My aim here is not to nag – much – about being mistreated by Lufthansa’s customer service system. Why bother? My recent experience with the German airline was no worse than what I or others normally experience from large companies.
Yes, I had to call several times to be put on hold. When I finally managed to hold it, I waited between 20 and 40 minutes each time – to make sure that when I finally connected with someone I was in a low level anger that I had to suppress if I was hoping something to achieve everyone. It took a number of these calls to resolve my flight issues and on two occasions a representative ended up answering and then accidentally disconnected me, requiring me to start over.
It’s standard material. We’ve all been through it. 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 column.
No, what I want to talk about is the “music on hold” that I heard while waiting. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this because, you know, what else could I do?
The reason I was on hold in the first place was because my wife tested positive for the coronavirus on the very day I was due to fly to Germany for my father’s 90th birthday, so my plans were thwarted. In order not to lose more than $1,000, I was hoping to cancel and rebook, despite characteristically buying the cheapest ticket available, which technically didn’t allow for changes, refunds, or coupons.
Unfortunately, Lufthansa experienced “an extraordinarily high volume of calls”.
So I waited and listened.
Let me look back 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 quite famous in the narrow circle of people interested in music on hold. The story goes that he accidentally stumbled upon the concept after an exposed wire in his company’s phone system made contact with a steel beam and picked up a nearby radio’s broadcast for callers on hold at his company to hear.
Whether Levy got rich mixing music and phone lines I can’t say. But his patent application predicted the future: He hoped to be able to play music to people on hold “to reassure the originator of the call if the delay becomes excessive, and also to reduce the idle time of the caller waiting on the connection.” waits. …”
Those were the days when Muzak and other companies would whistle bland, easy-to-hear instrumental music through stores, restaurants, and elevators. Levy also wanted to put that music into people’s phones.
Business was pending.
They liked music on hold in part because it gave customers reassurance that their calls would not be dropped. We all know that feeling of sitting on a silent line and stupidly 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 showed that music made customers willing to wait longer before banging on the phone in disgust and calling the competition. Apparently, music changes our perception of time, and ‘occupied time’ passes faster than ‘vacant time’.
Some studies even suggested that music keeps customers happy and calm and in the mood to buy. Play it in restaurants and they’ll stay for another drink; Put it on their phones and their fear and anger will go down.
I don’t have the data to refute that. All I know is that I’ve never met anyone who likes music on hold or feels reassured by it.
The problems are obvious. Music on hold sounds terrible because of the distortion that comes with listening to complex music or music with multiple instruments over a crappy phone line. In its effort to be upbeat, too often it’s just a clash of beats and drones. Real “songs” are rarely heard because companies do not want to pay the required license fees, and consultants also warn against negative associations. Instead, you get unfamiliar, banal, instrumental non-songs too often.
And you have to listen to every second because at any moment someone could take off.
Lufthansa, for its part, is making a fundamental error in the music on hold – one so obvious that I figured it out myself even before I met Dr. Read Jim Will’s The Psychology of Telephone ‘On-Hold’ Programming.
Will wrote about the “wear and tear” that comes with excessive repetition in the 1980s. Too much repetition and “caller anxiety is likely to increase”.
Lufthansa’s hold theme — a proprietary “audio branding” the company also uses on boarding — is maddeningly repetitive. It’s not melodic or euphonious or catchy or soothing. It’s just incredibly monotonous.
Hello, Lufthansa (and all the other companies just like you) – there are alternatives! You could break up the monotony by occasionally letting customers know how long they will be waiting. They could offer a civilized beep to show customers they’re still connected instead of belting out distorted music. You could vary the music. You could invest in the technology to call back your customers.
Or – wheeze – you could hire more customer service agents and reduce wait times.
(By the way, you’re not the worst offender in this regard. Australian airline Qantas is said to have once held a man on hold for 15 hours.)
Alternatively, you can stick to the plan and play an endless loop of pseudo music and hope customers stick around indefinitely.
If they have $1,000 at stake, they probably will.
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https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2022-01-14/pandemic-travel-airline-cancellations-customer-service-hold-times-hold-music Column: I just spent 45 minutes on hold and that’s what I thought about the music they blasted at me