Jane Bradley: Don’t leave me hanging on the telephone

A survey for Which? magazine showed that callers had been kept on hold by companies for up to 37 minutes. Picture: Getty Images
A survey for Which? magazine showed that callers had been kept on hold by companies for up to 37 minutes. Picture: Getty Images
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Long waits on hold are made worse when a recorded voice tries to kid that you are a ‘valued customer’ says Jane Bradley

I was recently on hold to a well-known utility firm for what felt like half my life.

Ear-bleeding musack was interspersed with assurances that my call was in a queue and would be answered shortly, that they were incredibly sorry and that I really, really was a valued customer and they were desperate beyond belief to speak to me.

They just...you know..couldn’t.

Why, oh why, didn’t I feel like they were telling the truth?

Because my call clearly wasn’t important to them and I am absolutely, definitely not a valued customer, or they would surely hire a few more call centre staff to make sure my query could be answered in less time than it takes for me to write this column - which isn’t currently the case.

I am not alone. Consumer group Which? has today published research into the most annoying things about being kept on hold.

Almost half of those surveyed agree with me: that that irritating voice purring pleasantries which just blatantly aren’t true, is the most frustrating part of the whole experience.

This annoyance was followed by being directed to the company’s website - which was the main ire for 28 per cent of those surveyed - with apologies for all operators being busy coming next, which, in the same vein as claims that you’re a “valued customer”, irked a further 11 per cent.

Aside from hiring extra staff, which seems as unlikely as snow in July, there are actually things that companies can do to make that time on hold slightly more pleasant - and people really find they help.

A third of householders surveyed by Which? said that being told how long you have to wait makes things infinitely more bearable, while knowing where you are in the queue, which is offered by firms including Screwfix, also gives some perspective on how long you might have to wait - and reassures a customer that they are, actually, despite appearances, slowly moving up the ladder of doom.

Meanwhile, companies, like online retail giant Amazon, which offer to call you back if you leave your number - as long as they actually do it - also score points with bored customers.

Some have managed to come up with even more innovative methods of entertaining the restless throngs of customers attempting to talk to a firm’s representative. Aviva, for example, offers five different kinds of hold music, including jazz and swing and Motown soul. A gimmick, perhaps, but so0mething which might entertain a bored customer for long enough to take the edge off a 45-minute wait.

On a similar theme, a friend told me of a local restaurant she had called once which played her Tired of Waiting by the Kinks, followed by Blondie’s Hanging on the Telephone, which at least raised a smile - if not questions as to why a small local eaterie needed to have any kind of hold music.

For it is the fact that holding has become an accepted necessity - a guaranteed part of dealing with any kind of corporate entity - that is ridiculous.

Despite this, nine in ten people questioned by Which? felt that the maximum time they are prepared to wait should be no longer than five minutes.

This is the maximum time they are perhaps prepared to wait, but in real life, the holding time is far more than that.

A study carried out in August by tax insurance firm PfP, found that many people calling the tax office (HMRC to give it its Sunday name) had to typically wait for 12 minutes before speaking to an operator.

Meanwhile, a separate Which? study last year found that customers waiting to speak to energy firms were often kept on hold for up to 37 minutes.

Extra Energy was the worst culprit, Which? found, keeping customers hanging on for an average of 26 minutes, while Co-operative Energy wasn’t much better, with a typical waiting time of ten minutes.

That’s a long time. In 37 minutes you could learn the basics of seven languages on app Duolingo, swim around 50 lengths of your local pool or run 10km. You could email five long lost friends, paint the bedroom wall or clean the bathroom.

If you make an average of ten calls a year to bill companies (and by that I mean anything you pay a bill to: electricity, gas, phone etc), that is a lot of potential useful time gone to waste.

Some firms have tried to increase their use of online chats - message-based apps which allow a customer to chat in real time to a representative, without having to pick up the phone. It is, I have to admit, a genius idea.

Not only does this allow us to indulge our growing tendancy to avoid speaking to anyone in real life any more than is necessary, people can accomplish the “chat” while the other half of their brain continues to send emails, read Twitter or focus hard on that presentation.

Most importantly for the company, it also allows the customers service operator to handle multiple “calls” at the same time - cutting back on costs further for the company.

Yet it can elongate the process somewhat. When “Bob” suddenly disappeared from an online chat with my broadband provider recently, I got bored and decided to take the opportunity to make a cup of tea. By the time I came back, Bob had returned, got similarly bored and, after multiple attempts of “Ms Bradley? Are you still there?”, decided I wasn’t worth waiting for, “closed the conversation” and wandered off to serve another, more deserving customer, leaving me forced to start my entire query from scratch.

Despite these attempts to make things right, most companies still have a long way to go when it comes to telephonic customer service.

Forget gimmicky musack choices and online chats, some good old basic customer service wouldn’t go amiss. That means simply answering phones - and answering them soon.