On Hold, Hold On

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as published on The Huffington Post

There is something infuriating and infantilizing about dialing a phone number and reaching a recorded message. Even if the amount of time lost in only a few seconds, the helplessness of interacting with a non-sentient being can be hard to handle. This is especially true when there is waste built in to the messaging. Like anyone, I’ve spent a lot of time on the phone with a recording on the other end, and it’s given me the chance to think about all the ways we could be doing better.

“Unusually high call volume”


This claim is the telephonic equivalent to crying wolf, a reasonable statement made meaningless by overuse. Sure utility company, tell me your volume is high when massive ice storms disable thousands of power lines, but don’t pull that line with me on a normal Tuesday afternoon. It’s not “extreme” or “unusual” or if it happens all the time.

“If this is an emergency”

Often a recording will tell you what to do if you are experiencing an emergency. This is especially common with doctor’s offices or health care providers. Usually the instructions include hanging up and dialing 911 and/or going to the nearest emergency room. It seems reasonable, but let’s break it down. If there were really an emergency, and the person chose not to call 911, (the number they have been conditioned since birth to dial in an emergency) then maybe they have a good reason for calling you. And even if they should have called 911 instead of you, having them wait on the line listening to a recording is not the best way to handle the frightened person. If you see a distressed person on the street and they ask you for help, do you tell them to call 911? No. You call for them, or you find out what they need and go from there.

“Please” and “Thank you”

Like pouring too much sugar in our coffee, we in the United States have a pervasive habit of overdosing instructional messages with terms of courtesy: “Please press 1 if…” “Please try your call again later.” “Thank you for your patience.” If I am calling you, I want something, you don’t have to thank me for that. If I have to wait to get what I want, you don’t have to say please, or even ask me to do it. I am an advocate for manners, but such flourishes are meaningless on a recorded message, like having robot ask “How are you?” before launching into the sequence. My experience seems to show a correlation between the number of times a phone message thanks me and the grievances I suffer on their behalf. Good manners from a phone recording are not what I’m after and it only makes me more likely to be keyed up by the time I reach a real human, and that’s a situation where actual courtesy is called for.

“If you are calling outside of normal business hours”

It’s fine for you to tell me what to do if I call outside normal business hours, but only if I am actually calling outside normal business hours. If the standard pre-recorded message that I will reach anytime I call 24/7 tells me what to do in this case before they tell me what to do if I call during normal business hours, well that just doesn’t make sense.

Enter your customer ID

One of the most logical uses of an automated answering system is to collect information and categorize callers to better direct them to the person who they need to speak to. It’s common for recorded messages to make use of various forms of phone-number identification before they connect you with a real person. “It seems like you’re calling from a number we have on record,” caller verification “confirm your zip code” and information gathering “enter your customer ID number followed by the pound key” are good practices that make a lot of sense. Where this practice goes wrong is when the information the caller enters doesn’t make it to the person they end up talking to. There is something double-extra annoying about parroting your 18-digit user ID when you just typed it in. Don’t collect it unless you can use it, eh?

“Listen to this entire message, as our menu has changed”

It might seem strange, but this message irritates me more than any other phone recording offense, it is sheer folly. I built up this aversion after calling a particular number day after day and being constantly reminded that the message is new when it absolutely was not. Let’s think of it conceptually: if every time you record a message, you tell the callers that the message is new, then the message will never not be new. The next time a message is recorded, it will be new. If someone took the time, after some preliminary time period, say 30 days, to re-record the message with everything else was the same except the “new message” notification, then it would make sense. That just doesn’t happen and this message is just never necessary.

Best Practices

The good news is that each of these complaints can be converted into an improved process. If there are any benevolent robots reading this article, I recommend you apply these practices for phone recordings include:

  • Sequence the information in order of the most common caller
  • Cut out unnecessary words
  • Don’t collect information you can use it
  • Spare the excuses
  • Just re-record and don’t talk about it

If more 800 numbers and insurance companies or department stores followed these policies, their customer service reps would have a vastly better job satisfaction because the people they speak to would be vastly less irritable. It may seem like I’m being incredibly nit-picky, but it’s about more than just the wasted time, it’s about the helplessness of being a sentient being that is utterly at the mercy of a machine, it’s about being a human-shaped peg trying to fit into an electronic hole.

For my part, I try to be nice to the recordings. I try to adopt a pleasant, even nonchalant voice when I say the inevitable “Operator” “Help” “I need something else.” It know it doesn’t do me any good to get stressed out yelling at a machine or shouting “Two…..TWO…. TooOO!” into the phone. They can keep me on hold as long as they want, but only I can control whether or not it ruins my whole day.

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