By Mark Williamson, Marketing Director at PH Media Group Sales,

A recent study of more than 3,600 UK businesses discovered customers are put on hold for an average of 33.48 seconds per call.

Thirty seconds may not seem like a long time in real terms but it is long enough for a customer to form a lasting impression of a business - one that may prove difficult to shake.

To highlight this fact, 67 per cent of consumers claim to have hung up on a service call before their particular issues could be addressed due to the nature in which their call was answered and handled.

The implications for profitability are clear. Unless businesses are committed to adopting a best-practice approach to call handling, customers are likely to take their business elsewhere.

Turn hold time on its head
This paints a worrying picture for a large number of companies, particularly those who cannot spare the resources required to ensure every inbound query is answered immediately.

Inevitably, some callers will need to be placed on hold but this doesn't have to result in catastrophe. Instead, the situation can be turned on its head in order to create a positive experience by offering first-class customer service.

On-hold marketing - the audio messages heard by callers when they are put on hold or transferred - allows previously 'dead' air to be turned into another valuable opportunity to communicate and interact with customers.

These messages extend far beyond a simple request to continue holding, providing customers with information about the company, the services it offers, products and promotions. By offering the customer something to maintain their interest, on-hold marketing has been shown to reduce caller hang-ups by 79 per cent and actually reduce perceived waiting time.

Unlike most advertising, which falls on deaf ears, it also allows businesses to speak directly to an attentive audience. By picking up the phone in the first place, the caller has already registered an interest and will immediately be more receptive to any information heard over the phone line.

A subtle sales tool
Despite the directness of on-hold marketing, its biggest impact is on the subconscious. Hearing is one of our most powerful emotional senses and the sounds experienced by customers over the phone line will have a lasting effect on their perceptions of a company and its products or services.

As such, on-hold marketing functions best as a subtle method of promotion, warming up the customer and providing sales staff with a solid platform to build on.

Research has found that 20 per cent of customers will make a buying decision based on information they have heard on hold so it is crucial to use this time productively in order to maximise sales opportunities.

Find out what constitutes the majority of inbound telephone enquiries and provide details about the types of products and services which are most appropriate for these particular customers.

If dedicated sales lines are established for specific products, think about using that hold time to cross-sell or up-sell complementary product lines. A customer calling to make a specific purchase may lack knowledge of an organisation's entire range, so timely information could lead to add-on sales, securing orders which might otherwise have been placed with a competitor.

Exploit a key branding opportunity
Beyond its role in supporting sales, on-hold marketing represents a chance to reinforce a commitment to high levels of customer service and the values espoused by a company.

In the same way as signage or websites are important to visual branding, the phone is vital to audio branding and the sounds heard by customers should remain congruent with the overall brand.

If a business has a strong family reputation, it makes sense to choose voice and music which are warm and friendly, helping to reinforce a sense of honesty and tradition in the mind of the customer.

Similarly, if a company has a strong regional identity, it may be appropriate to choose a voice with a strong accent, building on an existing sense of provenance and belonging while speaking to customers on their level.

In terms of music, it pays to select a track which is created specifically to represent your brand values, rather than an existing song or jingle that may carry negative connotations among some customers.

Such carefully constructed on-hold marketing messages work to combat the typical connotations of hold time.

Even when customers are asked to wait on the line for a short period of time, appropriate voice and music will provide the necessary reassurance that they are dealing with an organisation that maintains high standards and values their business.