"Your call is important to us, please continue to hold."
Listening to that irritating recorded announcement when calling customer service is a frustrating and time-wasting experience. All the more so, because "When you put people on hold you are essentially telling them they're not important and their business isn't important," said professor Mary Jo Bitner, executive director of the Center for Services Leadership at Arizona State University.
"That's really aggravating to people, and it creates a negative impression that when they have the next opportunity to buy your product or service, they might think twice."
Some well-known companies appear to have a more serious problem with hold times, according to a new study by Fonolo. The Toronto-based company sells a variety of services to call centers, including one that replaces wait time with a call-back when a representative is available.
Since the first of the year, Fonolo tracked every Twitter complaint that included the phrase "on hold with." Based on an analysis of those 600,000 tweets, the company created a list of the Top 25 Worst Hold Time Offenders of 2016.
"A lot of companies have problems with hold times and a lot of them don't understand how much they're hurting the customer experience by leaving them on hold," Fonolo's CEO Shai Berger told NBC News. "The uncertainty of it is a real aggravating factor — not knowing how long will you be on hold — plus the fact that you're stuck with the phone to your ear."
The top 10 companies for hold time complaints, based on this Twitter survey: Apple, Verizon, Bank of America, Comcast (parent company of NBC News), Sprint, Southwest Airlines, United Airlines, Delta Airlines, the Internal Revenue Service and AT&T.
The worst industries for hold times: Telecommunications (32 percent), airline/travel (20 percent), retail (16 percent), financial (12 percent) and government (1 percent).
Were There any Surprises Here?
"We think Amazon (number 25) and Apple's appearances on the list are more unexpected than others, Fonolo's marketing communications manager Nicolina Savelli writes in a blog post. "It seems despite Amazon's best efforts, they need to ramp up their operations to compensate for supply and demand. And while Apple is no stranger to consumer popularity, it moved up from 5th place to 1st place on this year's list."
Apple declined to "officially comment" when contacted by NBC News, but a spokesperson questioned the validity of the Fonolo data and said the average hold time at this time of year is less than eight minutes, if there's a wait at all.
A spokesperson for Amazon told NBC News, "Amazon is proud of our top-in-class customer service program and our average wait time for customer calls is 19 seconds."
Tell the World About It
Problems happen, we all understand that. But when we call customer service for help, we expect to talk so someone right away. People who get stuck on hold often turn to social media to vent their anger and share their frustration.
"In the past, you could complain to people, but there was no impact to that," Berger said. "Now people realize they have this soapbox, this public arena through Twitter and other social media, where they can complain for the first time and actually have some consequences. Companies can get a black eye and their brand can suffer when hold times get too long."
The tweets gathered by Fonolo show just how upset people get when their call is ignored.
"Took a full shower, folded all clean laundry, and finally sipped 3 cups of coffee while on hold…"
"Worst customer service ever. On hold 20 minutes for a simple question…"
"On hold with… billing for 45 minutes now. Would sure like to go to the bathroom and maybe get some lunch. Do better."
"…an absolute nightmare tonight. We've been on hold for over 2 hours at this point. Book elsewhere people."
No company can afford to hire enough staff to answer as soon as someone calls. Hold times are inevitable, especially at certain times of year. But cloud-based technology offers a cost-efficient alternative for companies large and small to do something other than play music while callers languish on hold.
It's now possible to tell the caller their place in the queue — "There are seven other callers ahead of you" — and the expected wait time. This information can also be texted to someone on a cellphone. Another option is for the automated system to offer to call you back when it's your turn in line.
Providing this information can greatly reduce frustration, said Berger.
"It's funny because the actual amount of time you're waiting hasn't changed, but because you're not tied to the phone, the psychology of the situation is completely different," he said. "People don't mind that they're going to have to wait when they know they can go about their day and get the call when it's their turn."
A Wake-Up Call for Corporate America
Forrest Morgeson, director of research at the American Customer Satisfaction Index believes too many companies focus on making the sale and not taking care of the customer afterwards. "How well a company does in complaint handling can be the difference between whether a consumer returns to purchase from the same company in the future or defects to a competitor," Morgeson told NBC News.
"We've consistently found that both the hold time and the amount of time it takes to get the problem solved once contact has been made, have a really significant impact on how satisfied the consumer is with their interaction."
Most corporate executives probably understand that long hold times are not good for business. For many, it's a question of balancing the cost of adding more customer service agents versus the risk of angering customers.
All too often that call turns out to be a negative experience. Arizona State University's 2015 National Customer Rage Study, a profile of complaint-handling experiences, found that:
- Two thirds of those who complain are not satisfied and are actually angered by the experience
- Sixty percent said they were most upset by the amount of time wasted
- Complaint satisfaction is strongly correlated with increased brand loyalty
- Someone who is unhappy about the way their complaint was handled will tell twice as many people as someone who complains and is happy with the outcome
- The number one thing people won't want to hear when they call customer service is "Your call is important to us, please continue to hold."
"Providing good service after the sale is absolutely critical because you don't just want their business that one time, you want their business in the future," Arizona State's Mary Jo Bitner said. "Quality customer care after the sale can often be a differentiator from your competition and help grow your sales in the future."