caller’s anger or upset feelings in your response to him, the call, and the relationship, will quickly melt into a puddle of irreplaceable hard feelings. So the first thing to do is…to NOT do! Don’t react with frustration; don’t respond in anger, and don’t even make a smart comment. The best thing to do is to stay calm.
Empathize with the Caller

Most of the time, if you can empathize with the caller, you will gain his ear, and calm him down at the same time. Empathy is understanding or entering into another’s feelings. Convey that you understand why the caller might be upset, and that it’s not an unreasonable reaction (even if it’s not the most productive reaction!). Seeing the situation from the caller’s perspective is the first thing the caller really wants you to do.


Take Some Blame for the Company

I recently had an excellent example of an employee taking the blame for the company when I called Starbucks. I had purchased a coffee cup, and used it once, and the second time I went to use it, my coffee poured out all around the lid! As coffee ran down my chin and on my shirt, I couldn’t believe what was happening! When I took off the cup’s lid, I saw right away that the cup had been cracked, all around the top, and there was no way it could be fixed. I called Starbucks to ask what it suggested I do about this situation since I suspected that the first time I used the cup, a barista had dropped it, and I felt that could have caused the cracking.

When I spoke with the Starbucks representative, the first thing he did was take full responsibility for the incident. No questions asked. There was never any implication that it might have been my fault, and never any hedging on the fact that the company was going to take care of me. Right away, he asked whether I could send him the receipt for the cup so he could give me a refund. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the receipt anymore, so he asked what I had paid for the cup. I told him it was ten or eleven dollars to the best of my memory. He let me know that without the receipt, he couldn’t issue an exact refund, but that he would be happy to send me a $10 gift card if that were acceptable to me. He also took careful notes of the cup type, and let me know that the company tracks incidents with its cups, so it can improve on them.

Then, in a move that sealed my feelings about Starbucks, he said, “Now, you mentioned that it spilled on your shirt. Is there anything we need to do to clean or replace your shirt?” Do you see how taking the blame for the incident led him to going beyond what I felt was even necessary in order to resolve my situation? But if he had been hedging up front, and even grudgingly offered a refund, I wouldn’t have felt nearly as good about the company as I do now! (And sharing this story with you is free press for Starbucks!)

By taking the blame for the company, the employee allowed for there to be only a very small step between solving my complaint, and making me a fan of Starbucks for life!