No one likes the thought of waiting in line, but some waits are more frustrating than others. My heart and adrenaline soar through the roof when someone cuts me in line. I vividly remember waiting in line, to clear immigrations, when I landed in the U.S. after my 2-week vacation in Vietnam. Why? Because the line was god-awful long and I waited over an hour. Finally, the time came; I was next! Then some jerk decided to skip over everyone and cut. I was not going to let that happen. I aggressively put myself right back in front of him.
Why did I get so mad? It would have been a few extra minutes of my life at worst. Well, for one thing, I would never “cut” anyone intentionally. That’s just rude. Second, lines should be fair, first-in-first-out. Otherwise, it feels infuriating.
Last year, working the front lines of customer service, I spent a lot of time answering “when is my gear shipping” type emails. In a sense, all of these pre-order customers were waiting in a giant line.
Now, when a pre-order company emails you, telling you the wait has been extended, what’s the difference between getting really upset, and thinking, “no worries; that’s cool, thanks for the update”?
I quite enjoy citing academic research whenever I need to prove a point. In this case, I wanted to make a case for being proactive and honest about why we were behind, rather than hoping customers would just forget or leave us alone.
Queue the findings from The Psychology of Waiting Lines (Maister, 2005). Long story short: researchers examined how different people perceived wait times; not all waits are created equal. There are actually some research-backed tips for improving the customer waiting experience, whether you are late on your pre-order date, or working on any aspect of the service industry:
Occupied Time Feels Shorter Than Unoccupied Time:
This makes sense. Waiting in the lady’s line at a bar is terrible. Waiting in the lady’s line at the bar, surrounded by old newspaper clippings….not so bad! When I take cab/Lyft/Uber, I normally can’t wait to get from Point A to Point B. That one time I had a driver with Mortal Combat, the video game, in the back seat, I was basically kicked out because I was distracted and having fun before I realized I arrived. Try to add some entertainment or a distraction so time passes more quickly.
People Want to Get Started:
To prove this point, researchers specifically call out the hostess at a restaurant. Even though your table might not be ready right away, when someone greets you at the door and even hands you a menu to browse at, there is a sense that you are noticed and officially kicking off your dining experience. Even a simple greeting or email “we got your order” helps!
Anxiety Makes Waits Seem Longer:
We touched on the fact that customers worry about being forgotten. This brings me back to the many office appointments I have had when no one checked me in immediately. I worried….
Do they know I am here? Should I ring the bell AGAIN?
Apart from the fear of being forgotten, other things can creep in too. Ever hear of Erma
Bombeck’s Law? It’s the reason why you always pick the wrong line at the grocery store. That lady came 5 minutes after you and she’s already at the register!!
Put yourself in the shoes of the customer and preemptively address issues that might be causing unnecessary stress. It may be small, but during the holiday times, we took about 2-3 days to reply to support tickets. At the same time, questions were rolling in about sales that were just a day long or shorter.
I added a quick little blurb to our auto-reply, saying we’d honor any support requests as if they were attended to immediately and it really helped with the “OMG, I need my discounts to work now” meltdowns.
Uncertain Waits Are Longer than Known, Finite Waits:
People will tend to wait patiently until their scheduled appointment time, and then they snap. Scheduling is a bit of a mixed bag because appointments provide a finite time (which is awesome; people want this), but you better stick to it. As the researchers state, “an appointment defines an expectation that must be met;” even the slightest delay will be met with increasing annoyance. And please, don’t be that person always saying, “it will just be a few more minutes.” Just be real.
Unexplained Waits Are Longer than Explained Waits:
Good news for all your customer support pros out here, you were right all along! People appreciate your honesty and authenticity. If you explain what went wrong, people will listen and most reasonable folks will understand. They may even commend you for the refreshing approach.
Unfair Waits Are Longer than Equitable Waits
This is why people swooping in front of you in line makes you mad. This is why you are so mad at that couple who got seated before you at brunch. YOU GOT THERE FIRST!! First-in-first-out seems fair to you, and when you don’t feel the wait is equitable, the wait feels even longer.
The More Valuable the Service, the Longer the Customer Will Wait
Last week, I attended a conference and we got a free ticket to a food truck. I waited for about 10 minutes before I hit the sandwich shop down the block. I thought about what I value my time at, and a free sandwich did not seem worth a line down the block. This makes total sense. I might wait longer for a revolutionary item, or to see a band I like.
Solo Waits Feel Longer than Group Waits
This final one is fascinating because it doesn’t necessarily mean waiting with friends. You can be waiting with complete strangers and it just doesn’t seem like a big deal, because there is a whole “community” around this wait. Ever get pissed off waiting in line at Disneyland? I’d hope not, it’s part of the experience, and what kind of a person gets mad at the Happiest Place on Earth?
This one leaves a lot of room for creativity. Can you think of anything that might create a group sense of waiting? Maybe make a special room for it, or a “community wait table” if you are in dining :)?
Outstanding service has far evolved from replying to customer questions and complaints. You can actually get ahead of the game and be ready to address issues before the customer even knows about them. While other companies put this last, you have the power to uniquely differentiate yourself with these superpowers.