Column: I just spent 45 minutes on hold, and here’s what I thought of the music they threw at me
My aim here is not to criticize – very much – being mistreated by Lufthansa’s customer service system. Why bother? My recent experience with the German airline was no worse than what I or anyone else is usually subjected to by large corporations.
Yes, I had to call multiple times just to be put on hold. When I finally managed to hold on, I waited between 20 and 40 minutes each time – making sure that when I was finally connected to a human, I was in a low level rage that I had to suppress if I hoped to accomplish anything at all. It took a number of these calls to resolve my flight issues, and on two occasions a rep finally picked up and then accidentally disconnected me, so I had to start over.
It’s standard stuff. We’ve all been there. And as I said, that’s not my topic today.
Nicholas Goldberg was the editorial page editor for 11 years and is a former editor of the Op-Ed page and the Sunday Opinion section.
No, what I’m talking about is “music on hold” that I listened to while waiting. I spent a lot of time wondering about this because, you know, what else could I do?
The reason I was on hold in the first place was that my wife had tested positive for coronavirus the same day I was due to fly to Germany for my father’s 90th birthday, so my plans were scuttled. To avoid losing over $1000 I was hoping to cancel and rebook despite having characteristically purchased the cheapest available ticket which technically did not allow for changes, refunds or good.
Unfortunately, Lufthansa “was experiencing an extraordinarily high call volume”.
So I waited and listened.
Let me back up for a moment. The idea of playing music while people are on hold dates back 60 years to a Long Island factory owner named Alfred Levy. Apparently, Levy is reasonably famous among the inner circle of people interested in music on hold. He accidentally stumbled upon the concept, the story says, after a bare wire from his company’s phone system made contact with a steel beam and picked up a nearby radio broadcast that callers on hold of his company could hear.
I can’t say if Levy got rich mixing music and phone lines. But his patent application predicted the future: he said he hoped to play music to people on hold “to soothe the caller if the delay becomes unduly long, and also to pass the time of inactivity of caller waiting for connection. …”
It was the time when Muzak and other companies played bland, easy-listening instrumental music in shops, restaurants, and elevators. Levy also wanted to stream this music to people’s phones.
Businesses lined up.
They liked music on hold in part because it was a way to reassure customers that their calls hadn’t been dropped. We all know the feeling of sitting on a silent line wondering if we’re still connected.
They also liked it because, as they like to say, “Your call is very important to us” – and studies have shown that music makes customers wait longer before they hang up the phone in disgust and call the competition. Apparently, music alters our perception of time, and “busy time” moves faster than “unbusy time”.
Some studies have even suggested that music keeps customers happy and calm and in the mood to buy. Play it in restaurants and they’ll stick around for another drink; put it on their phone and their anxiety and anger levels go down.
I don’t have the data to refute that. All I know is that I’ve never met anyone who likes phone-on-hold music or feels soothed by it.
The problems are obvious. Holding music sounds awful because of the distortion that accompanies listening to complex or multi-instrument music over a crummy phone line. In its effort to be optimistic, it’s too often just a clash of beats and howls. You rarely hear real “songs” because companies don’t want to pay the required licensing fees, and additionally consultants warn that they might have negative associations. So instead you too often get non-instrumental, mundane, unfamiliar songs.
And you have to listen to every second because at any moment someone can pick up.
Lufthansa, for its part, makes a basic mistake when it comes to music on hold – a mistake so obvious that I realized it myself even before reading “The Psychology of Telephone ‘On-Hold’ Programming” by Dr. Jim Will.
Will wrote in the 1980s about the “wear and tear” that accompanies excessive repetition. Too many repetitions and “the caller’s anxiety is likely to increase”.
Lufthansa’s waiting theme – an exclusive “audio brand” element that the company also uses when boarding – is unbearably repetitive. It’s neither melodic, nor euphonic, nor catchy, nor soothing. It’s just wildly monotonous.
Hello, Lufthansa (and all other companies like you) — there are alternatives! You can break up the monotony by occasionally letting customers know how long they’ll be waiting. You can offer a civilized beep to show customers that they are still connected rather than sending them garbled music. You can vary the music. You could invest in technology that allows you to call back your customers.
Or – gasp – you could hire more customer service reps and reduce wait times.
(By the way, you’re not the worst offender in this regard. Australian airline Qantas once allegedly kept a man on hold for 15 hours.)
Alternatively, you can stick to the plan and play an endless loop of pseudo-music and hope the customers hang on forever.
If they have $1,000 at stake, they probably will.