Waiting on hold can be a customer's worst nightmare. As customers, we've been there ourselves! Agents abruptly demand that we wait without a clear reason why, and when they return to us, it's like they've never met us before. We're left wondering why we can't just have our issue resolved, so that we can move on with our lives.
The latest best-practices for knowledge management and increasingly aware artificial intelligence hold the promise of making time spent on hold a thing of the past. For now, particularly as the complexity of customer requests increases, a brief hold from time-to-time is a necessary evil. Hold is also an important refuge for new agents, who are just learning the complexities of their job.
It sounds cliché, but being able to place a customer on hold is the second most important skill to master in the beginning. As they get started, new agents won't know how to answer most questions without a little help. If they're unprepared, this can cause a "deer-in-the-headlights" moment where they lock up and forget all of their training. Obviously, that's bad customer service. Even worse, it can damage their credibility and cause the customer to lose confidence in their ability to help. The right contact center technology can support agents to avoid this, but it's not yet universally implemented.
Until we can completely remove waiting from the customer journey, we must share ways to keep it from harming the customer experience. Thankfully, if you place customers on hold the right way, they really don't mind. When I'm training new agents, I like to share this five-step process for placing customers on hold.
First, explain why you want to place the customer on hold. It doesn't have to be a detailed explanation; the point is to let the customer know that holding serves their interests (even if you just need to catch your breath). You can say "I'd like to do some more research on my end," "I want to double-check with a colleague," or "that's a good question, let me find out." Notice that "let me check with my manager," is not recommended. Even if you are indeed checking with your supervisor, trainer, or a higher level of support, it's best not to announce it. It could damage your credibility. We want customers to think we're omniscient, all-knowing, yet extremely thorough.
Second, ask their permission to place them on hold. Choices induce comfort and confidence. It helps the customer to feel like they're in control, even when they're not. Plus, if they agree to hold, they feel responsible for their own outcome. Be prepared to offer alternatives, in case the customer cannot hold right now. You may be able to call them back or send them an email with the information they need. It may work best for them to contact you again later; be prepared to provide your business hours so they know their options.
Third, place the customer on hold once you've obtained their permission. Pay close attention to the clock to ensure they're not holding for too long. Some contact center platforms have call timers that work great for this purpose. If you don't see a timer, ask your technology partner if one is available.
Don't leave the customer unattended for more than two to three minutes, unless you've obtained special permission from them in advance. Insider secret: every time you ask the customer's permission, their clock is reset. You can use this trick for particularly complex or unusual problems, just complete steps four and five and then return to step one.
Fourth, resume the conversation with enthusiasm, gratitude, and the customer's name. You should treat the customer the same way you'd treat a close friend when you've run late to a dinner party. Using the customer's name reassures them that you've been focused on them this whole time. I like to say, "Thank you for holding, Andrew! I really appreciate your patience." You should never resume a conversation with, "are you still there?" As a competent and confident professional, the customer will certainly be right where you left them. Also, if they're not there, no one will see you look silly. There's no risk.
Fifth, share what you've learned that justifies the wait. Customers have invested their time with you; it's your turn to show them the return on their investment. It also helps to highlight your thoroughness that justified the hold. You can use phrases like, "I double-checked," "I confirmed," "my colleagues agree."
Especially has new agents get started, encourage them to practice, practice, practice! The hold process should be instinctual before they ever answer a call. By developing this reflex, they will act without thinking and avoid any awkward uncertainty. Here's what it may look like all together:
- I'd like to do some more research on my end. Would it be alright to place you on a short hold?
- Thanks, I'll be right back.
- Andrew, thank you so much for your patience. I learned the best way to address this problem.
I always wrap up this advice with a word of warning about the mute button. Mute is not the same as hold, nor is it a "silent hold." The mute button turns off the microphone, which is fantastic for clearing your throat, a sneeze, or attract a colleague's attention. Unlike hold, the customer doesn't know you're gone, they haven't given their permission, and the complete silence can make them think the line is dead. I caution everyone not to use mute instead of hold; use the process above when you need more than a second to yourself.
Using these steps when placing customers on hold shows respect for their time and patience. In many cases, customers don't mind a short wait when it leads to the successful resolution of their question. Until technology enables us to completely eliminate delays, I hope these tips help you offer the best possible experience for your customers.