Make Your Customers' Wait Times Less Painful

Last Updated May 3, 2011 4:00 PM EDT

On some automated support lines, you can hear the sound of typing in the background as you start speaking. You know you are interacting with robosupport -- no human here -- so what's with the clickety-clack?

Welcome to the brave new world of "transparent" customer interaction, designed to make you less aware of time passing and thus not as annoyed.

Think of the computer progress bar (spinning beach ball on the Mac) as the old way of doing things. While your computer was downloading that fat file, the progress bar provided a graphical representation of how much time was left in the operation.

The better system is to provide customers with a visual or audio (thus typing) cue about the work actually being done behind the scenes. Travel service provider Kayak has learned this lesson. When it is searching for the best fare, Kayak reports one by one as it polls various travel sites. New style ATMs depict on the display money being counted while you are wait for your cash to be spit out.

Ironically, some people prefer to wait longer when this process is done right, such as at Starbucks. Baristas are under orders to steam drinks one at a time, and are prevented from the faster practice of batch steaming.

According to a research team that is studying this phenomena, "customers find waiting more tolerable when they can see the work being done on their behalf -- and they tend to value the service more." Harvard Business School doctoral student Ryan Buell and professor Michael Norton report on their findings in the post, Think Customers Hate Waiting? Not So Fast--
So next time you consider how to reduce wait times for your customers, give them a peak at what is actually being done on their behalf.

Have you encountered creative ways that companies employ to move things along? Please share.
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(Photo by Flickr user goodrob13, CC 2.0)
  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.