Just Hold On 

The profit of telephonic torture: one Richmond company's crusade.

On Hold Marketing, a four-person firm that works out of a modest office suite off Broad Street, produces nothing but hold messages. The welcome mat outside founder Lloyd Shockley's office reads: "Please stay on the mat. Your visit is very important to us. Your knock will be answered in the order in which it was received."

That is precisely the kind of generic message scorned by Shockley and his colleagues, company president Rich Moncure and vice president of operations Brian Illes. They write on-hold messages as if they were writing radio advertisements, striving for humor, entertainment and a soft sell for their client's merchandise. The crafting of these, they say, is an art and a science.

Take the ad they created for a local kennel, which recently won one of two inaugural "Holdy" awards at the On Hold Messaging Association's annual conference.

Old-time organ chords play as Shockley's voice intones, "It's now time for 'Dogs of Our Lives.' When we left him yesterday, our hero, Rex Stoutheart, had left his job herding sheep and headed for Holiday Barn Pet Resort for some needed R & R." The soap opera continues, describing Ben's encounter with "Fifi Fido, the alluring French poodle. … Is it romance? Will they meet again? Yes, because they always come back to Holiday Barn, where you get TLC for your D-O-G."

Yes, it's goofy. But it puts callers in a good mood, says Emerson Hughes, Holiday Barn president and a longtime friend of Shockley's. "Dry, methodical messages" would contradict the boarding kennel's playful image, Hughes says, so having a lighthearted hold message isn't a luxury. "It's critical," he says.

Hold messages can also be functional marketing tools, says Jerry Brown, chairman of the 70-member On Hold Messaging Association. "You've got a captive audience, and you're talking to a person who's ready to do business with you, right now." That's the perfect audience, he says, to hear about the latest APR on Saturns or the tent revival next Sunday.

These messages can even change customers' perceptions of a business, says Brown, who is president of Toledo, Ohio-based BusinessVoice. One client was a chrome-plating business, Brown explains, that was "by necessity" a polluter. So the hold message is filled with nothing but save-the-environment tips and trivia.

Silence, on the other hand, is deadly. For one focus group, industry research showed, a minute of silence on hold felt like three or four minutes, Shockley says. After listening to messages and music, focus groups said the minute felt like 20 seconds.

Worse even than silence, Shockley says, is the automated broken record that says — and here he mimics perfectly that curt, nasal voice — "Your call will be answered in just a minute. Your call will be answered in just a minute."

Many businesses play the radio, but this practice can be hazardous. It's illegal to use a radio station without the proper licensing fees, Shockley says. And even if you don't get caught, you may inadvertently broadcast an ad for a competitor or annoy a listener who hates Top 40 pop.

With an annual agreement, On Hold Marketing charges about $500 to produce one custom on-hold message and $1,300 for a message that's updated quarterly, with discounts for businesses that need messages for more than one location. The Digital Holdcaster equipment needed to play the hold message costs $500.

Shockley talks about the art of creating hold messages in poetic terms, such as the "inherent drama" of the product and "real time" versus "psychological time." If a hold message engages a listener's imagination and experience, he says, "They will go along with you willingly on this journey."

Sure, some people will always hate hold messages, Shockley concedes. But he attributes this to the fact that most people just haven't heard them done right.

There are a few golden rules of composing these messages:

1. No hard pitches. "The telephone is so intimate," Shockley says. "You don't tune the telephone out." That's why he refuses car dealers' requests for messages that mimic the hard-selling, breathless tone of their TV commercials — "because I know that I will irritate their customers so much," he says.

2. No perky, beat-driven music. On long holds, Brown confides, "it drives them nuts." The city of Richmond has long been an offender here. Same goes for classical. Once considered classy, people now perceive it as snooty or stodgy.

3. Choose voices carefully. When people call a hospital, they want to hear a reassuring female voice, not a loud masculine one, telling them to hold. Other companies' messages work better with a male and female duo alternating. And never use the same voice talents — or background music — for competing businesses.

Illes and Shockley, masters of the smooth, neutral radio voice, record many of the messages themselves. Shockley specializes in funny, cartoonish voices, a skill he learned to entertain his peers after contracting polio in the second grade. "Kids are very clever things," he says, "so you compensate in different ways." He went into theater and later founded an advertising agency, which in 1989 spawned On Hold Marketing.

President Rich Moncure was a traveling musician until 1988, when his old band teacher at Byrd Middle School advised him to go into telephone systems sales. (Today, Moncure performs with the local band KOS, or Kings of Swing.) He sold phones until February, when he bought On Hold Marketing from Shockley.

The industry is undeniably growing, albeit mostly from a glut of Internet-based, generic message producers, Moncure says. But one day, Brown predicts, businesses will come to see on-hold messaging as indispensable, and the industry will become as sophisticated as today's ad agencies.

Richmond's On Hold Marketing has more than 400 clients in 35 states. And every now and then, Shockley says, they get the ultimate compliment from their clients' customers: "Put me back on hold. I want to hear the rest of that." S

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