The study by audio branding specialist PH Media Group, which surveyed 3,600 UK firms, including more than 100 printing businesses, found that printers put customers on hold for an average of 33.5s per call, 4s longer than the UK average.

Implications for profitability were “grave”, said sales and marketing director Mark Williamson. Half of callers hung up within 20s if forced to listen to silence while on hold, he added, referring to similar studies in the US.

“These results represent a significant challenge for the printing industry and could pose a threat to profitability,” he said. “Callers are simply unwilling to wait on the end of the line while subjected to silence, ‘muzak’ or beeps.

“So firms are putting themselves at serious risk of losing business. Good call-handling is often overlooked as a key sales and marketing tool, but the telephone still acts as an important touchpoint and first impressions count.”

Williamson said improving customers’ experience over the phone would drive service standards “through the roof”. Yet of all callers placed on hold, 34% were subjected to silence, 26% to music, while another 26% heard beeps.

As part of the study, PH Media Group also audited each company that took part in the study, giving them a score out of 100 based on overall call-handling practice. Printers averaged just 34, after the pollster weighted various aspects to reflect their importance.

These aspects included time taken to answer a call, the number of tiers callers face before reaching their target, use of consistent voice and music, and professional and personalised voicemail and out-of-hours messaging.

“Good customer service is paramount so it is important to evaluate all aspects of call-handling,” he said. “Inevitably not every call will be answered within a matter of seconds.

“So when callers do need to be placed on hold for any length of time, informative and entertaining audio messages can help to maintain their attention and decrease perceived waiting time.”

Greenhouse Graphics managing director Ian Crossley, who recently took up a £100-a-month on-hold marketing service from PH Media Group, did not take part in the survey but said the findings did not surprise him.

“We don’t have any way of measuring the service’s impact. But for us it’s not so much sales promotion but educating existing and new customers that we are more than just a conventional printer and do other work such as wide-format print.”

The survey involved just over 100 printers from an overall sample of 3,600 firms across sectors. Signmakers were worst, leaving callers on the line for 72.6s on average, garden centres were fared best, logging an average time of just 17.4s.