Gotta know how to hold 'em Phones: As businesses continue to put callers on hold, there is money to be made in providing on-hold messages that keep a caller hanging on instead of hanging up.

July 13, 1998|By Shanon D. Murray | Shanon D. Murray,SUN STAFF

Surrounded by computer screens, an audio mix board and a huge microphone, two voice actors settle into a sound studio for a session that could last up to three hours and cost from $500 to $3,500 for a six-minute program.

The two aren't taping a radio commercial spot. It's for a company's phone message system.

"My business customers all hate to put people on hold, but they realize they must," said Scott Watkins, founder and president of On Hold Consultants Inc. of Baltimore.

"But dead silence is a killer for a business," he said.

Almost a decade old, the message-on-hold industry has expanded during the last few years with businesses moving beyond thinking that it is a frivolous expense to considering it a necessary marketing tool, industry experts said.

Message-on-hold services provide customized music and announcements for a business' clients who call up and are placed on hold. Messages are usually mini-commercials providing informational tips about the company and its products.

"Companies know they need business cards and letterheads and all the things that make them look professional, but they usually fall short in their telephone presentation," said Michael Sakakeeny, president of On-Hold Plus Inc., one of the first companies to spring up in the industry.

The San Diego-based company is a manufacturer of digital announcers, which businesses usually purchase to play their message-on-hold program instead of using a standard tape recorder. The equipment can cost $200 to $1,000.

"Up until recently, this technology has been cost-prohibitive, but businesses are seeing its value as a marketing tool," Sakakeeny said, explaining the sudden growth in message-on-hold systems.

There are fewer than 10 equipment manufacturers in the country and dozens more service providers such as Watkins' company, but "it's still a wide open market," Sakakeeny said.

There are an estimated 12 million business phone systems nationwide, he said, and about 8 percent of them have some sort of message-on-hold programming.

According to AT&T Corp., an estimated 70 percent of business callers are put on hold. About 60 percent of them hang up, and about 30 percent don't call back.

In a national study published by the Multimedia Telecommunications Association, a trade group in Arlington, Va., callers who hear silence while on hold will hang up in less than a minute. About 90 percent hang up within 40 seconds.

Callers who hear information on hold will stay on the line for up to 3 minutes, the trade group said.

Armed with such data, Watkins set out to start his own company in December. There are a few national companies, he said, but the industry is populated with mostly small businesses such as his.

In seven months, he has expanded his client list to nearly 100 companies throughout the Baltimore-Washington corridor, the Eastern Shore and central Pennsylvania, including security companies, banks, accounting firms and health systems.

"An on-hold-message is the first impression a caller has of a business," said Watkins, who is also a voice-over professional. "The trick is keeping callers patient, interested and entertained.

To create a program for a business, Watkins interviews with it at least twice to understand the company and its industry. He then writes the script, chooses the music and works with three voice actors to record the message.

He then creates a tape of seven to nine messages that constantly revolve, lasting for an average of 6 minutes.

ROI Technologies considered connecting its telephone system to the radio, but decided on a formal message-on-hold program instead, said George Towle, senior vice president and chief financial officer of the Baltimore label-printing company.

The company has been a customer of Watkins since February.

"It's much better than playing the radio for customers and have them listening to commercials for other businesses," Towle said. "When customers call us, they hear about our products like our new presses, our new ISDN line and our Web site."

"Unfortunately, we have to put people on hold," said Allison Gaines, manager of Morgan Gerard, a hair salon in Annapolis that has been a customer of Watkins for three months.

"But how long will they wait?" she asked. "Sometimes 2 minutes seem like 20 minutes."

Pub Date: 7/13/98

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