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What the callers should hear when Waiting on the Phone

If you run a company which has more people calling on the phone than can be coped with by the number of telephone receptionists you have, it would be nice to think that the people waiting for the phone to be answered were patiently and calmly waiting, assured that a happy outcome would be likely, and were not getting exasperated, upset, and angry, and at the end of their tether, just waiting for someone to answer the phone!

Patience is a virtue which very few people have, especially these days. But however patient folk are, waiting there on the phone, heaving a sigh every now and then, waiting, ... it's best to make the most of whatever patience people have, rather than to have a really annoying phone waiting system that gets people upset even before they've got the part where they get to talk to the company's staff!

Getting this right can save a lot of fuss and trouble, and can keep customers happy as well as reducing staff stress. So, why do companies get it wrong? Why do so many companies have such an annoying badly designed telephone waiting system? Well it's funny you should ask that, because I was about to tell you. It's because the people designing the phone waiting system for the company don't road-test it.

When someone designs a car, they test it by driving it, to see what it's like. Then they refine it.

To test a phone waiting system, it's easy. Just phone up and pretend to be a customer, and see what it's like. Imagine how you would feel if you were a customer phoning the company. Then, refine the system.

Obviously it would be nice if someone phoning the company was immediately put through to talk to the human. But that's not always possible. Sometimes callers can be kept waiting a long time, so let's see what can be done to produce calmness rather than exasperation. Phone waiting systems can be improved to be good for the health.

I'll explain a few of the things that can be especially bad when waiting on the phone, and then I'll comment on some good practice.

* "You have been put in a queue and will be answered as soon as an agent becomes available" [a few seconds of music] "You are still being held in a queue and will be answered as soon as an agent becomes available" [a few seconds of music] "We are sorry about the delay and you are still being held in a queue" [another very short snatch of music] "All representatives are busy and we are still keeping you waiting in a queue" etc. OK, we know we are waiting in a phone queueing system, so we don't need reminding about it. Reminding people every few seconds that they are "still in a queue" is not going to improve their patience. Imagine what would happen if the Post Office did this while you were waiting queueing up inbetween those little barrier things that you can't lean on! Also, the short gaps between the persistent apologies are an insult to the patience of the customer! I would rather hear a minute of music on a phone than hear repeated apologies. On the worst of these systems, the recorded message starts off with a click and an intake of breath, so as to fool the caller into thinking the call has been answered by the human at last! Good practice on this is to have a calm introduction by the recorded voice to tell the caller that they will be waiting, almost like a DJ introducing the music, and then the calm music starts and continues for quite a while before anything else happens. If the phone isn't answered for a while, a message with Different content should then be played to reassure the customer. The tone of the voice can say quite a lot. on the best systems for phone waiting, the robot is intelligent enough to tell the caller what Position they are in the queue. This is good because it reassures the customer that they are making progress and they are very likely to get to talk to someone soon. Also it deters hanging up, as it's clear they'll go to the back of the queue. Just this simple addition to a phone queueing system can make a lot of difference to the patience people have in waiting on the phone.

* "Please press [1] if your enquiry is about a purchase you have already not made, press [2] if you want to talk about excuses why you haven't paid your bill, press [3] if you want to talk about the special offer in a newspaper, and if you haven't got a touch tone phone, press [4]! ... sorry, that option is not available ... we did not detect an input ... Press [1] to ..." (repeat) . Ask most people and they'll tell you this kind of thing is Very Annoying. But they might not be able to tell you why. I know why. Firstly, not everyone has a touch tone phone. But more notably, the options are not a complete set of things. The chances are that the caller wants to press None of the Above! To resolve this, it's best if the options are not a long list, and if there is an acceptable choice which is to refrain from pressing any pushbuttons on the phone. There was a time when OneTel had a phone pushbutton selecting system which was so unusable that it was best to just wait for about two minutes for the robot to fall through all its default choices and to repeat the whole lot however many times it was programmed to do and to eventually get to the point where you could get to talk to the human. But at least with OneTel the system was predictable and you didn't have to wait and listen to all the answering machine waffle to see if the click and intake of breath was a live human or not. This saved some energy.

The worst of these pushbutton select phone systems assume you have a touch-tone phone, assume you can only possibly want A, B, or C and no other possibilities, and if you don't conform they just repeat the message and then hang up. That's bad practice and will lose the company some business. The good systems have a brief set of time-saving shortcut options and if you don't choose to take them then you go on to wait a while and talk to a living person.

We sometimes joke about these badly designed call-waiting systems with tone-dial phone assumptions and bad option-choice menus as follows: "If you are an elephant, press 1. If you are a giraffe, press 2. To hear these options again, press 3".

Also, on the design of these press phone buttons to select systems, some of them allow the caller to press options before the recorded voice has finished speaking. This saves time. We already know that it's "regulated and controlled by the Financial Services Authority" (for example) and we don't need to hear the whole message played out slowly and deliberately.

I almost forgot to mention, there is a small minority of companies where the very bad practice goes on where you are deliberately left waiting on the phone so the company can make money out of the call! This is thankfully rare, but you should be aware it has been known to happen. If it's an expensive 0870 number, or an 0871 number, and you've been waiting more than two minutes, you may consider what alternative options there might be, as in "voting with your feet"! Most companies aren't a monopoly and have competitors. Also, buying online is quite good!

The dirty trick of keeping you waiting can also be seen in what happens when closing time occurs and the people go home. Sometimes the phone system keeps everyone remaining waiting with "your call is important to us. please stay on the line" on a call which will not be answered until the next day! Watch out for this on expensive or premium rate numbers.

Special note to customers who might get upset waiting for the telephone to be answered: Even if the robots have annoyed you, don't be angry with the people who answer the phone. It's not their fault. They have a difficult job to do answering the phone, and they only work for the company. So don't blame them! (See how to complain).

It is the companies that are to blame, not the people who work for them. It is the height of bad manners putting advertising in the call-waiting system to a captive audience. Having a phone system badly designed is a clue that the company is itself badly designed and that it may go broke. Doesn't it make you wonder if some companies might save themselves from bankruptcy if they road-tested their own phone waiting systems?!

Also see how to stop annoying pop-ups, and what to do about spam email