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Put on Hold Driving You Crazy?

Changing the music makes customers happier

Waiting on hold with an airline, cable provider or credit card company is a reliably irritating experience. So reliable, in fact, that researchers decided to study it—and might have come up with a fix. Playing pop music instead ofinstrumental elevator music may make callers less angry when someone finally answers, according to a study in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology.

Elevator music, with an easy-listening melody that can repeat endlessly, invokes a feeling of dread in many of us. “You learn to associate that kind of background music with waiting or complaining—those things that normally happen when you call a call center,” says study author Karen Niven, a lecturer at Manchester Business School in England. “When you have some pop music that you wouldn’t expect to hear, it doesn’t prime those same negative thoughts, it provides something of a buffer.”

Niven took control of the music at a call center for three weeks to conduct the study. Instead of playing standard instrumental music without lyrics, she played pop songs. Some had so-called prosocial lyrics, which talked about helping, like The Beatles’ “Help!” and Michael Jackson’s “Heal the World.” Others were just standard pop songs like Jackson’s “On the Line.” Niven also played the standard instrumental music as a control.

After the phone calls ended, the call center operators assessed the callers’ level of anger. Customers were the least angry when they heard standard pop songs, and they acted more upset—equally so—when they heard songs with prosocial lyrics or instrumental elevator music.

That surprised Niven, who expected callers who listened to prosocial lyrics to be less angry when they finally spoke to a person. But they seemed to find it annoying, she concluded, since they were likely calling with a complaint or service issue. “If you’re played a song about helping other people and healing the world, maybe that makes you kind of angry,” she says.

Even though people on the other end of the line didn’t hear the hold music, they too were affected by it. Call center operators who picked up the phone reported feeling less emotionally exhausted when dealing with customers who heard standard pop music.

Switching to pop music is not always a welcome fix for call centers, Niven acknowledges, since the centers often have to pay licensing fees to play it. But, as these findings suggest, call centers may make conversations more pleasant on both sides of the line simply by changing their tune.