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Saturday, February 25, 1995 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Softening The Software Support Wait -- `Queue Jockeys' Play Tunes For Those Holding The Phone

AP

Ever call an airline, hotel or bank and get stuck on hold listening to terrible music and that obnoxious, "Please stay on the line, your call is important to us" recording?

Callers to software companies like Microsoft, Word Perfect and Lotus hear something quite different while waiting for help with their computer program problems.

All three companies have QJs, or queue jockeys, who play music and let callers know how long the wait is to reach a technician for a particular product.

"The whole concept of being on hold is unpleasant," said Debbie Letterman, chief QJ at Microsoft. "We want your wait to be as good as a wait can be."

From a studio inside a technical support center in suburban Seattle, Microsoft's QJs come on after every song to announce the number of people waiting for help with particular programs and the average waiting time.

"What we've found is the customer is much happier if they understand what the situation is going to be," said Linda Glenecki, general manager for end user support at Microsoft. "Then, they can decide whether to stay on hold or not."

The QJ idea got started at Boston-based Word Perfect, now a unit of Novell Inc., about five years ago when some executives leaving a college football game joked that they should create a traffic report for the thousands of callers they were coping with each week.

Microsoft and Lotus created similar services after visiting Word Perfect. A distinct "sound" has evolved at each company, based on musical style and smoothness of the QJs.

Microsoft's announcers have all worked at radio stations in the Seattle area and they play "adult alternative" tunes.

"We try to stay fairly cutting edge because Microsoft is a hip company," Letterman said. "We don't want people to snooze."

For customers who are frustrated by a software problem, the QJs form the first impression of the company.

"I try to sound professional but not slick," said Kathy Fennessy, a Microsoft QJ. "The idea is to sound friendly but not too casual."

Microsoft's announcers comment about the music they're playing but stray little beyond their wait-time updates. The QJs at the other companies bring up local weather and even sports scores.

The companies generally refrain from promoting products on the hold queues.

Letterman said she has turned away some Microsoft product managers who wanted to do that.

"It makes people think we're putting them on hold deliberately to sell them something," Letterman said.

Copyright (c) 1995 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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