The Psychology Behind Why Customers Hate Waiting

Customer Experience | 3 minute read

As humans, we’ve all had to endure the seemingly torturous act of waiting. Whether as a child, eagerly waiting for our slice of the birthday cake to be passed down, or as an adult, having to sit in a drab waiting room at the doctor’s office. As Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers perfectly put it, “the waiting is the hardest part”.

When it comes to customer service, it’s no secret that long wait times are something to be avoided at all costs. They play a large part in customer perception of your brand. However, if we take a look at the psychology of waiting, we can better understand how companies can actually make their phone queues more efficient, and feel a lot faster than they actually are.

Perceived Wait Times Feel Longer than Actual Wait Times

After recently witnessing a rather long line outside a bubble tea kiosk at the mall, my friends and I asked each other, “would you wait in a line that long for bubble tea?”. The answer was a resounding “no!” from each person. The follow-up question, of course, was “what would you wait in line for?”. To my surprise, after listing some seemingly amazing hypothetical scenarios, the most common answer was that there was very little we’d be willing to wait in line for.

According to MIT queuing theory professor, Richard Larson, “the psychology of queuing is more important than the statistics of the wait itself.” We tend to think we’ve been standing in line for longer than we really have; our perceived wait time is longer than your actual wait time.  For customers, how long a line seems to be is the problem, despite how quickly it might actually be moving.

Occupied Time Feels Shorter than Unoccupied Time

As a child, I loved going on road trips and flights for family vacations simply because of all the coloring books and activities my Mom had prepared for the journey for myself and my sisters. Like any smart mother, she knew that to keep us from driving her crazy, she had to keep us occupied. If “times flies when you’re having fun”, then the opposite of that is also true. Time seems to drag when you’re bored. Since perceived wait times feel longer than actual wait times, according to research, customers need something to do – they have to be proactive, not idle.

Occupied Time Feels Shorter than Unoccupied Time

This principle is perfectly illustrated by a Houston airport’s solution to complaints about long wait times at baggage claims. They moved the arrival gates further away from the baggage claim area! That longer walk kept customers preoccupied. Not having to simply stand around and wait or their luggage to come along the conveyor made the perceived wait time go by faster, and complaints went down to zero.

By offering customers the option of being able to do more during their wait time they don’t feel as though they are waiting long – the time doesn’t feel wasted. For call centers, giving customers the option to receive a call back from a customer service representative, rather than having to wait on hold, means they can use that time to do whatever they want! Customers will They’ll appreciate that their time isn’t wasted sitting on the phone waiting to be served.

Customers Are More Willing to Wait for Personalized Service

Generally, despite how much people dislike waiting, we’ve been taught that “good things come to those who wait”. There’s the perception that if something has taken a long time, then it must be good! This is especially true when we think we’re getting personalized service, tailored to our unique needs and wants.

Harvey’s, a popular Canadian fast-food retailer has tapped into this line of thinking perfectly. They let each customer physically see their burger being constructed at the assembly bar, giving them the opportunity to select each topping right on the spot. The same goes for Subway’s “Sandwich Artist” concept. Studies show that customers find transparency and personalized service make waiting more tolerable. When they can see work being done for them, they tend to value the service more and are willing to wait longer for it. In fact, even having the mere appearance that’s something is taking a long time makes customers think that the product or service will be “worth the wait”.

Despite how well technology is making things “instant” or faster, there will always be reasons why we, as customers, will have to wait. But, by better understanding the psychology of waiting, we could potentially make the process feel shorter, and far less painful than we think it is.

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