This Is Your Life On Hold

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According to freelance writer Russ Juskalian, we'll each spend more than a year of our lives on hold. Scientists have figured out — and continue to research — the best ways to keep us all hangin' on the line.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Every day, we ask you to call into this program and those of you who do here, you reached TALK OF THE NATION. Please hold. Then you hear this program through the phone, which is we hope a lot better than the usual 800-number experience.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: Occasionally interrupted by this…

Unidentified Woman: So that we may best serve you, we request permission to review your account information for the purposes of this call. Your call may be monitored or recorded for quality and training purposes.

CONAN: You may not believe it, but corporations hire psychologists who try to figure out what will keep us holding on the line with the minimum of phone rage. So, what keeps you on hold? What makes you want to hang up? Tell us your story. That number to call, 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Freelance writer Russ Juskalian wrote the article "On Hold and in Hell" for newsweek.com and joins us from NPR's bureau in New York. Nice to have you with us today.

Mr. RUSS JUSKALIAN (Author, "On Hold and in Hell"): Glad to be here.

CONAN: And the truly terrifying new fact that you uncovered is that each and every one of us will spend, on average, how much of our lives on hold?

Mr. JUSKALIAN: The statistic that we found was 1.2 years, although I think that's based on a survey. So some people are going to be on more or less than others.

CONAN: I think that 1.2 years, for me, happened last week.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: What is it that keeps us on hold and what is it that makes us want to hang up?

Mr. JUSKALIAN: Well, it seems, from the research that I've looked at, that it really boils down to something simple. It's kind of like the analogy of fish looking at shiny little things. We like to know that we're progressing through the queue. So that seems to be the most important thing.

CONAN: So, when somebody says, your call will be answered in one hour and 26 minutes, if somebody comes back 12 minutes later and says one hour and 14 minutes, we're feeling better?

Mr. JUSKALIAN: I think so. I mean, that's a pretty extreme example. But, yeah. Overall, it's just moving forward. It's not even our sense of how long it's taking. It's really just, are we moving forward? Okay. This feels good.

CONAN: And the reminders that those calls are really important to us, does that help?

Mr. JUSKALIAN: Not a good idea.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JUSKALIAN: What some of the researchers have found is that it kind of reminds us that we're waiting. So, one of the researchers I spoke to, Anat Rafaeli from the Israel Institute of Technology, had done a study. And what she suggested is when you're listening to music or you're being given information about moving forward in the cue, all of a sudden, this apology springs up. We don't believe it because it's this robotic voice that sounds more patronizing than anything else. And so, it just breaks us out of whatever we are in and, oh, yeah, I'm still waiting. This is terrible.

CONAN: This is terrible. And the music itself, this is not randomly selected. There's some science here too.

Mr. JUSKALIAN: Yeah. It's a complex science because it depends on the setting and who's calling. Men and women seem to respond differently to different types of music. But that may have to do with familiarity more than anything else.

CONAN: Really? How - how do men and women respond differently?

Mr. JUSKALIAN: I'm not really familiar with the details of it, although it does have to do with what music we're more used to listening to and that sort of thing.

CONAN: Oh, well, we want listeners in on this conversation. We've all spent, well, at least, part of that 1.2 years on hold already. What drives you nuts? What makes you hang up? What keeps you hanging on? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org.

And Kelly(ph) is with us from Valdosta, Georgia.

KELLY (Caller): Hi. I've been dealing with the IRS for two and a half years.

CONAN: Oh, I'm so sorry.

KELLY: And every number that you call, they play the "Nutcracker Suite" for their hold music.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KELLY: The IRS agent insists that she does not find it funny.

CONAN: Now, the title of that is no sense of irony at the IRS whatsoever.

KELLY: None at all. But every 800-number they have has that same hold music.

CONAN: And you must know every note of it by heart.

KELLY: Well, I knew it before, but now I know it backwards and forward.

CONAN: And it's going to ruin Christmas for you, isn't it?

(Soundbite of laughter)

KELLY: Yes. We'll never go to the ballet again.

CONAN: And so, now, December 25th and April 15th are black days on your calendar.

KELLY: Yes.

CONAN: I'm sorry, Kelly. Thanks very much for the call.

KELLY: Thank you.

CONAN: And the IRS would have - seem to have a hold on you. There's a lot of these cases - we stay on hold because we have no choice.

Russ?

Mr. JUSKALIAN: Yep. I'm here.

CONAN: Yeah. We stay on hold because we have no choice. We've got to get it through to the IRS, because otherwise we're going to go to jail.

Mr. JUSKALIAN: Yeah. Well, we're a captive audience. There's nothing that we can do, and we've got to wait. And so, they've got us in a position where we're going to stay there, no matter how long it is.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Let's - a little bit more about these music categories: aura, taking the primarily instrumental musical form to experimental and inspirational places. I think we've all heard that.

Mr. JUSKALIAN: I think we have. But at the same time, it's pretty hard to define. I mean, I'm not sure what that really means.

CONAN: There's also Moodscapes?

Mr. JUSKALIAN: Mm-hmm.

CONAN: What are they?

Mr. JUSKALIAN: Some kind of amorphous, flowy sort of things. I don't think I can put my finger on what they are, but somewhere in that region.

CONAN: Airy and relaxing is the description you used in the piece. And Tropical Breezes was another one you talked about, those carefree days of sun, fun and frozen cocktails. I guess that's what you get when you go on hold for Carnival Cruises.

Mr. JUSKALIAN: Yeah. Or Corona beers, if they have a hold line.

CONAN: If they have a hold line. Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Michael, Michael calling us from Baton Rouge.

MICHAEL (Caller): Hi, Neal. I just - when I was calling a helpdesk person, service for - Internet service provider, one of the things that they did which I thought was really interesting is they actually had a DJ. When you're on hold and they played music and they said, yeah, we have about 1,100 callers right now. And, you know, we're going to get to you as soon as we can. But they played display different music. But there was a guy, an actual DJ, while you were on hold playing different music and telling you, you know, what they call queues look like, how many people are calling and how long the average wait time was. And it was live. It was real time.

CONAN: So you were getting play by play?

MICHAEL: Yeah. It was fantastic. And the company, you know, was a really great company. They got acquired at - you know, and, the Internet service provider, you know, I was having problems with dial up, and called them up and not only did they help fix my problem, they kept me entertained, and on the phone for quite a long time while I was waiting to get the service.

CONAN: Russ Juskalian, that seems like an inventive approach.

Mr. JUSKALIAN: Yeah, it does. It definitely captures us in that wanting-to-move-forward sort of thing, and I think it makes us feel like someone's paying attention to us, even if there's nothing else going on.

CONAN: And did you eventually get through, Michael?

MICHAEL: Yes. Yes, I did. I eventually got through, and I got taken care of. But, you know, the idea of having the actual, like radio DJ on, you know, on the hold and kind of talking you through and playing the music - playing music every once in a while was really - was one of the most memorable times on hold that I actually (unintelligible) I quite enjoyed.

CONAN: As jobs and radio dwindle, we're all in favor of this. Michael, thanks very much for the call.

MICHAEL: Thanks, Neal.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we can go next to Frank, and Frank joined us on the road in Kentucky.

FRANK (Caller): Hi. I'm calling from the road. The best experience I could say is being on hold is when there's, like, small subtle beeps every once in a while just so you know you didn't get hung up on.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

FRANK: And after two minutes, they'll give you an option to leave your number that they could call you back. That would be probably the best situation. I had a bad situation about a truck manufacturer that, as far as tractor trailers goes, I was on hold with the manufacturer, and my truck is a lemon, and I had to listen to how good the model of the truck is that I had while I was on hold.

And another thing is that when you're on hold with NPR…

CONAN: Yeah?

FRANK: …rather than taking your call, they start reading emails.

CONAN: Huh.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FRANK: I was told to say that.

CONAN: You were told to say that by producers coming in with a stack of emails for me, and has handed them to me. Thanks very much, Frank. You could go…

FRANK: Right. It's just funny. You're on hold, and then they start reading the emails, and that's when I hang up.

CONAN: All right. Thanks very much, Frank. Appreciate it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Here are the emails, this from Fred in Buffalo. The thing that makes me want to hang up the most is any kind of obvious short loop, be it message or messaging. The more the loop is heard, the more apparent it is how much time has passed. Is Fred all alone, Russ?

Mr. JUSKALIAN: Well, it seems that knowing how much time has passed, as long as it's moving. So if they keep going the same thing over again, you've been waiting 10 minutes, you've got 10 minutes to wait, you're not going to want to stay on the line. But if you - if it's counting down, it's pretty effective.

CONAN: What about those systems that - where we winnow ourselves into ever-smaller categories, those phone trees. Sometimes they can be infuriating, too.

Mr. JUSKALIAN: They are pretty frustrating. Although, if they're done properly, which I'm told means they're quick, you don't have to go too deep, they actually distract us enough and give us that sense of progression that we really want. So, those can be effective, too.

CONAN: And then, do they counsel the people who eventually have to - the live people who are eventually on the other end of that phone - to deal with the rage that they have incurred in their callers by - who have held on the line for unconscionable amounts of time?

Mr. JUSKALIAN: Knowing my own experiences, I hope they do.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JUSKALIAN: But I think that's one of the questions that's still up to be answered and people want to look into is: What's the effect of having people wait a long time, get frustrated with it and then give the service representative a hard time? Because there's this feedback loop of negative responses that starts happening.

CONAN: And that suggestion that we just had from our last caller, why don't they take our numbers and call us back, say we'll get back to you in a couple of hours?

Mr. JUSKALIAN: I don't know. I think I'd like it if they did that, too, though.

CONAN: That might be good. Here's an email from Bruce in Oakland. My utility company has a great system. You have the option of getting a return call. The computer tells you how long the wait there is if you hang up. And when the phone rings, the customer agent is on the line. And that sounds pretty good.

Chad in Cleveland emails it: I hate it when the prerecorded voice comes on interrupting the music. I'm fooled every time into thinking the customer service rep has finally picked up. And we've all had that experience, too.

And this email from John. I was in phone queue last week, and it started out with: There are five people in line in front of you. And after about 10 minutes, the message changed. There are six people in line in front of you.

Mr. JUSKALIAN: Oh, no.

CONAN: I hung up. And that must be the most frustrating message of all.

Mr. JUSKALIAN: Yeah. That sounds pretty bad.

CONAN: We're talking with freelance writer Russ Juskalian, who wrote the article "On Hold and in Hell" for Newsweek.com. He's with us from NPR's bureau in New York.

If you've had the experience of being tortured online, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, coming to you from NPR News.

And let's go next to Seva(ph). Is that right? In Tulsa.

SEVA (Caller): Yes. Yeah, it's Seva in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

CONAN: Well, go ahead please.

SEVA: All right. This is the end all, be all. I pay for my phone minutes, you answer the phone and it's actually a computer calling you saying: Please stay on hold while we're waiting for a representative to get you, like I'm going to stand in my living room when the computer has asked me to do that. That's an immediate hang up for me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: And presumably, they're calling you cold. They're not calling you because you want them to.

SEVA: No. They just - you just get a phone call, and it's some computer telling you to stand in your living room on hold. And I'm like, no. I'm not doing that.

CONAN: No, I wouldn't do that, either. I don't think many of us would.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SEVA: All right. I (unintelligible) in there.

CONAN: Thank you, Seva. Bye-bye.

And here's an email we have from Michael. What if the caller can have a choice of three or four different types of hold music? Would that help to keep people by giving them more of a sense of choice or power over the situation? Has anybody tried that?

Mr. JUSKALIAN: I'm not sure of anyone tried it, although I could see that going one of two ways. One is you pick something that actually distracts you enough. The other is there's a phenomenon where if you're listening to something that you know very well and you hear just a piece of it, your mind kind of extracts it, sort of like a zip file, and you think that you've been there listening to the whole thing. So it could backfire by choosing something you really like.

CONAN: Uh-huh. And from what you've written there, Erik Satie has a lot to answer for.

Mr. JUSKALIAN: Yeah. The musicologist at Princeton, Simon Morrison was talking to me about Erik Satie. And he blames him for modern-hold music, more or less.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JUSKALIAN: This French composer, 1880s, 1900, he's famous of the "Gymnopedies," which were a three-part series, pretty familiar, not really hold music, furniture music. But in 1917, Satie wrote these five pieces that he called furniture music. They come out of his intense cynicism of trying to make money playing in bordellos, where no one was listening to the music. So he said…

CONAN: Can't imagine why.

Mr. JUSKALIAN: Yeah. So he said, this music is just filler. It fills the space. It's something to do or to have in the background as we do other things. And that's the birth, more or less.

CONAN: Erik Satie, we'll never think of him the same way. Let's go to Kate, Kate with us from Marietta in New York.

KATE (Caller): Hi. I just had something happen to me today that drove me nuts. I worked at home. I edit a legal Web site. And so I - all the sudden, my battery started to go - to die. And it said, you know, do this and you're going to lose - or you're going to lose everything. So I immediately tried to call the computer company and ask them, and instead I got caught in this horrible hell of voice non-recognition. They ask you all these questions. You respond because they don't let you press a button. If you are going - if you need technical support, say technical support. Technical support. I'm sorry, we don't understand you. And on and on and on and on.

CONAN: On, off.

KATE: And finally, I got to this point when they wanted to know some number on the bottom of my computer. And, of course, my computer is not accessible. But they couldn't understand me. And even though I was really articulate, I thought, they kept asking me to please repeat that. Please repeat that. Oh, by the time I got a person, about 25 minutes into this, I was roaring mad.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KATE: So, I had to just really compose myself.

CONAN: I hope you got the services you needed and everything worked out for you.

KATE: I had to buy everything new.

CONAN: Oh.

KATE: So, and you know, at that point, I wasn't 100 percent sure I needed to, but I just - okay, just take my money. Give me something new. I can't possibly deal with this. And the problem is I…

CONAN: After a while, the company on the line says: Open your wallet and repeat after me: Help yourself.

KATE: That's right. That's right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Kate, thank you.

KATE: So, we had a successful conclusion from their point of view.

CONAN: Yes. Bye-bye, Kate.

KATE: Thank you.

CONAN: And let's go now to Michael, Michael with us from Richfield in Utah.

MICHAEL (Caller): Neal, I was going to ask your author if he knows of any companies that are actually listening while they have me on hold, because I've had the experience, I believe, where I've kind of complained about the lack of customer service while they have me on hold. And sometimes, I wonder if I get - if they get back to me that much more quickly.

CONAN: Or punt you to the back of the line. Either way, are people in any case listening to the people they have on hold?

Mr. JUSKALIAN: I would assume that they're not. And if they are, I hope that they move that kind of workforce over to actually answering the call.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MICHAEL: Yeah, exactly. I mean, but I think that I've read somewhere, anywhere, where in some operations like this, they actually are listening to you while you're on hold to see what else you're going to say about them or something.

CONAN: All right. Michael, thanks very much.

MICHAEL: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. And we've got to get one caller in, Jim - Jim with us from Petaluma in California. You've been on hold the longest. I apologize.

JIM (Caller): Yeah. Well, it doesn't bother me because I had you on speaker phone. And that's the best technique I've ever figured out for not getting mad when you're on hold, is just put the call on the speaker phone and suddenly you feel like - or I feel like I'm in control.

CONAN: That's a very good piece of advice, so thank you, Jim.

JIM: Sure.

CONAN: And finally, this email from David in Missouri. One of the best hold experiences for me was a company that had a loop of admittedly clean stand-up comedy. It gave you a reason to listen, not just noise in your ear that proves they have not hung up on you. Well, there's another approach.

Russ Juskalian, thank you very much for your time today.

Mr. JUSKALIAN: Thanks for having me on.

CONAN: Russ wrote "On Hold and in Hell" for Newsweek.com, and joined us from our bureau in New York.

Tomorrow, it's SCIENCE FRIDAY. Ira Flatow will be here for a talk on clean-burning hydrogen trains and why railroads may be the key to jumpstart the hydrogen economy. That's tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY.

We'll talk to you again on Monday. Have a great Labor Day weekend, everybody.

I'm Neal Conan, NPR News, in Washington.

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