How On-Hold Messaging Works

on-hold messaging
On-hold messaging services allow callers to hear information about the company while waiting for an answer.
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If you hate being put on hold during a phone call, you're not alone. Because of you and many others like you, businesses have developed techniques to keep your wait more interesting -- like on-hold music and on-hold messaging.

Either of these options is more pleasant than dead air and can make the wait seem shorter, but on-hold messaging offers an advantage because companies can pitch themselves or their products or services. An on-hold message can offer anything from amusing trivia to information about special events and promotions.


As the marketing and messages increase in sophistication, so has the technology that makes on-hold messaging possible. Like many other electronic functions, on-hold messaging has joined the digital age.

Gone are the eight-minute magnetic tape loops that wore out after overuse. They've been replaced by disks and MP3 files that run on CD players and digital announcers attached to the messaging port of the company's phone system. And with MP3 files, replacing a message is as easy as using the Web to download the vendor's replacement and then uploading it to the digital announcer's flash memory.

What is the concept behind on-hold messaging? Are there any problems with on-hold messaging? Let's start by seeing how marketing and customer satisfaction relate to on-hold messaging.


Concepts Behind On-Hold Messaging

Restaurants can use on-hold messaging services to update customers about specials or upcoming events.
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On-hold messaging can be a powerful two-for-one tool for a business. It blends marketing with customer satisfaction. These concepts make on-hold messaging useful and popular.

Time drags for customers on hold especially when all they hear is dead air. Add music, and it's more interesting. But when one song segues into another and another, the hold time can seem to stretch out forever. Breaking up music with messages adds variety, and the hold time seems faster. And that increases customer satisfaction.


On-hold messaging can be viewed as one element of marketing. It lets a business speak directly to its customers and prospects while they're waiting on hold. As a marketing tool, on-hold messaging can't be beat. The customer on hold is a captive audience. And unlike with advertisements and commercials, the company has paid nothing to get the customer's attention.

On-hold messaging gives companies a chance to show their stuff and shape attitudes. With it, they can:

  • Reinforce customers' beliefs that they're doing business with a company that offers top-quality products and services.
  • Turn new listeners into advocates who appreciate the company more when they learn more about it.
  • Win over critics and skeptics who need information to reverse their negative opinion.

But, on-hold messaging also can work as marketing in a more basic way:

  • Announcements about upcoming sales and other events can build foot traffic.
  • Product introductions and special offers can increase orders online or in stores.
  • Answers to frequently asked questions may solve the customer's problem, saving time and steps.
  • Mentions of product names can increase customers' recollection of them, leading to more sales.

Make on-hold messaging part of broader marketing efforts, and its value increases even more. Music in the store, online and during customer time on hold can reinforce product branding. Special offers at the Web store can be mentioned on hold to drive customers to online purchases.

On-hold messaging can be a great marketing and customer satisfaction tool, but that can backfire if the message is unprofessional or boring. Next, let's look at some possible problems with on-hold messaging and how you can avoid them.


Problems with On-Hold Messaging

Customers calling with a complaint can get irritated with on-hold messaging systems.
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Take an angry customer with a complaint, add a lengthy wait on hold for service, and you'll only make the situation worse by forcing the customer to listen to amateurish or poorly planned on-hold messages. The point of on-hold messaging, after all, is to make the time pass pleasantly and perhaps provide some useful information.

When the message on hold becomes the problem instead of the solution, it's time to seek outside help. That's why many companies hire experienced vendors who specialize in on-hold messaging. Whether the messaging is done in house or outside, the quality needs to be professional.


Playing a radio station on hold might seem like an option, but that's a problem, too. When you play radio programming on hold, you're rebroadcasting material protected by copyright laws. And that's illegal. With radio on hold, you also subject your customers to music they may hate and run the risk of them hearing commercials from your competitors [source: Marketing Solutions].

You can, of course, buy digital messaging equipment, select background music, write and record your own messages, and keep the whole process in house. If you choose that option, here are several suggestions:

  • Keep it casual. Use words or phrases in the script that you'd use if you were talking with a friend or business acquaintance.
  • Keep it interesting. Don't use background music that'll have your caller snoozing, but don't use anything that's loud and annoying either.
  • Keep it legal. Don't find music you like or comments in celebrity voices and simply use them. If you don't secure licenses to use copyright material, you can be fined for copyright infringement.

And if you're unsure of what to include in your recorded messages, here are some types of messages that customers might find useful or interesting:

  • Information about what your business does
  • Hours of operation and the business Web address
  • Specific information on products and services
  • Key selling points for using your business
  • Announcements of new products and special offers
  • News about upcoming events
  • Answers to frequently asked questions
  • Trivia questions and answers

[source: Marketing Playbook]

If you're using time-dated information, be sure to avoid another problem -- outdated information -- by replacing that information in time. Nothing is more annoying than listening to Christmas sales announcements in March or hearing about a special sales offer two days after it ends.

The best option may involve finding a company to help you that has the marketing expertise, voice talent and recording technology you need. Keep reading to learn more about on-hold messaging vendors and the services they offer.


On-Hold Messaging Vendors

Many doctors offices use on-hold messaging services.
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If you're trying to locate on-hold messaging vendors, you can find plenty with a simple Internet browser search. In fact, you may find the huge selection of on-hold messaging vendors to be bewildering.

Beyond the sheer quantity, you'll see that companies price on-hold messaging in different ways, make the messages available on different media and use different types of equipment. In addition, some companies specialize in a particular type of message on hold, such as for doctors' offices, while others offer a broad spectrum of services that goes beyond on-hold messaging to other types of marketing.


In deciding which on-hold messaging provider to use, you'll want to consider the factors you would for any other vendor -- years of experience, number of customers, technical expertise, cost, customer service record, recommendations and so on. But you'll also want to consider factors specific to on-hold messaging:

  1. Do you want a company that specializes in on-hold messaging for a particular industry, like medical? If you have a medical practice, your focus may be more on health tips and less on practice information. Look for a company that advertises its expertise in medical on-hold messaging or see what your specialty organization offers. The American Association of Family Practitioners, for example, offers Docs-On-Hold to members for under $30 per month.
  2. Do you simply want an on-hold messaging system, or one that's part of a broader marketing effort? Lots of smaller regional companies offer on-hold messaging as their main product, possibly at a lower price. But if you want to work on your company's marketing overall, look for a company like Marketing Solutions that offers more services [source: Marketing Solutions].
  3. How much are you willing to spend for professional quality? A large national company like Muzak will have lots of options in music and voices, plus the trained staff to turn out a high-quality product. But the cost is likely to more than for a mid-level product.
  4. Does the vendor require a long-term, multi-year contract? If so, you may find yourself locked in, even if you're not satisfied with the programming.
  5. Do you need or want digital equipment? A digital announcer retains music and messages in flash memory, making it easy to update and eliminating CDs that can wear out. They also won't cut out during a power surge like CD players can. But digital players can be expensive, with pricing starting around $400 [source: Powers Productions].
  6. Do you want to rent or buy equipment? Some companies offer both options. Renting often is cheaper, but you don't own the equipment. If you're renting, check the terms of the service agreement.
  7. How often do you plan to change your messages? Obviously, the more often you change the message, the more you'll have to pay. Check to see what options the vendor offers.

Finally, particularly if you're considering an unfamiliar, out-of-area vendor, check online with the Better Business Bureau to see the company's complaint record. With a little due diligence up front, you should have an on-line messaging system that'll give you a strong marketing tool and keep your on-hold customers satisfied.

For lots more information about on-hold messaging and related topics, check out the links on the next page.