on_holdI find it next to impossible to turn off my communication radar. It’s like the Terminator’s HUD, but instead of identifying threats and targets, it auto-analyzes communication structures and how challenges, situations, and relationships are affected by what we say (and how we say it). Fortunately, as a result of focusing on building positive customer relationships for over two decades, the “TERMINATE” functionality has been almost entirely reprogrammed.

A couple experiences blipped across the radar recently that reminded me of one of my favorite quick communication fixes; an easily implemented skill that yields immediate, positive results.

The Scenario

Your upset customer has been on hold for over 3 minutes while you frantically track down an important piece of information. After what feels like an eternity, you finally find what you’re looking for…


That feeling of relief quickly vanishes as the blinking “HOLD” light reminds you of the swelling anger and frustration waiting on the other side. You pick up the receiver and press the button just below “LINE 1.”

What do you say?

The Apology

One of the two recent experiences was at a retail clothing store. We were checking out when another employee hurried behind the counter and picked up the phone. A few days later, I was on the phone with a well-known cable TV and Internet provider whose name rhymes with “Tomcats.” I was placed on hold for several minutes, and when the rep got back on the line she said the same exact thing as the person at the retail store:

I apologize for the hold.

Essentially, they both said, “I’m sorry for helping you.” I’m frequently shocked by how common this is; especially in large, well-established sales and customer service organizations.

At this point, you might be expecting a tirade about that TV and Internet company’s poor customer service. Quite the opposite. The rep I spoke with was both helpful and pleasant. In fact, we ended up having a nice conversation about customer service, the holidays, etc. I made it a point to tell her how much I appreciated the job she was doing and asked if I might offer a small suggestion while she made changes to my account:

ME: Can I offer a tip that will make your life easier?

REP: Sure!

ME: Great. So why did you put me on hold earlier?

REP: To find out what other promotions we have available.

ME: Right. But why?

REP: To see how I could save you some money.

ME: Why?

REP: To help you.

ME: Exactly. So, let me ask you this… When was the last time you apologized to someone for helping them?

The illogical nature of this all-too-common practice of apologizing for putting someone on hold is the least of its problems. Not only does it almost always create separation between us and the customer, it voluntarily, unnecessarily, and negatively puts us in a submissive position. This immediately transfers control of the business interaction to the customer. And that’s not even the worst of it…

When we say, “I apologize for the hold.” or its evil twin, “I’m sorry for the hold,” we’re essentially saying, “I’ve done something wrong.” (even though we haven’t). Customers almost never register this consciously, but it subtly erodes the foundation of the relationship — even in the best of situations.

Perhaps the most damage is done when someone is already upset in customer service situations. With adversarial customers, this unwarranted apology hands over control of the interaction by solidifying their existing (justified or unjustified) perception of having been wronged. We’ve unknowingly manufactured an additional roadblock on the path to finding a mutually agreeable resolution.

And if all the above isn’t bad enough, we actually lose twice every time we apologize for helping someone.

Think about when your favorite football team fumbles only yards away from scoring and the other team runs the ball back for a touchdown. That’s not a 7 point swing — it’s a 14 point swing! It’s exactly the same with communication mistakes like this. We’ve not only negatively affected any type of relationship to some degree, we’ve also missed a prime opportunity to help build a positive customer relationship. Which leads us to the alternative designed to put us on the same side as the customer…

The Solution

As with most pervasive communication problems, the solution is simple — introduce positivity by thanking them for holding:

Thanks for holding, <name>, I talked with my manager and we’re going to…

Not only does this simple alternative accomplish the exact opposite of all the issues listed above, it is also consistent with one of my universal rules: Don’t introduce a negative unless absolutely necessary (a good filter to examine other commonly accepted communication practices that may be manufacturing objections and costing you money).

You might be thinking, “What if the customer has been on hold, but hasn’t talked to anyone yet?”

Good point! This is where another universal rule applies: We’re the constant because customers and situations are always the variable.

In cases where someone has been waiting to be helped, why start off the relationship with a negative? Approaching an unknown situation from a negative-based, submissive position immediately transfers control of the situation to the customer, putting us at the mercy of the unknown. Why not use a phrase that brings positivity and some level of relief from the get-go? Especially since customers form an opinion of us within the first few seconds of a call:

Thanks so much for holding, how can I help you today?


Thanks for your patience, how can I help you today?

Can you feel the infusion of positivity as you say these alternatives out loud?

The Value

Simply put, anything that takes away from the customer relationship costs money, and anything that adds to it increases short-term and long-term success.

Take a moment to consider this simple change within the context of your business model and the variety of situations you encounter on a daily basis. How will it affect your customer relationships? Revenue? VOC? Employee retention?

My hope is that when you see that blinking “HOLD” light you will always see it as an opportunity to build a positive customer relationship!

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NOTE: This skill is included in my upcoming book on the building blocks of effective sales and customer service communication.