Waiting is part of customers’ everyday lives. But how sensitive are customers to waiting shorter or longer than what they expected?

Most service encounters encompass some type of wait. For instance, customers need to wait at the cashier when they shop at the grocery store, they need to wait at the restaurant for their meal to be served, and they need to wait for a customer service agent to be available when they call the support center of some firm.

Waiting is thus a very common phenomenon and, not surprisingly, prior research has sought to determine how customers respond to waiting. From prior research, we know that the longer the wait duration, the less satisfied customers are. In addition, we know that distractions during the wait alleviate the pain of waiting: Customers who get some distraction (e.g., reading) while waiting are less affected by the wait than customers who do not get any distraction. Time pressure has the opposite effect: customers who feel pressed by time are more affected by the wait than customers who are less pressed by time.

As part of my doctoral project at BI Norwegian Business School, I extend existing knowledge on how customers respond to waiting by showing that customers are more – positively – impacted by waiting shorter than they expected than they are – negatively – impacted by waiting longer than expected. It should be noted that I define a wait that is shorter/longer than expected as a wait time that is smaller/greater than the wait time predicted by the customer based on his/her prior experiences.

Grocery store study

In one study, I asked participants to imagine going to the grocery store and waiting at checkout. I asked half of the participants to imagine waiting for 5 minutes shorter than usual and I asked the other half of the participants to imagine waiting for 5 minutes longer than usual. I then asked participants to indicate how satisfied or dissatisfied they would be with this service encounter. Participants who had been asked to imagine waiting shorter than usual reported a very high satisfactions score, whereas participants who had been asked to imagine waiting longer than usual reported a much lower dissatisfaction score.

Online chat study

In another study, I made participants wait for a customer service agent in an online chat. Unknown to the participants, I was in control of how long they waited; I made one third of the participants wait as long as expected, another third wait 2 minutes and 25 seconds shorter than expected, and a last third wait 2 minutes and 25 seconds longer than expected. I then asked participants to indicate how satisfied they were with the overall experience with the customer service online chat. Participants who had waited shorter than expected were significantly more satisfied than participants who had waited as long as expected. However, participants who waited longer than expected were not significantly less satisfied than participants who waited as long as expected.

Why customers are more sensitive to a shorter- than to a longer-than-expected wait

In sum, customers are strongly and positively affected by a wait that is shorter than expected, whereas they are little affected by a wait that is longer than expected. Why is it so?

In my research, I propose and demonstrate that it is because customers easily underestimate what they could have done in the additional time spent waiting. Because customers think they could not have done much in these few additional minutes spent waiting, they are little affected by the wait being longer than expected. By contrast, customers who wait shorter than expected are able to fully appreciate the few minutes they saved in a shorter-than-expected wait, which results in a high level of satisfaction.

Conclusion

To conclude, my research suggests that customers are little harmed when waiting a few minutes longer than expected. Thus, managers should not get too anxious when there are slight delays in the service delivery: customers will not get strongly dissatisfied because they have to wait longer than they expected. On the other hand, making customers wait shorter than expected is truly beneficial as it results in greater customer satisfaction compared with waiting as long as expected. Firms can thus choose to occasionally offer a free “fast track” option to some customers in order to please them.

Reference

Caruelle, Delphine (2019). The Interplay between Time and Customer Emotion during Service Encounters (Working dissertation). BI Norwegian Business School, Oslo, Norway.

The article was first published in BI Marketing Magazine.

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