Waiting Games People Play

If you have to keep them waiting... keep them happy or distracted.

Distraction, information, and compensation are common strategies that may mollify waiting customers.

One of the banes of modern society is the constant process of waiting. Waiting is frustrating, demoralizing, agonizing, aggravating, annoying, time consuming, and incredibly expensive.[1] For many, time is not just a scarce resource – it is the scarce resource. Yet, despite the efforts of business, delays in service are common. In some ways, technology is increasing delays. Where customers once waited in line to deal with a human being, they now wait to begin an automated telephone or online process that may well involve additional delays. Automated customer service systems may seem cost-effective, but they can carry significant hidden costs due to customer defection.

Well before the deregulation of the telephone industry, the variety show Laugh-In staged a spoof of customer service at the phone company and concluded with the message, “We don’t care. We don’t have to. We’re the Phone Company.” Even though telephone customers now have a choice of providers, this 30 year-old punch line can still bring a chuckle. Imagine spotting a monthly charge for call waiting service that was never ordered and finding that the only way to discontinue that service is to call the phone company’s automated customer service line. This simple process recently required two phone calls and a perceived waste of nearly 20 minutes.

In some cases, a cost-benefit analysis simply cannot support the additional staffing needed to avoid delays. Given a choice, phone customers, for example, might well choose to wade through a lengthy voicemail system rather than pay the higher rates needed to improve service. On the other hand, there may be a niche market of phone customers who would accept a surcharge in order to connect directly with a customer service agent. After all, Universal Studios has a steady demand for its $150 VIP Tour that promises no waiting for any of the attractions.

For some firms, delay-avoidance is not only cost effective; it is a significant competitive advantage. So service providers should first focus on how to modify the operation in ways that will minimize delays. When delays appear unavoidable, researchers recommend that firms focus on managing the perceptual experience of the consumer. In particular, a firm can seek to minimize the apparent length of the wait and the extent to which it is perceived as the firm’s fault. These factors greatly impact the customer’s overall impression of the problem. In fact, when a firm appears to handle a difficult situation well, it may actually result in greater customer satisfaction and loyalty.

As time has passed, certain findings have become generally accepted. For example, Fraisse[2] found that, as a subject is increasingly distracted from time cues, he or she will make poorer assessments of elapsed time. Additionally, as those items that distract the subject become increasingly difficult to process, the accuracy of the subject’s assessment of elapsed time diminishes.[3]That is, by filling the waiting time, less attention is focused on the actual passage of time.

Filling Strategies Reduce Dissatisfaction

Two types of filling strategies dominate the literature. The first is the introduction of environmental distractions to the delay situation. For example, pleasant music increases cognitive activity, diverts the consumer’s attention away from the delay, and tends to reduce consumer dissatisfaction.[4]The use of scents in a waiting area is another filling technique. The use of neutral to positive scenting by retailers has been shown to result in customers perceiving that they had spent less time in a store than shoppers in an unscented store perceived that they had spent.[5] In addition, the use of reading materials of interest to customers in a waiting area can reduce the perceived length of a delay.[6]

The second type of filling strategy involves the introduction of information into the delay situation. Within this filling strategy, research has identified the relevance of the information, the type of information, and the length of the delay as key issues. Whether or not to relate the filler information directly to the delay is a matter of debate. Some believe that filler information should be related to the delay and suggest that unrelated filler will only increase the consumer’s level of aggravation and subsequent level of dissatisfaction. Customers in one study who were informed of the expected length of delay reported a shorter perceived length of delay than those who did not receive any information. Furthermore, the use of relevant information can shorten the perceived length of the delay through three additional avenues.

  1. Uncertain waits are considered to be longer than certain waits. By supplying information that is relevant, a provider reduces uncertainty.
  2. Explained waits are perceived to be shorter than unexplained waits. By explaining the reason for the wait, a provider is able to shorten the perceived length of the wait.
  3. Anxiety makes waits seem longer. By anticipating the issues that may cause anxiety in the consumer, and providing information to allay those fears, a provider can cause the wait to be perceived as shorter.

Matching Filler Information to the Length of Delay

The type of information used as filler has been found to affect the consumer. “Queuing information” informs a customer of his or her position in a line, while “waiting information” is information about the expected length of delay until a customer will be served. Queuing information may be better than waiting information when the service provider knows it is going to be a long delay. For example, if you know that the customer is not going to be served for another 30 minutes, it may be better to tell the customer what number he or she is in line. Waiting information, in this case, may increase the negative effect of the delay on the customer.

The length of the wait, therefore, influences which type of information to introduce as a filler. In the short wait, it may not be necessary to give information at all because of the minimal amount of stress induced by the wait. In addition, a short wait tends to be acceptable to the consumer. Research has shown this to be true in banks, restaurants, hotels, and numerous retail establishments. In a medium wait, customer tolerance can be mediated by the use of waiting duration information and/or queuing information. In a long wait, however, queuing information has been found to be more effective.[7]

Responsive Strategies

In addition to filling strategies aimed at diluting the impact of the delay, responsive strategies have been proposed when the delay occurs. Responsive strategies differ from filling strategies in that their primary focus is on action, not information. Researchers have confirmed that compensating a customer in some way for waiting often neutralizes the negative impact of a delay. The most basic responsive technique is for the provider to make it clear that everything possible is being done to satisfy the customer.

A recent study found that, if the proper employee responses were taken after a service failure – such as an unexpected delay – none of the customers in the sample rated the encounter as dissatisfactory. In fact, every dissatisfied respondent in the study indicated that, if the failure had been responded to properly, the encounter would not have been dissatisfactory. In many cases, it would have been considered satisfactory.[8] Some firms specifically empower employees in this respect. Ritz Carlton empowers any employee to spend up to $2,000 to solve a problem without getting approval. Sears monitors the length of time that customers wait for service, and sends a gift certificate to those who experience lengthy delays in order to bring them back for a more positive experience.

Firms that are doing everything possible to expedite customer service should be sure that the waiting environment does not convey a different impression. The prospect of waiting in a long check out line at the grocery store is all the more irritating if check stands are closed and employees whom customers assume might open those stands seem oblivious to the problem. Workers who are not actively helping customers are best kept out of view. This concept can be seen in banks where additional partitions have been erected behind the tellers to hide employees who are performing other functions from customer view. Furthermore, additional staff should be brought on line when the queue exceeds a certain number. This is now common practice in retail establishments.

Lastly, the expectations of the consumer can be modified without actually changing the service timing. This tactic can be seen in the airline industry and doctors’ offices. Over the past several years, departure and arrival schedules have been inflated to produce higher on time arrival percentages. Changing the expected arrival and departure times assures the airline of a higher satisfaction rating due to lower numbers of unexpected delays. Doctors have changed the perceived waiting time by moving patients from the outer office to the inner office after a certain period of time. Once in the inner office, the patient winds up waiting for another period of time until the doctor arrives. The trick is that the patient tends to start the clock again once he or she has been moved. In this way the doctor creates a higher level of satisfaction without changing the total wait time for the patient.

Consider the following two questions, and subsequent strategies. First, is it apparent that there is going to be a delay? If yes, then is it going to be more than five minutes? If no, then it will probably not negatively impact customer satisfaction or future purchase intentions. One exception would be delays on the telephone where customer irritation and defection can occur much more quickly. If a customer is forced to wait more than five minutes, then a firm will likely need to explain and apologize for the delay. When a delay is beyond the control of a firm, an effective strategy in this situation is to explain the cause of the situation to the consumer and, where applicable, emphasize that this is a rare event.

When giving customers information concerning the length of the delay, the type of information given should be based upon the length of the delay. For a medium length delay, provide either queuing information or waiting duration information. In the event of a long wait, it is preferable just to give queuing information.

Second, are delays a normal occurrence? If yes, is there something that can be done to avoid them? If no, then it may be possible to change the customer’s perception of time in the service environment. This can be done by using filling strategies (music, scenting, reading materials, mirrors), responding to the delay with the appropriate action or compensation, changing the expected waiting time of the consumer (PR, positive word of mouth, prestige), changing the operational management of the delay situation (using multiple pre-process queues), or changing the reporting criteria. For example, airline flights are not legally late unless they reach the gate more than 14 minutes behind schedule.

When customers are forced to wait, service providers are typically considered guilty until proven innocent. Even though delays may truly be outside of a firm’s span of control, they remain a potential threat to the customer relationship. The good news for firms that are responsive to this problem, however, is that efficient management of customer perceptions during delays can provide a significant competitive advantage, particularly in delay-prone markets.


For Further Information

[1] Maister, D. (1985), “The Psychology of Waiting Lines,” in The Service Encounter,” J. Czepiel, M. Solomon and C. Suprenant (eds.), Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, 113- 123.

[2] Fraisse, P. (1963), The Psychology of Time. New York: Harper and Row.

[3] Hicks, R.E., G.W. Miller, J. Gaes, and K. Bierman (1976), “Effects of Quality and Quantity of Concurrent Information Processing Upon Prospective Judgments of Temporal Duration.” and Hicks, R.E., F.J. Provenza, and E.D. Rybstein (1975), “Generalized and Lateralized Effects of Concurrent Verbal Rehearsal upon Performance of Sequential Movements of the Fingers by the Left and Right Hands.” Acta Psychologica, 39, 119-130.

[4] Kellaris, J.J. and R.J. Kent (1992), “The Influence of Music on Consumers’ Temporal Perceptions: Does Time Fly When You’re Having Fun?” Journal of Consumer Psychology, 1 (4), 365-376.

[5] Spangenberg, E., A. Crowley, and P. Henderson (1996), “Improving the Store Environment: Do Olfactory Cues Affect Evaluations and Behaviors?” Journal of Marketing, 60 (2), 67-80.

[6] Lovelock, C.H. (1991), Services Marketing, Second Edition, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall. Maister, D. (1985), “The Psychology of Waiting Lines,” in The Service Encounter, John Czepiel, Michael Solomon and Carol Suprenant, eds. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, 113-23.

[7] Hui, M.K. and D.K. Tse (1996), “What to Tell Consumers in Waits of Different Lengths: An Integrative Model of Service Evaluation,” Journal of Marketing, 60 (2), 81-90.

[8] Bitner, M.J., B.H. Booms, and M.S. Tetreault (1990), “The Service Encounter: Diagnosing Favourable and Unfavourable Incidents,” Journal of Marketing 54 (1), 71-84.

Author of the article
David McMahon, PhD
David McMahon, PhD,

, is an associate professor of marketing in the Graziadio School at Pepperdine University. Dr. McMahon’s research interests are in the areas of services, logistics, and ethics. He is co-author of one book and his research has been published in several academic journals including the Journal of Marketing Theory and Practice and The Journal of Business and Economics Research as well as a number of conference proceedings.

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