Thank you for holding; your call is important to us.

I’m a card carrying member of iGeneration; much of my life exists online.  Still, occasionally, the need arises for me to need to interact with a human being.  What this means is that I usually wind up on hold, with the constant assurance that my call is indeed important, and desperately pressing buttons until I get to speak to a person.

We’ve all been there, enough times that we’re able to pass judgment on the quality of the on hold experience.  Once, I waited on hold with a music loop that played nothing but Van Morisson’s “Brown-Eyed Girl” for 30 consecutive minutes.  My call was eventually answered, but when I was placed on hold again to transfer departments, I was right back to “Sha-la-la-ing.”

Donna was on hold with her cell phone company this morning, which she generously shared with the office via speakerphone.  Per usual, their on hold entertainment consisted of some drowsy elevator music interspersed with promotional and “helpful” messages.  “How would that work for us?” I jokingly suggested.

“Your donation is important to us, please hold on the line until a representative can assist you.”

“Did you know you can free a girl from bonded labor?  Just visit our website at”

“All of our projects are busy assisting people in other countries, if you have a project, please press 2.”

What?!  Imagine if this was the customer service model for nonprofits.  Ridiculous, but it’s worth considering that there are certain questions that frequently recur.  How do you approach those without sounding robotic (or adding an accompanying soundtrack?).  Here are some ideas:

  1. Send personalized responses.  I know it’s easier to have answer templates for the questions that happen over and over, but donors are more likely to read the response and follow the directions if it appears tailored to their personal question.  Maybe the template is the model for your response, but add in an element of individuality.
  2. Do what they’re doing.  We’re all so familiar with the processes of our organizations, but everyone else isn’t.  How annoying is it when a customer or technical service agent rushes you through steps with a tone of voice that is dripping with disdain and then can’t understand how you could possibly be overlooking the obvious solution?  Wicked annoying.  So when possible, go through the process in question and see what they’re seeing.
  3. Ask questions.  Most of the time, customers are capable and willinging to do something on their own – with the right guidance.  Therefore, it is important to assess what the problem really is.  Does the customer not understand the whole idea, or just one piece.  Often it is easier to ask them about how they came around to the problem.  Knowing this can help you resolve their exact issue.

How else can nonprofits avoid the on-hold-robot syndrome?  What other impersonal pitfalls should we be on the lookout for?

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