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When is a Longer Wait Better than a Shorter Wait?

Sep 10 2021 • 4 min read

Imagine that you call your local GP practice and are swiftly placed on hold. You are about to hang up, but you are informed that you are fifth in line. Expecting a short wait, you decide to stay on the phone.

Five minutes later, you are told that you have progressed to fourth. After another ten minutes, you’ve made it to second place. But then you are told, “thank you for holding…you are now seventh in the queue”.

The frustration that you would likely feel in this situation offers a simple lesson in customer service. But it also highlights how our experience of waiting for something can be disproportionately influenced by two factors: 1) our level of uncertainty about our expected waiting time; and 2) our sense of progress towards our goal.

Uncertainty

If you have ever awaited an airport transfer at a countryside bus stop you will likely appreciate the anxiety that often accompanies an ambiguous waiting time. And you might even have found that the printed timetable with faded writing served only to amplify, rather than assuage, your agitation.

That’s why the introduction of dot matrix display boards on bus stops and railway platforms has such a disproportionately positive impact on our waiting experience. As Rory Sutherland argues, many of us would rather wait 7 minutes for a bus or train that we know is coming than wait 4 minutes for one that might never turn up.

Dot matrix displays on train platforms are one small example of organisations providing ‘operational transparency’ – giving customers information about what is happening behind the scenes. And in the app-enabled world, we are seeing it more and more frequently.

Think about how Uber operates. Users are told exactly what the app is doing (e.g. connecting them to a driver) behind the scenes and are given live location information about their driver’s progress. You might have noticed similar approaches being applied by flight comparison sites (“searching 43 providers”) and food delivery companies (“preparing your meal”) in recent years. These measures all reduce our level of uncertainty about why and how long we might be waiting.

But this is not just something that helps consumers understand how services are performing. One of the recent successes of the UK government’s rollout of COVID-19 vaccines, for example, was the relatively clear communication about where people from different groups stood in the queue. This significantly reduced uncertainty about one’s expected waiting time, alleviating feelings of frustration in the process.

A Sense of progress

As we saw in the opening example of being kept waiting on a phone line, however, operational transparency does not always help. Particularly if we feel like we are not making progress towards our ultimate goal – whether it’s getting an appointment with a doctor, a taxi ride or a vaccine.

Think about those (relatively few) occasions when you look at the live tracking information on an Uber or Deliveroo app, and see your driver or rider moving away from you. That can be hugely frustrating. And contrast that with the reassurance you might have felt waiting for a vaccine in the UK, as invitations steadily cascaded down the age-groups. So operational transparency needs to be accompanied by giving people a sense of progress towards their objective in order to maximise its effectiveness.

Studies have even shown that this sense of progress can be magnified in various ways. Many coffee shops, for example, give you pre-stamped loyalty cards, because they know that this reduces the time it takes customers to fill up a card (even if the total number of unstamped spaces remains the same).

All in all, then, we believe that too often the sole focus of businesses and governments is on the duration of a wait, rather than how we experience it. But these examples show the importance of focusing on our subjective experience too. Paying greater attention to people’s uncertainty and sense of progress can have powerful effects – GP reception telephone system designers, take note!

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