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Hanging on the Telephone

By Tom Kiralfy, Panel Manager, TLF Panel

Believe it or not, the idea of playing music whilst being on hold was actually discovered by accident. In 1962 a factory owner named Alfred Levy discovered that, due to loose wiring in the factory building he owned, the building had become a giant receiver which picked up the broadcast signal from a nearby radio station, and relayed it through the phone system whenever calls were put on hold. He patented this in 1966 and thus began the evolution of hold music as we know it today!

Using the TLF panel, we asked just over 2,500 of our panellists about their experiences of dealing with hold music, and how they’d like to see it evolve in the future. Some of the responses didn’t come as a surprise (turns out not many people want to listen to hip hop whilst waiting to be connected!), but there were some interesting (and unexpected) results discovered along the way…

If you need to make contact with an organisation, what would normally be your first choice of contact method?

  • Telephone - 35.5%
  • Email contact form on website - 40.5%
  • Online or live chat - 14.8%
  • Twitter - 1.5%
  • In person - 6.5%
  • Post - 1.2%

When it comes to making contact with an organisation, only 36% of people still choose the telephone as their preferred means of contact. 57% now prefer an online method, whether that be email, web chat or social media, and only 1% of people still prefer the traditional post box.

When broken down generationally however, these statistics change quite dramatically. For those aged between 18 and 24, 68% chose an online communication method as their preferred choice, but for those aged 65 or over, the telephone was the most popular, with nearly 50% choosing this as their first choice of contact method.


Automated telephone systems: striking the right tone or tone-deaf?

65% have used telephone systems that require you to say what you are calling about, and 85% have used the systems that require you to press a number on the phone keypad. Of those using both, 80% prefer the latter. It looks like we have a long way to go before people prefer voice recognition!

80% would take advantage, if given the option, to select their preferred genre of music to listen to whilst on hold, with the most popular option being pop music, and the least favourite being music related to the organisation you are calling, e.g. jingles/music from advertising.

38% are unlikely to opt out of hold music all together, but 24% are extremely likely to opt out of hold music if given the option - a quarter of people prefer the sound of silence whilst waiting! 86% like the feature that tells them what position they are in the queue.

Your call is very important to us!

Once you are in the hold queue there are several factors that influence the experience you receive. We asked the panel to rate the following actions, out of 10, in terms of how they affected their ‘on hold’ experience, with 1 being ‘made the wait worse’ and 10 being ‘made the wait better’.

The higher the average score, the more positive impact on the experience the action had:



(Sorted in descending order)

Being told what position in the queue you are


Being told how long you will be on hold for


Information informing you of what you might need to give the call handler when you get through e.g. customer reference number, postcode, DOB etc.


Information providing potential solutions to the issue you are ringing about e.g. informing you of other channels where you can find more information


Messages thanking you for waiting/holding


Information not related to the organisation e.g. news business weather sport snippets


Information about the organisation's website


Messages informing you of alternative contact methods


Information about other products the organisation offers


Information about the organisation/their performance in general


Repetition of the same messages over and over


Repetition of the same piece of music over and over


Poor quality/crackly music



Communication, as always, is key. The top four actions are all related to being kept up to date with your progress in the queue and details you may need to provide/need to know when your call is answered.

Unsurprisingly, any form of repeated messages or music has a detrimental effect on the process, with poor quality/crackly music being the action that has the biggest negative impact on the overall ‘on hold’ experience.

Putting the ‘you‘ in ‘queue‘

“An Englishman, even if he is alone, forms an orderly queue of one.” – George Mikes

We Brits love a good queue. We’re known around the world for our pride in our queuing abilities and etiquette, but how long are we really prepared to wait, and under what circumstances?

We asked the panel how long they felt was an acceptable length of time to wait in a queue, the results were interesting…

  • 93% feel that is it acceptable to be on hold for up to 1.5 minutes.
  • This drops to 80% as the time increases to 2.5 minutes, and drops further to 63% at 4.5 minutes.
  • Only 1 in 4 feel 5 minutes is acceptable and less than 1 in 10 feel 10 minutes to be acceptable.
  • Less than 5% feel that more than 15 minutes is an acceptable length of time to be on hold.

We also asked them what number in the queue they would have to be to make them hang up, it turns out if you’re into double digits you’re not likely to hang around…

  • 3% hang up if they don’t get through to someone straight away.
  • 4 out of 5 will remain in the queue if they are in position 4 but this drops to 3 out of 5 if in position 5.
  • 1 in 5 will stay on the line if they are told they are position 10, but less than 1 in 10 will remain in the queue if they are at position 20.
  • 4% claim they would stay on the line if they were position 30 or higher.

Some of us clearly still have some ‘hang-ups’ about the on-hold process, but love it or hate it, it’s here to stay. Hopefully as companies improve the technology behind the hold experience we’ll see customers accepting it a bit more; if they can keep in regular, relevant communication with the caller, answer calls within 2.5 minutes and give people the option of what music they can listen to we should see the hold experience improve for everyone. If only Alfred Levy had kept the wiring better maintained in his factory we might all still be waiting in silence… which 24% of us would enjoy!

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