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Going Back to the Essence: Look Out For The “Hold Music” In Your Organisation

Picture of a robot holding a microphone. The robot has pigtails (hair) and pink eyes.
“Your call is important to us…” (Image Credit: © djmilic — #45136074)

If you’ve ever been on hold when trying to contact a company by phone, you’ve probably experienced the irritation of hold music.  Typically, this is an irritating experience for two reasons:

  1. The sound quality is awful. This is particularly true if you’re calling via a mobile/cell phone. I gather that phone calls via the GSM network are optimised for voice; they literally cut out non-voice frequencies to save bandwidth, meaning music sounds compressed and garbled.
  2. The music is interrupted every 30 seconds with a recorded voice explaining how important your call is and how ‘we’re experiencing unexpectedly high call volumes right now…’.

I can’t imagine anyone particularly liking hold music, which begs the question why does it exist in the first place, particularly when the phone system compresses and garbles it? Surely it just irritates customers which is bad for everyone?

My best guess is that companies use hold music because it’s the ‘done thing’. It’s a well-established convention and telephony systems provide the functionality out of the box. To use a tried and tested cliche “it’s the way we’ve always done things around here”.  Crucially, when implementing or changing a telephony system this leads to questions like “what hold music shall we use…?” rather than “should we use hold music at all…?” or “should we create a service where people don’t have to hold at all?”.

Question Everything: Don’t Use It Just Because It’s There

This trap of using functionality just because it exists is dangerous. Hold music is just one example, but this kind of pattern can be seen throughout organisations. Sometimes particular metrics are measured and reported upon simply because they are the default metrics that the software/hardware spits out. Measuring ‘average call handling time’ and ‘average speed of answer’ might be valuable… but doing it just because they are two of the default metrics that a particular telephony system produces is a pretty poor reason. In fact, measure those two metrics alone without considering customer satisfaction and you’ll likely get a dashboard that is reassuringly (but deceptively) green even when your customers are frustrated.

A useful concept here is one that Suzanne and James Robertson describe in their book Mastering the Requirements Process 3rd Edition as ‘essence’.  The idea here is to take a situation (e.g. use of hold music) and ‘scrape away’ the existing technology to understand its underlying intent.  Once we understand that intent, that essence, we might change the implementation and find other ways of delivering it.

The intent of hold music, presumably, is “to provide customers with a pleasant experience while they wait”.  If it’s agreed that is what an organisation is trying to achieve, the discussion can then centre on how to achieve it.  Hold music, as it is commonly implemented, probably doesn’t actually meet the planned intent. Some other form of queuing system, which lets the customer know their place in the queue and how long they need to wait, might be more appropriate.

Use Essence / Intent As An Innovation Trigger

Yet even more powerful is to re-examine this intent (see also the Brown Cow model in the book mentioned above).  Here we might ask ‘do we really want customers to wait at all?’.  If the answer is no, this might lead us to understand peaks and troughs in demand, to try to predict and level out demand, or even to provide alternative (asynchronous) ways of the customer contacting us. Or, it might lead to some kind of callback system where the telephone system calls the customer when they are first in the queue so they don’t have to wait at all. It might even involve predicting the customers needs and pre-empting them so no contact is needed at all!

This is relevant to any BA or service designer who is working on existing systems and processes.  There will be established norms, within the organisation and within industries generally. Challenging them may lead to resistance, but doing so can lead to innovation. Sometimes there will be very good reasons that things are done in a particular way… other times there might be no good reason. These are the times when it may be possible to identify a cheaper and more effective alternative that also increases customer satisfaction. And who wouldn’t want to do that?!


Robertson & Robertson (2013), ‘Mastering the Requirements Process’ 3rd Ed, Addison Wesley/Pearson, Ohio USA

You can buy Mastering the Requirements Process on Amazon or at any good book shop. Here’s a link to a list of my favourite BA books on Amazon (including this one) that you might find useful.

What are your views? Please add a comment below, and let’s keep the conversation flowing!

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About the author:

Adrian Reed is Principal Consultant at Blackmetric Business Solutions, an organisation that offers Business Analysis consulting and training solutions. Adrian is a keen advocate of the analysis profession, and is constantly looking for ways of promoting the value that good analysis can bring.

To find out more about the training and consulting services offered at Blackmetric, please visit

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2 thoughts on “Going Back to the Essence: Look Out For The “Hold Music” In Your Organisation”

  1. Adrian,

    Good article. I hope the words “Question Everything: Don’t Use It Just Because It’s There” are read many times and taken note of. You also mention “companies use hold music because it’s the ‘done thing’” This is the groupthink that is the biggest (IMHO) barrier to innovation.

    This “done thing” causes people to leap to assumed solutions When a project assumes a solution at the outset then the business analysts and product owners have no chance of developing anything original. The “done thing” might also not solve the real business problem.

    You examine the essence of hold music. I wonder if the original purpose was to “fill the void” and let the customer know that the organisation has not simply disconnected the caller, that they will get around to answering sometime (hopefully today).

    I agree with your tracing back and thinking that the system would be better if the customer did not have to wait at all. Perhaps AI will provide a synthesised voice to let the customer know that is robotics and then try and solve the customer’s problem using a voice communication. If all else fails, hand off to a human.

    But if we absolutely must have hold music, then please can we avoid music (which is as you say distorted, and as I say in execrable taste) and have say, Stephen Fry reading one of his excellent books?

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