My purpose here is not to carp — much — about being mistreated by Lufthansa’s customer service system. Why bother? My recent experience with the German airline was no worse than what I or anyone else is usually subjected to by big companies.
Yes, I had to call repeatedly just to get put on hold. When I finally made it to hold, I waited between 20 and 40 minutes each time — ensuring that when I was finally connected to a human being, I was in a low-level rage that I had to suppress if I hoped to achieve anything at all. It took a number of these calls to resolve my flight problems, and on two occasions, a representative finally picked up and then accidentally disconnected me, so I had to start over.
It’s standard stuff. We’ve all been through it. And as I said, that’s not my subject today.
No, what I want to talk about is the “hold music” that I listened to while I waited. I spent a lot of time wondering about it because, you know, what else could I do?
The reason I was on hold in the first place was that my wife tested positive for the coronavirus on the very day I was to fly to Germany for my father’s 90th birthday, so my plans were scuttled. To avoid losing more than $1,000, I hoped to cancel and rebook despite having, characteristically, bought the cheapest available ticket, which technically didn’t allow changes, refunds or vouchers.
Unfortunately, Lufthansa was “experiencing an extraordinarily high call volume.”
So I waited, and listened.
Let me backtrack for a moment. The idea of playing music while people are on hold can be traced back 60 years to a Long Island factory owner named Alfred Levy. Apparently Levy is reasonably famous among the narrow circle of people who care about telephone hold music. He stumbled on the concept accidentally, the story goes, after an exposed wire in his company’s phone system came in contact with a steel girder and picked up the broadcast of a nearby radio which callers on hold to his business could hear.
Whether Levy got rich from mixing music and phone lines I can’t say. But his patent application foretold the future: He said he hoped to play music to people on hold “to pacify the originator of the call if the delay becomes unduly long, and also to while away the idle time of the caller who is awaiting connection. ...”
Those were the days when Muzak and other companies would pipe insipid, easy-listening instrumental music through stores, restaurants and elevators. Levy wanted to pipe that music into people’s phones as well.
Businesses lined up.
They liked hold music partly because it was a way to reassure customers that their calls hadn’t been dropped. We all know the feeling of sitting on a silent line wondering foolishly whether we’re still connected.
They also liked it because, as they like to say, "Your call is very important to us" — and studies showed that music made customers willing to hold longer before slamming down the phone in disgust and calling the competition. Apparently music alters our perception of time, and “occupied time” moves more quickly than “unoccupied time.”
Some studies even suggested that music kept customers happy and calm and in a mood to buy. Play it at restaurants and they stick around for another drink; put it on their phones and their anxiety and anger levels go down.
I don’t have the data to refute that. All I know is that I’ve never met anybody who likes telephone hold music or feels soothed by it.
The problems are obvious. Hold music sounds awful because of the distortion that comes with listening to complex or multi-instrument music over a crummy phone line. In its effort to be upbeat, it’s too often just a clash of beats and blares. You rarely hear actual “songs” because companies don’t want to pay the required licensing fees, and besides, consultants warn they might have negative associations. So instead you too often get unfamiliar, banal, instrumental non-songs.
And you have to listen to every second because at any moment someone might pick up.
Lufthansa, for its part, is making a basic hold music mistake — one so obvious I figured it out myself even before reading Dr. Jim Will’s “The Psychology of Telephone ‘On-Hold’ Programming.”
Will wrote in the 1980s about the “wear out” that comes with excessive repetition. Too much repeating and “caller anxiety is likely to be increased.”
Lufthansa’s hold theme — a proprietary piece of “audio branding” the company also uses during boarding — is unbearably repetitive. It's not melodic or euphonic or catchy or soothing. It's just wildly monotonous.
Hello, Lufthansa (and all the other companies just like you) — there are alternatives! You could interrupt the monotony by occasionally letting customers know how long their wait will be. You could offer a civilized beep to show customers they’re still connected rather than blaring distorted music at them. You could vary the music. You could invest in the technology that lets you call your customers back.
Or — gasp — you could hire more customer service representatives and cut the wait times.
(By the way, you’re not the worst offender in this regard. The Australian airline Qantas once reportedly kept a man on hold for 15 hours.)
Alternatively, you can stick with the plan and play an endless loop of pseudo-music and hope customers will hang on indefinitely.
If they have $1,000 at stake, they probably will.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.