Listening in: can call centres hear you when you’re on hold?

·2 min read
<span>Photograph: Colin McPherson/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Colin McPherson/Alamy

Customers going to the toilet, eating, smoking a bong and, of course, cursing the company – these are among the notable sounds call centre workers say they’ve heard when callers thought no one could hear.

After a breakfast TV host aired claims that staff at Air New Zealand’s call centre could hear customers who were on hold, the Guardian asked call centre expert Justin Tippett if that was indeed possible.

“They can’t hear you if you’re on hold, however if the call centre agent puts you on mute then they can absolutely hear you, but you can’t hear them,” Tippett, an Australian consultant who has worked globally on call centre best practice, said.

Tippett put out a call on a Facebook group for call centre workers for stories about things they’d heard while customers were on mute.

“Toilet flushing gets me every time,” one said.

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“I found the 6pm [shift] hard, feeling really hungry and listening to the client cooking and eating,” another said.

“The wife had passed me to her husband as she looked for some more information and was relaying what I had told her, cue the husband complaining to his wife that I had no idea what I was on about,” another added.

Tippett said typically the rule of thumb was that if hold music was playing then no one could hear you, “but if you’re not hearing hold music then don’t say anything negative because they might hear you”.

During the New Zealand breakfast show, one viewer contacted host Melissa Chan-Green to say that callers could be recorded even when hold music was playing.

The viewer said: “If you’re hearing music the call taker isn’t on the line, but the call recording system will capture this period that you’re on hold listening to music. So any conversation and background noise will also be captured and recorded.”

Tippett disagreed, saying the confusion about whether people can be heard lies in how people define being “on hold”.

“A lot of people say ‘when I was on hold’, but the agent might have just used mute, not the hold function.”

Tippett said there was no industry requirement regarding not putting callers on mute, but it is considered best practice to put callers on hold rather than mute the call.