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Soundtracking a Better Customer Experience

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Whether we’re on hold with the bank, sitting through previews at the movies, or enduring a painfully slow elevator ride to our next appointment, we spend a lot of time waiting around. In fact, Americans spend 37 billion hours a year waiting. Luckily for us, there’s often a tune playing to help us pass the time. 

While you may not realize it, Made Music Studio is probably behind a lot of the music you’ve heard while waiting for one service or another. They design soundscapes for American Express, AT&T, Amazon Music, HBPO, NPR, and Disney, among plenty of other heavy-hitters. As a global sonic branding agency, their music is designed to enhance the consumer experience through soundscapes. 

We know from psychological research that soundscapes have an enormous impact on our perceptions of the world. But relatively little is known about how music affects specific aspects of the consumer experience — like waiting, for example. Can the music that customers hear while they wait influence the way they feel about a company? 

To answer this question, Made Music Studio approached The Decision Lab to run an original experiment. 

What the research says

Our consulting team began with a comprehensive look at the literature on the psychological & behavioral effects of sound. The research focus included customer behavior, brand perceptions, emotions, and enjoyment, all as they relate to sound. 

Past research suggested that music may actually change the way we perceive time passing. Depending on what music is playing, people may think that time is passing more quickly or more slowly — but in the studies we reviewed, the link wasn’t yet strongly understood.

What about the effects of waiting on our decision-making abilities? Past studies have found that longer waiting times (or waiting times that feel longer) can lead us to make worse decisions. Long wait times can make us stressed or irritable, leading us to forget our questions while waiting for the doctor, or second-guess our long-term goals while waiting to see our financial advisor.

Like music to our ears

To test our hypotheses for Made Music Studio, we designed and deployed a controlled experiment to test the impact of sound on the experience of waiting. We recruited nearly 200 participants to explore the impact of sonic design on time perception, trust, and emotion.

We chose a between-groups design to test the impact of seven different types of sound: laid-back ambient music, background sounds from a coffee shop, on-hold messages, pop music, audio books, white noise, and silence. 

Our results showed that sonic nudges are a promising way to increase trust and decrease stress for consumers while they wait — and that this decrease in stress could lead to improved decision-making.

The power of music

Our findings strongly supported the idea that our sonic environments influence our perception of wait time. We found that participants felt as though time passed the most quickly while listening to ambient music. 

On the other hand, time dragged the most when listening to an audiobook. But these differences weren’t due to enjoyment: whether someone liked the sounds they were listening to didn’t make any difference on their perception of time. In fact, the audiobook was one of the most enjoyable sounds for participants!

When they felt like time was passing faster, listeners also had more trust in the companies they associated with those sounds with (be it the company they were on hold with or the bank they met their financial advisor at). On the flipside, when people perceived longer wait times, they had less trust in the organizations making them wait.

In the end, we were able to help Made Music Studio identify the optimal soundscapes for increasing trust and reducing perceived wait time. The optimal music resulted in a 40% increase in feelings of trust towards brands, a 39% increase in joy while waiting, and a 17% reduction in perceived waiting time. 

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