The art and science of being on hold

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They say silence is golden. But when it comes to being kept on hold at the end of a phone line, not so much. In fact, in the world of on-hold music and messaging, “silence is the sound of a missed opportunity.” That’s the catchy line used by Mood Media, the world’s leading provider of on-hold and in-store messaging.

Nature abhors a vacuum, particularly when that vacuum is the wait time experienced by a caller on hold with – worst-case scenario – an insurance company or a bank. That’s why hold music was created, as a space filler, a time killer, a way of mitigating the unpleasant no-man’s land of waiting. Well, at least that’s the basic concept. But these days, hold music is viewed as a sonic opportunity for engaging a caller. So, don’t hang up.

These days, hold music is viewed as a sonic opportunity for engaging a caller

“At first the market adopted this idea of using music on hold to decrease the perceived waiting time and also to fill in those awkward moments of silence,” says Danny Turner, Mood Media’s global SVP of creative programming. “And then more and more folks realised that this is a wonderful marketing opportunity in which one can convey messages about what’s happening with the business.”

But first let’s talk about the music.

Musical wallpaper

The stereotypical hold music is an insipid instrumental track, musical wallpaper similar to elevator (or lift) music. This kind of music was pioneered by the Muzak company beginning in the 1930s; typically, it offered instrumental versions of popular songs, albeit recorded by major band leaders of the day.

Over the years this kind of background mood music became so prevalent at workplaces and hotels – with speakers hidden in the potted palms – that it sparked a backlash: the brand name Muzak became a noun with negative connotations. The company went bankrupt in 2009 and was acquired by Mood Media, who ditched the Muzak name forever.

These days Mood Media has around 200 catalogues of music on tap, managed by music designers based all over the world to make sure “every global solution” is “looked at through a local lens,” according to Danny Turner. All of these playlists are rights or royalty-managed to make sure licensing considerations are dealt with, and thus can be used as in-store soundtracks or as hold music. It’s a far cry from the Muzak of yesteryear.

Falling flat

Despite this, the perception that hold music is bad still lingers. To test this, I recently called my doctor’s office hoping to be put on hold. The featured music was a classical guitar that quickly settled into a high-energy repeated groove, followed by a slower second track with ambient strings.

I definitely think hold music has a negative effect on mental health. I argue the main torture results from repetition – Dean Olsher

Neither was especially therapeutic because the sound quality down the phone line was really poor. “I definitely think hold music has a negative effect on mental health,” says Dean Olsher, a New York-based music therapist. “I argue the main torture results from repetition.”

Maybe this hints at the reason why “classic” hold music can drive us crazy. Audio quality on a telephone is often not so good. Because the audio is compressed and delivered without much equalisation, hold-musicologists recommend instrumental music that is textually suited to this kind of delivery (pop songs not withstanding). “You may want to stay away from things that are too lush, or that have dramatic shifts in tempo and energy,” says Turner. “You want to stay away from anything that is abrupt or that could be perceived as abrasive.”

A vintage example of this type of smooth track is the default hold music used by Cisco, the high-tech telecommunications company. The piece, called Opus No. 1, was composed in 1989 by Tim Carleton and Darrick Deel and recorded on a four-track in a garage. The music – with it retro 80s synth and drum loop – was probably destined for obscurity until Deel landed an IT job at Cisco and offered the piece as hold music for Cisco’s phones.

It was installed and more than 65 million phones later is now a global earworm. “It’s so awful and great at the same time,” commented one of the fans of the beloved cheesy track, which has had over 1.3 million views on YouTube alone.

Hold music as a branding tool

Nowadays hold music isn’t left to chance. There are companies like Business Voice, which specialises in on-hold marketing for mid- to large-size companies. They see the on-hold experience as an expression of brand identity, mixing music with a verbal message – which sounds closer to a radio advertisement than, say, an easy-listening jazz number.

Business is on board with this marketing-centric approach, if the membership of the Experience Marketing Association is an indication. The EMA, a consortium of agencies which promotes on-hold messaging as a “viable marketing tool”, has chapters in North America, Europe, and Australia. It estimates it serves up to 250,000 business locations, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg; plenty more hold “factories” – from Mood Media ­to small freelancers – serve the on-hold needs of international business.

When creating an on-hold marketing plan for a new client, Business Voice initiates a “caller experience” audit. They will determine things like how frequently the same person calls and the longest time a person will be put on hold. If the average hold time is five minutes, for example, a caller doesn’t want to hear a three-minute loop. The company also determines the caller demographic and from there creates its plan to make the call experience better. “You really want to use the time that people wait on hold to make them feel good about your company,” says Jerry Brown, the founder and CEO of Business Voice.

What this means is that on-hold music and messaging is necessarily curated according to the needs of the client and the customer. The music and the message are tailored to ensure a positive on-hold experience.

According to Brown, it gets quite scientific. For a company that has a queue for sales and a queue for services, Business Voice would create two completely different messages and formats on those separate call experiences. “A lot of time we pick out music based on beats per minute of a song. So, if you’re a customer service line where people are holding for 10 minutes, we don’t want to have high beats per minute. If it’s a sales queue and you’re trying to move people to action, we want to increase their heart rate a little bit,” explains Brown.

The company also pays attention to whether hold music should be in a major or a minor key, offering subtle emotional cues to the caller on hold

The company also pays attention to whether hold music should be in a major or a minor key, offering subtle emotional cues to the caller on hold.

The Grammys of hold music

The world of on hold music and messaging even has its own award. The MARCE Awards (formerly known as The Holdies and which stands for MARketing & Creative Excellence) is an annual competition held by the Experience Marketing Association. This year the four winners included Best Branding/Best of Show by Italian Street Kitchen, an Australian restaurant chain, which features a folky accordion track, ambient street noise, and an Italian-accented voiceover telling the caller “we will be with you presto.”

The “Most Effective” prize went to Behler-Young, a distributor of heating and cooling products based in the US Midwest, for its hold message tagged “I’m Sworn to Secrecy.” Created by Business Voice – which has scooped up many MARCE awards over the years – it’s a highly-produced sequence featuring spoof spy music, and a humourous voiceover track that channels Mission Impossible.

Humour on hold is another important concept for engaging callers. “If somebody can make me laugh in that space where there’s usually an ad, I feel more of an affection for that company,” says Scott Greggory, the chief creative officer of Business Voice. With a background in radio, Greggory pioneered the idea of making on-hold marketing palatable with what he calls the “spoonful of sugar” approach.

Despite all these sophisticated techniques, it’s fair to say most people loathe being on hold.

“Anything that you force your customers to listen to while they’re on hold for a long time really infuriates them”, says Samantha Mehra, a marketing communications manager at Fonolo, which is a provider of “cloud-based call-backs.” It wants to end hold times forever by offering callers the opportunity to receive a call back. The company powers a community site called #OnHoldWith, which tracks individual tweets ­– in all their visceral and hilarious glory – from frustrated customers kept on-hold across the globe. Airlines in particular come in for a lot of social media flak. Companies are paying attention, especially when these tweets go viral.

Please hold the funk

So, if hold music is about to become extinct, thanks to marketing or technology, maybe it’s time to embrace the wonderful world of hold music one more time.

I call up Asen Doykin, a New York-based jazz pianist and composer who performs regularly at prestigious venues worldwide including Blue Note, Birdland, and Lincoln Center. He has released two albums as a leader and composed numerous pieces of music for film, television, and theatre. If anyone could create a groovy, compelling piece of hold music for the ages, it’s Asen.

Surrounded by banks of keyboards in his home studio, Asen and I talk about how we should proceed. We want to avoid the hold music clichés: repetition, an unchanging rhythm pattern, the lack of harmonic variation. “Hold music hits you with the whole texture at the start, so in order to contrast this, let’s build it up,” Asen explains to me. I watch him lay in some funky jazz chords to open, before we hear the opening theme over an Afro-groove beat. “One thing we’re going to do is create different sections and different forms,” he says.

The opening theme on a classic electric piano evokes the jazz-funk style of Herbie Hancock’s classic album Head Hunters from 1973. “Very Herbie,” says Asen. “But I want to add some avant-garde sound design, maybe more like Radiohead.” He turns to his Prophet, a polyphonic analog synthesizer, sketching out some possible counter melodies over the piano track. It’s pretty thrilling to imagine how great this hold music could be.

At some point, the beat slows into a much slower waltz, over which Asen lays down big impressionistic chords, “kind of like Debussy or Ravel.” To me, the sequence could be the score to a melancholy scene from a classic French film.

“That’s one thing you don’t hear in hold music, a wide palette of emotions,” Asen observes.

Quelle tristesse, I think to myself. But here we are venturing into melancholy territory. As I consider whether it’s okay to actually tear up on hold, the music shifts again and we’re back to upbeat jazz groove. This takes us into the third part of the track when we decide to fade it out. It could go on, of course, but it has to end somewhere. The final track – written and produced by Asen Doykin – we called “Please Hold the Funk.”

Now put me back on hold…

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