Allison Smith

You Are NOT the Next Caller in Line…

While recording the “serious” Asterisk prompts for Digium one day a couple of years ago, I got creative and threw in a “joke” prompt that had been brewing in my mind for awhile: What would happen if, while patiently waiting to talk to someone in a company, they truly did forget that you were on hold? We’ve all had thoughts that all a company’s agents hung up their headsets and moved en masse to the coffee room for a smart two-hour break to discuss the series finale of “Lost,” while you—represented by a lone red light blinking balefully on a console—cling to the hope that they really are almost finished untangling another customers’ issues and they’re this close to pressing your line and asking if they can help you. Even worse, what if they disappeared to Starbucks or, worse still, signed off for the day and headed home with dozens of other similarly discouraged lights still blinking on their consoles?

Here’s the file of “You Are *Not* The Next Caller In Line…”:

It was an immediate cult favorite in the Asterisk community, and circulated wildly. The idea that a normal-sounding telephone voice eventually cracks under the pressure of endlessly having to reassure callers with empty rhetoric, and does a complete psychological loop-de-loop; confessing that no, actually, the caller will not be helped by the next available caller (in factm I rant in the recording, “the next human voice you hear will probably be the cleaning lady! At 11:30 at night, picking up the receiver and saying, ‘Hhhallo?””) It’s a fleeting thought that has likely hit all of us as we are silently calculating the likelihood of our call actually getting answered; estimating whether or not we’re bigger fools by sticking it out on hold (“But I already have 12.34 minutes invested in this call!”) or if you should cut your losses at 12.34 minutes, hang up, and go live your life.

Obviously, you want to be able to keep people interested in your company and make sure that even those who are waiting to interact with your company are made as comfortable as possible and as engaged as they can be, especially in those first formative minutes of limbo before they actually interface with your agent. On hold is really just a waiting room, so what aspects of an actual waiting room contribute to the onerous nature of waiting?

The main one is time. It’s crucial to ensure that your customers’ time on hold really is kept to a minimum. When I’m asked to read three lengthy pages of on-hold segments for one system, my question (unspoken)  is usually, “How LONG are they expecting to keep these poor people waiting?” Sure, nobody wants to listen to the same three on-hold paragraphs looping over and over again, but a system that extends into 15 minutes? Time to re-assess the number of your call center staff.

Back to the waiting room analogy: I don’t think I’ve ever read an entire paragraph in a magazine in my dentist’s office or could tell you what color the walls are. At my doctor’s, on the other hand, I pack a lunch and bring a couple of books. (FYI: The wall color is Sherwin Williams #2933, cafe au lait.) Imagine, instead, that your client’s time on hold was so brief that they don’t even remember it. What would that be like?

Another waiting room pitfall you don’t want to duplicate in your on-hold queue is boredom. Don’t be that dog-eared issue of People Magazine “Spoiler Alert” edition from 1987, threatening to give away the season ender of “Night Court.”  Use your already refreshingly brief on-hold program to give callers succinct, current, and fascinating informational snippets about your company and why they’re incredibly smart to have called in the first place.

Imagine if, while waiting to see your doctor, the nurse made a grand entrance into the waiting room at perfectly timed intervals and said something like, “We appreciate everyone for waiting. Your time is valuable. We’re busy giving another patient the same legendary service we look forward to giving to you when the next available doctor is ready to see you in just a few moments.” The first time, you might think: “Oh. OK. Nice.” Every five minutes? It might get on your nerves.

I always advise clients who ask my opinion about their on-hold systems to get us to a live agent faster rather than using up even more time explaining how valuable our time is. That’s all.

Use brevity, keep the information pertinent and interesting, and don’t wear people out with apologies/platitudes/promises to serve them better as soon as you can, just serve them better now. Just like time in the hairdresser’s chair or in an elevator, when you’re on hold, you’re in a liminal state waiting to live. Treat your customers in this suspended state as well as you can, and you’ll have designed your on-hold system well.

(PS: Another aspect that should be avoided in on-hold systems as well as waiting rooms is the antiseptic-yet-haunting musical stylings of  Kenny G. I’m just saying.)


Allison Smith is a professional telephone voice, having voiced platforms for Sprint, Verizon, Qwest, Cingular, Bell Canada, Vonage, Twitterfone, Hawaiian Telcom, and the Asterisk Open-Source PBX. Her Web site is

One Response

  1. Jakk
    Jakk February 23, 2011 at 11:40 am |

    I remember when I was 16 and I called a company in America regarding a product I purchased (can’t name them). I was put on hold, and after 3 minutes, a robotic voice came on and said ‘Please bare with us, all our reps are currently on the other line, so go grab yourself a biscuit and dunk it in your tea’ (to which I politely obliged).

    I stayed on for another 5 minutes, when again it came back on, and amuzingly said ‘did you enjoy that biscuit, biscuit boy? Yeah? Well I want one, okay?’

    I eventually got through to a real person who had no idea what I was talking about. The joke was on me, I guess.

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