Helping Customers Lose Wait

Jan 11, 2008 7:16pm
Posted by: Frank Capek



I'm so tired... tired of waiting... tired of waiting for you...   Oh... sorry...  I'm just sitting here singing to myself as I wait on hold for the reservation agent to pick up.  I might as well do something productive... like write a post about waiting.

I know, we all have to wait.  Every day we wait for the next available agent; we wait in traffic; we wait at the airport; we wait for meetings; we wait at the bank, the hospital, the checkout lane, the lunch counter, the post office, the doctor,  etc... etc... etc...   It's not unreasonable to estimate that the average person spends between 30 to 60 minutes of every day waiting.  If that estimate is true for you, over the course of your life, you will spend more than 2 full years waiting.   As one of the earliest FedEx ads said, "Waiting is frustrating, demoralizing, agonizing, aggravating, annoying, time consuming, and incredibly expensive."

It's hard to overestimate the impact of waiting on your customers' experience.  Across the research we've conducted, some of the most dramatic customer defections occur because of bad waiting experiences.  I'm sure you can all remember the times you've had those experiences.  Years ago, I arranged a special dinner with family members who had traveled in from out of town.  I'd made a reservation at one of the upscale restaurants that I'd been going to pretty regularly.  Unfortunately, when our party of six arrived, we were told we would have to wait a bit for our table to be ready.   As it turned out, we were kept waiting for more than an hour.  Each time we checked with the hostess, we were told that our table would be ready soon.  When we were finally seated, everyone in the party was upset and frustrated.  However, no one from the restaurant provided any sort of explanation or apology.  In fact, they avoided us because they knew we were upset.  The outcome: I've not been back to that restaurant and I've told plenty of others about my frustrating service experience.  The good news is that the restaurant, in essence, fixed their customers' waiting problem; they're just not busy any more.

As the pace of the people's lives has increased, people are more and more aware of the costs of waiting and are less tolerant of providers that make them wait.  As a busy professional, time is my most limited resource.  I've become keenly aware of the costs I incur when providers keep me waiting.  For example, in 2007, I spent $51,740.87 on 47 Delta tickets.  Based on my back of the envelope calculation, I also lost approximately $29,000 in personal productivity due to delayed or cancelled flights over the same time period.  Part of my sensitivity to this amount results from the contrast compared to other situations in my life.  For example, if the guy who cuts my lawn for $40 keeps me waiting for a few minutes, he's all over me with apologies.  However, when I spend $1,500 on a round trip ticket and the company keeps you waiting for a couple of extra hours there's not even the slightest hint of an authentic apology.

Okay... sorry... I'll stop belly-aching!  You can help customers "lose wait" two ways: 1) reduce the actual waiting time and 2) design a better waiting experience; one that is more pleasurable or at least less frustrating.

1)  Reducing the Actual Waiting Time. Waiting generally occurs at times when customer demand exceeds resource supply.  Queueing theory is the mathematical study of waiting lines.  Queueing theory can be used to reduce wait time by optimizing the scheduling of service resources and/or changing the queueing discipline.

Another way to reduce actual wait time is Demand Management.  Demand management including things like: finding ways to shift demand to less peak times or reducing demand without reducing profitability.  Companies frequently "inventory" demand by scheduling appointments or taking reservations.  A company might also reduce the price of service at off-peak times and/or increase prices at peak times.  More creatively, companies can provide information on anticipated wait times in a way that influences the customers' decision to get in line.  For example, a service organization (e.g., department of motor vehicles, auto service center, call center, etc...) can provide information about wait times or queue length at their facility, on their voice response system, or on their website.  A service organization might also find ways to alert customers to the fact that there is currently little or no wait.  This is the kind of thing quick lube businesses do; they'll put someone out on the street with a flag calling attention to the fact that there is currently "no line no waiting."

2)  Designing a Better Waiting Experience. Beyond reducing actual wait time, there are a wide range of things that can be done to improve the customers' waiting experience.  In fact, in most situations customers' perceptions of waiting time are not strongly connected with the actual wait time.   David Maister (See: The Psychology of Waiting Lines") has made several very interesting observations regarding customers' perceptions of waiting.  These are discussed below along with several ideas for how to address these perceptions:

  • Unoccupied time feels longer than occupied time. William James observed, "Boredom results from being attentive to the passage of time itself."   Customers perceive waits to be shorter if they are given something to do.  Ideally that something should be beneficial and relevant to the service encounter.  For example, this might be giving customers that are waiting for a table a menu to peruse and a light appetizer or soft drink.  This can also include providing news or entertainment to customers while waiting.
  • Pre-process waits feel much longer then in-process waits. In general, people want to get started.  For example, 10 minutes waiting to board a plane generally seems longer than 10 minutes waiting to take off after you're seated.  Outstanding experience designs replace pre-process waiting with in-process waiting.  For example, at Disney World, the wait experience is designed to not only occupy the customers' attention but it is actually part of the attraction.  Also, in a hospital or medical clinic, having patients greeted and triaged immediately generally leads to a shorter perceived wait time.
  • Anxiety makes waits feel longer. Customers are anxious when they don't know whether they've been forgotten, whether they've chosen the right line (note Erma Bombeck's Law:  The other line always moves faster"), and whether they'll be done in time for your next appointment.  Customers boarding an airplane often worry about finding space for their luggage dramatically reducing the quality of the overall experience.  Also, customers in a long line for a movie may not be sure they're waiting in the right line or be able to judge to what extent the number of people in front of them will fill up the available seats.  As a result, customers experience anxiety about whether they'll be able to sit with rest of their party or whether they'll be stuck sitting in the first row.  Effective experience designs find ways to proactively remove what customers are worried about.   This can include reassurance that they're in the right line, that they'll get in, have room for their bags... whatever it is.
  • Uncertain waits are longer than known, finite waits. A lot of anxiety is derived from not knowing how long the wait will be.  Customers generally perceive waits to be shorter if they are given an accurate estimate of the length of the wait.  Again Disney does a good job of estimating the length of the wait.  Generally, it works best to overestimate rather than underestimate the wait.  Restaurants have learned that, if you tell customers it'll be 30 minutes and it works out to be 20, they'll be pleasantly surprised and start their dining experience in a more positive frame of mind than if it actually turns out to be 40 minutes.  For some reason, airlines haven't learned this yet.  As you probably know, airlines repeated announce incrementally longer delays... reinforcing customers' beliefs that they are not being dealt with honestly.
  • Unexplained waits are longer than explained waits. Customers have more patience if they understand the causes for the delay.  This explanation might not let the provider off the hook, but it's better than no explanation at all.  If customers don't know about the cause for a delay, it adds to their anxiety about the length of the wait.  Waiting in ignorance makes customers feel like they have no control.  Another element of unexplained waiting involves long lines of customers who observe service representatives on break or doing other work rather than serving customers.  This happens all the time; one or more agents will be helping customers while others will be just typing away on their terminals.  Customers waiting in line find this subconsciously difficult to deal with.  Most fast food restaurants have figured this out enough to have policies about not doing non-customer work or taking breaks in front of customers.  On the other hand, most banks and airlines haven't figured this out yet.
  • Unfair waits are longer than equitable waits. One of the most stressful and irritating aspects of waiting is feeling that somebody has gotten ahead of you in line.  MIT Professor, Dick Larson, makes a strong case that customers' perceptions of their wait are highly influenced by perceptions of social injustice (See "Perspectives on Queues:  Social Justice and the Psychology of Queueing.")  Effective experiences are carefully designed to ensure that the waiting experience is perceived as fair.   In general, first come first served is perceived to be the most socially just.  As a result, the Wendy's style single queue is perceived by customers to be faster than the McDonald's style parallel queue structure.  When there are long lines of customers at checkouts and a new register is opened, do the people at the front of the line or the end of the line get served first?  At the Whole Foods store near my home, a new cashier will generally approach a customer already in line at another register, ask "Can I help you over here?" and then lead the customer to the newly opened register.  Another example of social injustice occurs when service reps answer the phone while serving customers who are waiting in line.  Customers in line naturally feel that a caller has just cut in front of them and that they have been assigned a lower priority than the random caller.
  • The more valuable a service, the longer the time people are willing to wait. Customers are generally more tolerant of waiting for high-demand or high-value products and services (e.g., concert tickets, popular restaurants, limited supply products, etc...).  Traditionally, it's been assumed that shoppers with a large basket of groceries are more tolerant of waiting than customers with a few items.  However, as customers have become accustomed to being "valued" based on the dollar amount of their purchases, we've noticed that customers with high total dollar purchases are starting to expect to be served with a higher priority.
  • Solo waits feel longer than group waits. The ability to commiserate with others in line tends to shorten the perception of wait time.  Often a natural, ad hoc sense of community develops amongst people waiting in line together.  Effective waiting experiences create opportunities for customers in line to interact with each other.  For example, when I was recently waiting to enter a popular concert club with my son, the front door attendants were asking customers trivia questions that required you to talk with your neighbors in line.  My son and I met an interesting couple ahead of us in line and the wait didn't seem so long.


While the cost of reducing the actual wait can be significant, it's often just a matter of creative, customer-centric thinking to find ways to improve the customers wait experience.  We've observed that, when the waiting experience is very negative, it tends to strongly and negatively effect the customer's perceptions of the overall experience.  This post has just scratched the surface on a topic that has not gotten anywhere near the attention it needs.

4 thoughts on“Helping Customers Lose Wait”

  1. The great philosopher, Yogi Berra, commented on businesses that don’t effectively address the waiting problem…

    “Nobody goes there anymore… it’s too crowded!!”

  2. Good point about solo waits being longer than group waits. And interesting that you mention Whole Foods. They do a lot of things right in terms of customer service, and they appreciate queueing theory. In NYC, they use a single queue feeding cashiers, instead of multiple separate queues. Always better that way, according to Mr. Erlang. :-)

  3. Thanks, your comment is spot on and Whole Foods does a lot well. In general, if you can afford the space, a single line feeding multiple servers preserves first in first out… social justice.

    The one element of the single line that I don’t has been studied is… the effect of people who make it to the front of the line and then just stand there… staring into space… rather than paying any attention to the server that’s repeatedly trying to call them over.

  4. Hi Frank,

    Great article! I think that the ways in which we wait for the services we need will be changing. Our company is aiming to do just that. I would love to speak with you further, please contact me.

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