Hold the phone -- and listen

  • Article by: BILL WARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 13, 2011 - 10:18 AM

Companies need to think more about what callers on hold hear.

What's worse than being put on hold? What you have to listen to while you wait.

Obnoxious promotions. Treacly music. A semi-polite directive to hang up and visit a website to take care of whatever business we're calling about. Sometimes, all of the above.

It's usually a relief to encounter the sounds of silence. (Actually, that Simon & Garfunkel song wouldn't be such a bad option.)

Lucia Watson decided to do something about it. When a new phone system was being installed at Lucia's, her Minneapolis restaurant, a technician asked her what kind of Muzak she wanted.

"I said I didn't want Muzak, that I wanted something fun," said Watson, whose eateries had provided quiet for on-hold customers.

After thinking about it, Watson made a request, which two weeks later was fulfilled. So now callers placed on hold are treated to a recording of Julia Child reading an omelet recipe. And many of them like it enough to express disappointment when someone picks up the line.

"Yes, we have had customers ask to go back on hold," Watson said with a laugh.

Such apropos on-hold fare is rare, aside from TV and radio stations playing their own feeds.

St. Paul city offices play what spokesman Matt Reinartz dubbed "elevator music." Ditto for the DNR -- and, full disclosure, the Star Tribune. The Minnesota Department of Transportation has "some kind of techno pop," according to communications guru Kevin Gutknecht.

City of Minneapolis departments also play music, peppered with "short messages about city services or news, which we record every couple months or so," said Matt Laible. Callers to Comcast also get "doubled up," with peppy Muzak and promos prompting callers to press a button and order pay-per-view programming. Oh-kay, then.

Those phoning Minnesota Historical Society venues hear "an acoustic guitar playing a classical-style piece," said facilities assistant Juliann Kunkel, adding that one of her workmates lamented the absence of era-specific songs at the History Center during the "1968" exhibit's run.

Makes sense to us. And in that spirit, here are some suggestions for local organizations to use for their on-hold callers:

Como and Minnesota zoos: animal sounds, especially from the big cats and mammals (pachyderms and humpbacks).

Minnesota Twins: great moments in team history, as broadcasted by Halsey Hall and Herb Carneal.

MnDOT: traffic reports.

French restaurants: France's rousing national anthem, or Edith Piaf singing "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien."

Orpheum, State, Ordway, etc.: music from upcoming shows.

Minnesota State Fair: Garrison Keillor reading a list of every food served on a stick this year.

Bill Ward • 612-673-7643

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