I’ve had to call a few call centres lately, which I very much dislike. Much like doing my tax, I’ll put it off until things become urgently dire. Sometimes I wait a bit longer. Because I hate it. Oh, how I hate it. I hate having to choose the nature of my call from 7 options; I hate having to prove my identity, and I hate being on hold.

Being on hold sucks—but it doesn’t have to. (Well, it can suck less…)

Just before Christmas, my credit card was blocked due to a suspicious transaction, instantly putting the situation into ‘urgently dire’ territory. Firstly, not having a working credit card in the middle of Expensive Season gives me a special kind of first-world anxiety, and secondly, ‘suspicious transaction’ sounds somewhat… ah… suspicious…

So, I steel myself, pick up a cold beer, my patient pants and my phone, and call.

All our operators are currently busy. Please hold for the next available operator.

And then it begins…

Deafening, distorted Vivaldi, causing my phone’s speaker to rattle around like a 2-year-old’s tambourine, nearly shaking itself from my hand. My ear explodes, as does beer out my nose, and probably my eyes. The beautiful sine waves of the flutes slamming into the maximum decibel wall of whatever junkyard ghetto blaster they must have propped up against a phone, slicing off the tops into hard square waves, turning the sweet timbre into the sound of Satan directly manipulating the nerves of a thousand tortured souls with some kind of demonic, industrial rake.

Weeping and holding the phone at arm’s length, I hear it stop, mid motif, after what must be only 15 seconds.

Thank Jebus, I’m through, I think and tentatively move the phone closer to my ear.

All our operators are currently busy. Please hold for the next available operator.

And then the demonic orchestra begins again. From the start. You never get to hear the flipping phrase resolve.

15 seconds later, wrenched apart after 3.73 bars…

All our operators are currently busy. Please hold for the next available operator.

Listen, I understand how being on hold works, I think furiously, waving my mental finger at whomever is responsible. I don’t need to be reminded every 15 seconds, and besides…

All our operators are currently busy. Please hold for the next available operator.


Look, let’s go back to first principles with this. Why do people call a call centre?

While there may be edge cases, it’s generally not because they’ve got nothing better to do. It’s not because they want to listen to an upsell on your other products, and I’m pretty certain it’s not to listen to your execrable distorted midi track.

It’s probably because there’s something broken somewhere.

Whether that be an overcharge on a bill, a ‘thing’ not working, or because you’ve sent them a ‘please call us straight away’ letter or text, it’s also quite likely that on top of this, the situation has become urgently—maybe even appallingly­—dire.

Top tips for making your customers’ hold experience not entirely shit

Fundamentally, there is only one rule: Lighten your customers’ cognitive load.

Ever hear the expression ‘I can’t hear myself think’?

Give your customers some thinking room. Don’t ask them to choose between too many options. More than 3 is starting to become too many.

Don’t try and advertise in their tired ear. Unless someone has triaged themselves into your sales queue, now’s not the time to try and sell them stuff—it may just push them over the edge… (Remember that bit above about why people call call centres?)

Choose instrumental music. Your hold music should not have words. It most certainly shouldn’t have the name of your company in it. Do not make your customers listen to your crappy company song sung by some reality TV star whose greatest musical achievement was reaching number 39 in the Tasmanian Christian folk R&B charts 5 years ago. Your customers do not like your company song. Your staff do not like your company song. If they tell you they do, they’re lying. Nobody likes your company song—including those poor musicians who recorded it, who despite now being able to afford food, can’t venture into a supermarket for fear of being reminded that they sold their beautiful artistic souls to Woolworths for a year’s supply of beans. Stop making company songs.

Where was I?

Ah, yes, music. Please make sure it’s not distorted, and just let it play. Generally, you don’t need to tell people they’re on hold. Generally… (I’m imagining some kind of Memento situation where, with his short-term memory broken, Guy Pearce is left on the phone thinking ‘What am I doing?’, and then the ‘Thank you for holding’ message plays and he’s greatly relieved, but then he’s like ‘Am I calling them or are they calling me?’ and then like ‘Who am I even calling? I wish they’d put the name of their company in this song so I knew…’ And then he tattoos himself some more before going out to shoot some people.)

If you do feel it’s necessary to remind people that they’re on hold, do it infrequently—not every 15 seconds—and when you do, give them some useful information, like how many minutes more of their one-and-only life they need to give The Man in order to get their broken thing fixed.

Oh, and the broken thing that harshed my mellow?

My web host fee, you know, the relatively small amount that recurs each month, paid to the same company for nearly 2 years… never mind the $400 dollars I spent on the same day at a store I’d shopped at for the very first time.

And then 2 days later, due to the same ‘suspicious’ transaction—that System A hadn’t cleared in System B—I had to call them again.

Cue Lucifer’s Wall of Sound.