The Science Behind Hold

It’s almost inevitable that customers will have to hold at some point. Waiting on hold for someone to be available, or someone to escalate a problem will happen. Better to plan for the inevitable than to assume the best and be wrong.
When a caller hangs up while on hold it is rarely a good thing for the customer’s relationship both short and long-term. This typically represents an unresolved issue after an investment of time that appears to have been a complete waste of time. Their issue may hang on them like a minor toothache that gets more annoying over time, these unresolved issues can slowly erode the perception of a companies brand. Their current impression of your service will likely be judged by their last experience. So that means it’s in your best interest to help people to hang on instead of hanging up.
The science behind on-hold services relies on the psychology of time and the perception of how time passes differently. This is affected primarily by the stimuli one is exposed to while on hold.


Temporal Illusions

The good news is that a caller’s perception of time is completely subjective, actual wait time and perceived wait time will always differ, and this can be used by the IVR designer to their advantage. It is possible under a number of circumstances to ‘fool’ the brain into perceiving the passage of time as going more quickly, which is one of the ways in which we can look at the subjective perception of time.

The following is a number of these illusions, which can shed some fascinating light on our brain and its understanding of time…

Vierordt’s Law: This law describes the tendency we all have to judge short intervals as being overly long, and long intervals as being overly short when looking retrospectively.

Auditory vs Visual Stimuli: It appears that auditory stimuli appear to last slightly longer when compared with visual stimuli – possibly due to differences in our processing speeds.
Intensity: Stimuli of greater intensity (volume, brightness etc.) appear to last longer than those with less intensity. Possibly due to prolonged excitation of nerves.

The Kappa Effect: The Kappa Effect states that we judge consecutive events as taking longer when you increase the amount of time between the two events. If you make a journey in two parts and take a break to rest in-between, then you will often feel as though you spent more time traveling if you spend more time resting in between.

5 Top Design Consideration

1. Unoccupied time feels much longer than occupied time. E .g. Callbacks feel shorter.

2. Unexplained wait time feels longer than explained wait time.

3. Perceived pre-process waits feel longer than perceived in-process waits. Pre-process could be waiting on hold before ever speaking to a human, and in-   the process could be waiting on hold after speaking to a human who has initiated some process for the caller. It could be possible to design an IVR such that pre-process waits feel like in-process waits.

“Please hold, it will be just a few minutes” followed by a 3-min wait will feel longer than same wait time after “It will take a few minutes for the system to verify your name change request. Please hang on while we confirm authenticity.”

“Please hold for the next available representative.” will feel longer than “You have been placed into the queue. There are two people ahead of you. Your estimated wait time is 5 minutes.”


4. Solo waiting feels longer than group waiting
This is more obvious in brick-and-mortar settings where customers can see each other waiting but can be achieved in IVR with use of group-centric, inclusive language.

5. Resolution time is the single most reliable metric for managing customer sat, consider automation as an alternative. It can be offered only when hold times are necessary.

5 Design Tips for Expectations

1. Customer satisfaction can be expressed as perception minus expectation.
i.e. if caller expects a long wait, but the actual wait is shorter, they will have positive satisfaction. If caller expects a short wait, but actual wait is longer, they will have negative satisfaction. If caller’s expectation of wait matches actual wait, satisfaction is neutral.
So, slightly overestimating wait times can be helpful. This can result in surprise and delight on the part of the customer.
This formula also applies to perceived/expected quality of service, not just wait time.
Estimating wait time is important and will improve customer experience. (see #3 above)

2. Again in accordance with #3, set expectations as to the number of other customers in the queue if applicable, and update customer as queue position changes.

3. Set expectations as to what can and cannot be accomplished on the phone/by the agent.
E.g. if customers can only reset their password via the website, don’t let those callers sit through the entire IVR and get to an agent only to discover that the agent cannot help them.

4. Include messaging to inform the customer and give them VIABLE options.
Don’t just say “Have you visited our website? Many queries can be resolved there.”
Try to avoid giving options that they would already have tried before calling.
Ideally, include dynamic messaging that updates according to business conditions —
e.g. if a server is down that will prevent agent transfer, tell that to the customer and offer alternative options before they try to wait for an agent.

5. In general, be as transparent as possible, which will build trust.

Designing the Journey


“Can’t get a human on the phone”.. Get get my problem resolved quickly or at least the started down the path of resolution. Get them started with automatically asking questions to pass to the agent.
“So many phone steps and menus to get through before I find what I want” .. Get them to the right person by properly triaging the call.
“Long wait on hold” Perceptively, most companies do hold badly, the bar is low which means opportunity.
“The solution offered was not helpful” .. Agents are not as great at solving peoples problems as we might think. Supervision using AI can really help here.
“The solution(s) offered were not relevant to my situation” .. Need to constantly improve and report on false positives
“They tried to upsell me too many extras” Consider SMS and email for upselling.
“They never apologized for not solving my problem”
“The hold music was boring/repetitive/awful”. Consider callbacks and asking questions using AI to get things rolling in advance.



Avoid repetition — if a caller has answered a question already, don’t ask it again.
Capture caller journey data such that agent who answers will already know the info provided by the customer in the IVR.
Common complaint: “Why did I have to go through all of those menus if the agent just asked me all the same stuff again??” .. pass data to agents and have them acknowledge.
Give the caller the illusion of choice. Offer a callback as an alternative to long hold times. “Would you like us to call you back in 5 minutes?”
Offer options, but only if they are actually helpful.
Don’t just read website URL and tell them to visit. Offer to send SMS
Do offer channel switch options, while still respecting the caller’s decision to pick up the phone.
It’s possible and even likely that the caller tried all of the self-service options before calling.
It’s possible that the caller is unable to try other channels for some accessibility reason.
Do offer SMS links to specific helpful URLs (not just website homepage).
Do offer option for a callback, if possible, instead of waiting on the phone.
Even better, allow the user to specify “call me back as soon as ready” or “call me back at this specific later time”.
Do pay close attention to the initial greeting and first steps of the journey.
This is the customer’s first introduction to the service and sets the stage for the rest of their experience.
Do keep your messaging sensitive to the type of customer and the context for their call.
Do include contingencies for an unexpected or accidental disconnect.
Common complaint: “They hung up on me/call got dropped/I accidentally hung up and I had to go through ALL the menus again and start my wait over!” Have a callback experience.
Save callback number, position in IVR, and information collected.
Don’t rely on meaningless/useless messaging that has no real purpose or value.
E.g. the infamous “your call is important to us” can incense anger and possible negative brand impact. (People frequently post on social media while they are on hold.) Recent Twitter examples below
Do offer option to skip IVR and go to agent queue immediately. Or at least make it more obvious that human is not necessary – by offering targeted self-serve options, and saying what those options can do and why they will be effective.
But some customers will be most comfortable speaking with a human, so respect that and allow them to do what’s easiest for them.
Hold Music
Avoid “earworms”, or songs that easily get stuck in the head.
Avoid repetitive music, especially a short segment of music that endlessly repeats.
Think about target audience or customer type when choosing music.
E.g. classical music may soothe some audiences and irritate others. The same goes for heavy metal.
Think about context and likely reasons for a call when choosing music.
E.g. Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On” could work well for a sexual education hotline or prophylactic vendor, but probably not for a financial institution.

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