“You Are *Not* The Next Caller in Line…”


While recording the “serious” Asterisk prompts for Digium one day a couple of years ago, I got creative and threw in a “joke” prompt which had been brewing in my mind for awhile: what would happen if — while patiently waiting to talk to someone in a company — they truly *did* forget that you were on hold? We’ve all had thoughts that the staff have hung up their headsets and moved en masse to the coffee room for a smart two-hour break to discuss the series finale of “Lost”, while you — represented by a lone red light blinking balefully on a console — are clinging to hope that they really *are* almost finished untangling another customer’s issue and they’re *this close* to pressing your line and asking if they can help you…instead of disappearing to Starbucks or worse…..signing off for the day and heading home with dozens of other similarly discouraged lights still blinking on their consoles.

Here’s the file of “You Are *Not* The Next Caller In Line…”:

You Are Not The Next Caller_NOV19_mixdown

It was an immediate cult favorite in the Asterisk community, and circulated wildly. The idea that a normal-sounding telephone voice eventually cracks under the pressure of endlessly having to reassure callers with empty rhetoric, and does a complete psychological loop-de-loop; confessing that no, actually, they will *not* be helped by the next available caller (“In fact”, I rant in the recording, “the next human voice you hear will probably be the cleaning lady! At 11:30 a night! Picking up the reciever and saying: ‘Hhhallo?””) It’s a fleeting thought which has likely hit all of us as we are silently calculating the likelihood of our call actually getting answered; estimating whether or not we’re bigger fools by sticking it out on hold (“But I already have 12.34 minutes invested in this call!”) or if you should cut your losses at 12.34 minutes, hang up, and go live your life.

Obviously, you want to be able to keep people interested in your company and make sure that even those who are *waiting* to interact with your company are made as comfortable as possible and a “engaged” as they can be — especially in those first formative minutes of limbo before they actually interface with your agent. On Hold is really just a “waiting room” — so what aspects of an actual waiting room contributes to the onerous nature of waiting?

Time. Being kept waiting for an extended period of time. It’s crucial to ensure that your cutomer’s time on hold really is kept to a minimum. When I’m asked to read three lengthy pages of on-hold segments for one system, my question (unspoken)  is usually: “How LONG are they expecting to keep these poor people waiting?” Sure, nobody wants to listen to the same three on-hold paragraphs looping over and over again — but a system which extends into fifteen minutes? Time to re-assess your number of call center staff. Back to the waiting room analogy: I don’t think I’ve ever read an entire paragraph in a magazine in my dentist’s office or could tell you what the wall color of their waiting room is — so prompt is their service. (My doctor? I pack a lunch and bring a couple of books. FYI: their wall color is Sherwin Williams #2933, “Cafe au Lait”.) Imagine that your client’s time on hold was so brief, they don’t even remember it. What would that be like?

Another waiting room pitfall you don’t want to duplicate in your on-hold queue? Boredom. Don’t be that dog-eared issue of People Magazine  “Spoiler Alert” edition from 1987, threatening to give away the season ender of “Night Court”.  Use your (already refreshingly brief) on-hold program to give callers succinct, current, and fascinating informational snippets about your company and why they’re incredibly smart to have called in the first place.

Imagine if — while waiting to see your doctor — the nurse made a grand entrance into the waiting room at perfectly-timed intervals and said something like: “We appreciate everyone for waiting. Your time is valuable. We’re busy giving another patient the same legendary service we look forward to giving to you…..when the next available doctor is ready to see you in just a few moments.” The first time, you might think: “Oh. OK. Nice.” Every five minutes? It might get on your nerves. I always tell clients who ask my opinion on their on-hold system: rather than using up even more time explaining how valuable our time is…..get us to a live agent faster. That’s all.

Brevity, keeping the information pertinent and interesting, and not wearing people out with apologies/platitudes/promises to serve them better as soon as you can — serve them better now. Just like time in the hairdresser’s chair or in an elevator — when you’re on hold, you’re in a liminal state. Waiting to live. Treat your customers in this suspended state as well as you can, and you’ll have designed your on-hold system well.

(PS: Another aspect which should be avoided in on-hold systems as well as waiting rooms is the antiseptic-yet-haunting musical stylings of one Kenny G. I’m just saying.)

Next blog: I’ll delve into the “Myth of Competition” — yes, voice-over can be akin to acting in its competitiveness……but believe me when I say this: there’s enough out there for everyone.



  1. On the other end of things, people should feel free to have fun with their callers. On our auto-attendant and in the tech support hold queue, we give callers the option to hear monkeys scream (you voiced this for us, and I still wonder why you didn’t ask–are you serious?). This takes them to your stock Asterisk recordings saying, “Weasels have eaten our phone system, they have been carried away by monkeys.” And then monkeys screaming. I’ve lost count how many people have thanked me–while still laughing–for giving them that option. We also put it on our customers’ systems and about 30% of them actually speak the option, and they get the same reaction.

    Short of maybe a funeral home, no business is too serious to offer their customers some friendliness.

    • voicegal Said:

      Carlos —

      I totally agree — I think clients are worried about controversy, of offending people, or appearing “wacky” — but people really seem to respond to things in a phone tree or on-hold system which are away from the norm. (A client had me record an option: “For a cold beer, press 9” — his circuits were blown by people repeatedly hammering that option.)

  2. Phil Astin Said:

    Sadly my school, Georgia State University, hasn’t fix the problem that if someone calls in the middle of the night, they will be on hold till the operators show up at eight. What makes it especially sad is that it isn’t a small school either. It has over 30,000 students and at least 5 people whose sole job is to maintain the phone system.

    • voicegal Said:

      Phil, that’s crazy! An after-hours message — even one that doesn’t have a mailbox associated with it to leave messages — would be so simple to implement. Just merely pointing out that they’ve called after regular business hours (and indicating what those hours are..) and asking them to call back later would save a lot of confusion and headaches. Maybe I should voice an on-hold just for GSU that runs a full eight hours long, with me interrupting every twenty minutes or so, asking if the caller is still awake.

      • It’s amazing how things like this happen. We do the configuration for our customers; we don’t just give them a web portal and let them have at it. They’d shoot themselves in the foot. Over half of the new customers leave a loose end in the call routing they give us; a phone that rings forever, the ability for a caller to get stuck overnight, etc. When I ask about it, the answer is always the same. “Oh, that would never happen, because X.” The X is that there’s someone always there to answer the call, or myriad other false assumptions. We always make sure there’s an end game, within a few minutes of the call arriving.

      • voicegal Said:

        Carlos —

        I’m definitely going to interview you for my blog. You’ve got some great ideas, and you’re on the front lines. You see what works and what doesn’t!

        (BTW: I’m blogging directly on the Digium site blog, writing a step-by step tutorial on how to design an IVR system — you input is greatly appreciated there…)


  3. I commented there, and am always open to working with you on educating people.

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