First 5000

As shops across the country welcome customers back, business owners are faced with challenges such as social distancing and limits to the number of customers allowed in a store.

The prospect of long spaced-out queues of customers waiting outside shops follows a pandemic defined by crowds outside Centrelink and blow-outs in call-waiting times at airline and insurance companies.

Telecommunications expert Mark Horwood said no customer likes to wait.

“Business owners need to minimise not only the actual wait time, but the perceived wait time,” said Mr Horwood.

“It is imperative to engage with customers while they are waiting,” he said.

“It could be the difference between making a sale or the customer leaving in frustration.”

Ways to keep customers happy while waiting include:

• Have a staff member greet customers before they wait – to ensure the customer feels welcome. Ask the customer the purpose of their visit and then direct them accordingly. This sets up an expectation that the customer’s needs will be met. Many banks do this well. 

• Provide an accurate estimate of the wait time – to manage the customer’s expectations. Uncertainty magnifies the stress of waiting. It is better to overestimate the wait time so customers feel they were served early. Disney does this well on theme park rides.

• Give customers something to do in line – to keep them entertained and distracted. Install televisions, provide access to magazines or have a staff member do a demonstration. Doctors surgeries do this well.

• Invest in quality on-hold telecommunications – with interesting and entertaining callwaiting features. Let customers choose what they want to listen to, whether it’s the news, sport or weather forecasts. The latest on-hold features allow customers to take a quiz, select their favourite music from a jukebox or listen to a podcast. Captivate Connect offer this service.

• Make queues wider rather than longer – to reduce the psychological impact of a long wait. Customers may decide not to make a purchase if they see a long line. A winding serpentine queue will seem shorter than a long straight line. Cotton On do this well.

• Provide a common queue – so customers don’t get annoyed if another line seems to be moving faster. Customers experience anxiety when they feel they have picked a slower queue.

• Make the queue fair – make the line equitable with a first come, first serve policy. Do not allow people to cut in. 

• Keep the queue moving – customers will be more inclined to wait if they feel like they are making progress. Express supermarket aisles do this well.

• Explain reasons for an unexpected wait – unexpected waits seem longer than explained waits. Be transparent with customers. Airline pilots do this well and explain reasons for delays.

• Make sure staff are efficient and quick – so customers feel like staff are striving to serve them as soon as possible. Seeing staff idle and chatting could be the tipping point for an impatient customer. Most staff in pizza shops work fast to get orders out.

Mr Horwood said now more than ever, business owners need to make every effort to attract and retain customers.

“If that call really is important to you, ensure the customer feels valued and not ignored,” Mr Horwood said.

“Most customers will be patient if they can see staff are doing everything possible to keep the wait time enjoyable and to a minimum,” he said.

Harvard Business School professor David Maister said occupied time feels shorter than unoccupied time.

People do not want to squander their valuable time in stasis.

MIT Operations Researcher Richard Larson said the psychology of queuing is more important than the statistics of the wait itself.

He said on average people overestimate how long they have waited by 36 per cent.

How is your business going to do things differently post COVID-19?

Share your thoughts. Post a comment on First 5000 – Have your Say on LinkedIn or email editor@first5000.com.au with your story.

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