By David H. Martin

“I’m in the phone booth, it’s the one across the hall If you don’t answer, I’ll just ring it off the wall I know he’s there, but I just had to call Don’t leave me hanging on the telephone…” –Deborah Harry, Blondie, “Parallel Lines” album, 1978

Telephone “hang time” is an unfortunate fact at many dealerships when a customer calls for information, and the person who answers must scramble for an answer while the customer is put on hold. If the time on hold is 30 seconds, a business that receives 50 calls a day over 260 business days a year could have callers on hold 100 hours a year. Dead air is a matter of concern, because many callers left on the line simply hang up and may not call back.

Now, thanks to relatively inexpensive technology, “hang time” doesn’t have to be a waste of time. In fact, it could be a marketing opportunity to tell waiting customers about other products, special offers or other useful, water related information.

Loony tunes
Some dealers think (erroneously) that playing music from a local radio station is a good idea. They don’t realize they may be violating music copyright laws that involve fees to ASCAP, BMI and SESAC, organizations that collect music royalties on behalf of composers. Even worse, playing a radio over the phone creates the risk that a caller on hold will hear a commercial for a competing water treatment dealer!

Playing recorded music tapes or compact discs (CDs) requires the same royalty payments as playing the radio. Considering how far the recording industry seems willing to go to trap people who trade music online, why risk it? Another option is canned “elevator” music, or muzak, that’s also costly and provides no marketing benefit.

CD technology
It seems the best solution is a mix of music and messages relating to your business. With CD technology, this happy mix can be delivered inexpensively and use otherwise dead “hang time” to build a relationship with the caller. On-hold messaging systems have been around for a while now, but the earliest ones were very unreliable. Consisting of continuous loop cassette tape playing on an inexpensive tape player, they required constant maintenance and suffered from frequent breakdown problems.

The next advance in “on-hold” automated systems came with the advent of CDs. The tremendous storage capacity of CDs allows for up to 99 messages totaling up to 75 minutes of playing time. The CDs never wear out and the audio clarity is much better than taped messages. The installation is simple—the player is plugged into the “music-on-hold” jack on the phone system.

While CDs themselves offer great advantages over tape, using “off-the-shelf” consumer-grade CD players to play “on hold” isn’t ideal. Regular CD players aren’t designed to be played continuously and will burn out quickly. In addition, most allow only the repetition of a single track or the whole CD. Repeating a single message is monotonous. Repeating the whole CD means it can’t contain time-sensitive messages such as a holiday greeting. Also, the output volume of most CD players is too low to be heard well through the phone system, so an additional amplifier is required. Finally, if there’s even a momentary power interruption, regular CD players lose their programming and stop playing.

Tailoring the message
CD players that have been developed specifically for “on hold” applications solve all these problems. Costing under $500, these players preserve their programming if power is lost and have built-in amplifiers to provide adequate output levels for phone systems. They’re designed to ensure long life span even with the continuous-duty nature of “on hold” play. On certain models, messages may be mixed and matched at will. The CD can contain messages for each holiday, special promotions and other time-sensitive material, which can be programmed into the play list only when it’s needed. Customized messages can be added for about $100.

The development of the digital memory chip paved the way for another type of “on hold” player. If you don’t need large message capacity and the programmability of the CD unit, these digital players are a lower-cost option at about $250.

New units utilize removable “memory sticks” like those used in modern digital cameras and MP3 players. With these, there are no moving parts to wear out or break, so the system provides years of trouble- and maintenance-free performance. The playing capacity of the digital machines is fairly short—the industry standard is four minutes of music and messages. Material is easily updated by having a new memory stick created as needed.

Downloaded messages and music via digital format
A third, even newer on-hold technology is the “telephone download” digital player. It allows updated messages and music to be downloaded remotely by telephone. Consequently, this option is really only necessary for businesses that need to update their messages frequently (more than four times per year) with information that cannot be planned in advance. Downloads typically occur after hours, so no staff involvement is required. A slight disadvantage is that the initial installation requires the services of a telecom technician, who will charge for his 10-15 minutes of time. Because downloads take only a few minutes and can be programmed to take place after hours, a dedicated phone line isn’t needed, so the player can share an existing fax or phone line. Telephone download players cost $250-300.

Selecting a vendor
Once the player has been selected, a vendor must be selected to produce the music and message content. Sometimes a single company will provide both the equipment and production services. With a single point of contact, if there’s a problem, there’s no squabbling between the equipment and production services over responsibilities. The best vendors offer a turnkey service including script writing and production as well as voice talent and music. Check references of existing clients. With the dramatic increase in the popularity of “on-hold” systems, there’s been a surge in the number of unqualified vendors. Choose a vendor who has been in business for more than five years.

Contract or lease?
It’s prudent to avoid any company that insists on a contract for ongoing service. That’s because it’s difficult to predict how often production services will be required, and you could end up paying for services never used.

Even less desirable is leasing. Back when on-hold players cost more than $1,000, leasing was a way to make them affordable for smaller businesses. Today, the prices of on-hold players are so reasonable, any business can buy one outright. Buy your equipment, then shop for an appropriate vendor for music and message production on an as-needed basis.

Developing your messages
Remember, on-hold messages should be low key, not hard sell. You don’t want customers to think they’re on hold simply to give you a chance to pitch them.

Messages should be polite and tactful, and should always thank the caller for waiting. Plus, don’t be afraid to mention special offers and interesting product information. Entertaining “water facts” are certainly appropriate. Encourage waiting customers to ask for more information on products and services when the associate returns.

Some recorded phone messages:

  • Present company credentials
  • Offer to answer any questions when the associate returns
  • Provide interesting information about common water problems
  • Invite customers to join the company customer referral program
  • Cross-sell other available products and services

Today, even small dealers can afford professional “on-hold” phone service. Most would benefit from a service that combines a thoughtful, friendly blend of messages and music. One final tip—don’t be afraid to be creative and entertaining. Make the caller really enjoy what he or she is hearing.

About the author
David H. Martin is president of Lenzi Martin Marketing, of Oak Park, Ill., a firm specializing in water improvement and environmental marketing that integrates old and new media. He can be reached at (708) 848-8404, email: [email protected] or website:


Comments are closed.