How many people hate to wait? How many abhor the bore, the chore, of being placed on hold? While there are many elements to a great contact center experience, waiting time is one of the most visible. There’s few things as tangible and immediate as reducing customer wait time for service. Most managers know that the longer a customer waits for an agent, the longer a problem or issue goes unresolved. A recent Newsweek article pointed out a sobering statistic:the average person will spend 1.2 years on hold. Thus, many contact center managers focus on reducing wait time and optimizing agent efficiency in order to serve as many people as quickly as possible.

But is this really the best approach? Is there a better way to build a queue? Let’s look at some research.

Line Science

The canned music many contact centers play during hold might not be as effective as you think. Musical choice can influence how well this strategy can distort time. In the previously mentioned Newsweek article, Russ Juskalian interviews James Kellaris, a marketing professor at the University of Cincinnati. Kellaris reveals that:

“…while musical distraction often causes time to feel like it’s passing more quickly, particularly dull, or overly familiar, music can actually make the wait feel longer.”


The professor also finds many other factors influence the effectiveness of music:

“Kellaris also cautions that numerous factors, including mindset and setting—and in one of his studies, even gender—determine the effect that background music has on us. “Time on hold seemed shortest for women exposed to alternative rock and for men exposed to classical music,” he says.”


Later in the article, Juskalian details the results of experiments on wait times performed by Anat Rafaeli, an Israel Institute of Technology professor, and her former students Nina Munichor and Liad Weiss. The researchers found that recorded apologies could actually make customer more irate:

“Given that apologies often interrupt background music without providing any useful information, she suggested it is possible that ‘you sort of drift into the music, and go with the flow, and forget that you’re really waiting, or wasting your time. But then this apology awakens you to this unpleasant effect that, hey, I’m waiting!’”


The scientists also found that the perception of progress was more important than an actual short wait time:

“Munichor and Rafaeli found that the feeling of progressing toward the front of the line, rather than the perception of a short wait, improved caller reactions the most. Rafaeli said that it doesn’t generally matter whether a caller is given an actual estimate of the time left to wait, or the less useful statistic about the caller’s place in line…”


Applying the Research

So what implications do these findings have for the call center queue? There are two essential takeaways:

  1. Music can help, but only if chosen carefully – Because numerous factors determine what kind of effect music has on callers, a lot of information is needed before deciding what kind of music to serve them. The goal is to have the caller “get lost” in the music, becoming so entranced in the flow of the songs that he/she fails to notice the passage of time. A possible solution is to utilize IVR systems to give callers a choice in what kind of music they want to listen to.
  2. Progress is important – Many people would rather move up 1 person every minute rather than 60 people, all at once, every hour. The perception of progress makes people feel like their are getting tangibly closer to their goals. Thus, giving useful information like estimated wait time remaining or place in line can be very effective in easing customer strain. In addition, a well structured and simple system of IVR menus can make customers feel as if they are making progress.

What other ways can you think of to ease the strain of the line? How important of a metric is wait time when perceptual factors can influence people so easily? How is your call center improving the wait experience? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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