Should I Stay or Should I Go?


GroupInALine By Steve Martin, CMCT

In a 1981 single that went on to feature in VH1’s Top 100 Greatest Hard Rock Songs, UK punk rock band The Clash asked “Should I stay or should I go?” The question posed in their song is likely to be asked as often today as it was upon its release thirty years ago – and not just pertaining to matters of the heart; but to matters of business too.

Every day millions of customers and consumers ask themselves if ‘they should stay or go’ when finding themselves waiting in line for a service and not knowing how long their wait is likely to be. Shoppers may switch lines in checkouts hoping to pick a faster moving one. Web users might refresh their browser in the hope a chosen download will run faster. Customers contacting a telephone helpline may abandon a current call and call back later in the hope that the wait time will be shorter.

But what are the factors that people use to decide whether they should stay or go and what are the potential implications for business when it comes to ethically influencing and persuading customers?     

We might be living in the fastest-moving, most stimulated-saturated environment ever but we still spend a considerable amount of our time waiting in line (or online). Some sources estimate that the average American citizen can spend upwards of 2 years of their life waiting in queues. In a new paper about to be published in the Journal of Marketing Research, Narayan Janakiraman from the University of Arizona, together with two Wharton School colleagues Robert Meyer and Stephen Hoch, look at what influences people to stay waiting when in a line or to abandon their wait for another time.  

The core of their work is that the simple intuition “a queue worth joining is a queue worth persisting in” is advice that is frequently violated. Janakiraman, Meyer and Hoch cite examples where significant numbers of callers (34% in one study) who contact call-centers hang- up and dial again primarily as a result of impatience. Tellingly few people in these groups ever benefit from these abandoned waits primarily because they invariably call back some time in the future and their total cumulative wait time becomes much longer.       

Viewed through the lens of Dr. Cialdini’s six universal principles of persuasion a decision to continue waiting or to abandon a place in line appears to pit two principles against each other.

On one hand the longer a person waits in a queue the more likely they are to focus their attention on alternative activities they could have accomplished while waiting.  Not attending to these alternative activities could be viewed as ‘sunk costs’ or ‘losses’ and the principle of scarcity clearly demonstrates that our attention and subsequent actions are drawn to avoiding losses of any kind. As a result it is possible that a person focussing on other activities they could be attending to while waiting in line might be motivated to abandon the wait by virtue of this loss aversion.

However things are rarely as straightforward as they seem. It could also be argued that a person who begins waiting in line or in a queue has made an active commitment to that queue and therefore the principle of consistency might be activated, compelling them to remain. As each minute of waiting time passes it is possible that a person experiences an increased motivation to completing the goal of getting through and becomes even more committed the closer they get. Much akin to a frequent flyer taking more flights the closer they get to the next reward stage of a loyalty program. 

So in view of the tension between the powerful forces of scarcity and consistency what do people typically do? Janakiraman and his colleagues find that normally, peoples’ decisions to abandon a wait are most likely to occur somewhere in the middle of that wait. No doubt that this decision to abandon a place in line will also likely be accompanied by feelings of annoyance at the potential losses incurred not to mention general frustration and displeasure. Hardly a desirable situation if it is your company that customers and potential consumers are waiting to do business with.

Which prompts the question, what can be done to mitigate these feelings and to reduce the number of potential customers who will hang up before speaking with your organization?

Clearly the obvious answer is to reduce call wait times and wherever possible this should be done. But what if this is not always possible? Across three studies Janakiraman and his colleagues test and propose some suggestions:

  1. Provide a contrast by informing people in line of the current duration of alternative queues they could have joined. The authors found evidence that if customers see that wait times would have been just as long (or longer) in other queues it diminishes the appeal of abandoning one line to join an alternate one.
  2. Publish the slower rates of progress in alternative queues. In line with the adage “a watched pot never boils” the studies found that if consumers were simultaneously provided with information about slower progress in alternative queues then this was also likely to reduce abandonment. Of course such an approach should only be used if such comparisons are true and it is ethically wise to do so.
  3. Provide active distractions while people wait.  Providing simple activities for people to engage in while waiting also led to a reduced likelihood to leave a queue in the studies. One wonders if this might also provide a business with the chance to turn waiting, a largely frustrating experience in most people’s eyes, into an opportunity to influence consumers and perhaps create future obligations? For example a business might employ the principle of reciprocity by providing valuable information or recommendations to customers while they wait. This information may not necessarily just be about products and services supplied by that company – in fact it may be better if they are not. Doing so may demonstrate that company’s desire to do its best for its customers and at the same time at least turn a less than pleasurable experience into a tolerable one.

One wonders what strategies and ideas Inside Influence Report readers recommend for productively filling that time while customers wait in line or if you are the customer what might work for you?

As always your comments are gratefully received……if you would just like to form an orderly queue please.             

Janakiraman, N., Meyer, Robert J., and Hoch, Stephen J. (2011) "The Psychology of Abandoning Waits for Service," Journal of Marketing Research (in press).


  • Larry Rondeau

    Steve, I enjoyed your blog. I would agree that avoiding loss is probably the biggest motivation for someone to leave a line they feel stuck in. I particularly like Janakiraman et al.’s suggestion to provide a distraction. Some companies have started advertising to people who are waiting for car repairs, etc. But that could be dangerous to do with annoyed patrons waiting in line. As Dr. Cialdini and other social psychologists have pointed out, research has found that the annoyance they feel can rub off on anyone or anything they’re exposed to while in that state. So, it would seem that giving people some entertainment or a chance to do something productive would be best. But patrons would have to be assured that they won’t lose their place in line while attending to the distraction.

  • Steve H. Brown

    Depending on the business, discount coupons (reciprocity)could be given to patrons waiting in line. Free samples of products (reciprocity) the business would like to sell (food and drink especially works here). Giving people information about upcoming sales (scarce information not given to everybody) could also enhance or reduce the irritation of waiting.

  • WarrenWhitlock

    Excellent article.
    As I read about the conflict and especially the consistency bit, I kept thinking about something Dr. Cialdini said when I asked him about “cheating” (our specific example was a false scarcity countdown on a website that reset each day. Interview on
    Of course an unethical use of the laws will work… but to quote Dr. Cialdini “when they catch you, they will hate you forever”
    When I wait on a line and get to the point of giving up, I feel my decision to wait was wrong and I BLAME THE LINE OWNER.
    I doubt that this hatred has ever been measured, but could it be the same length of times as other cheaters?

  • Terry

    I like the theme park principle. Often crowds waiting are introduced into a themed waiting area so it feels like the ride has sarted even though it’s still just queueing with the scenery changed.
    The equivalent for a phone queue would probably be to offer information or entertainment while you wait. Give people some options to choose among – at least it gives them the satisfaction of pushing buttons, which gives the illusion of activity, no matter how futile.
    Better still is the approach of the Australian Tax Office. When delays are long the recording estimates how long it will take and gives you the option of a call back in “approximately xx minutes”. At least it gives you a choice and makes you feel like they’re trying to make your life easier.
    Of course the best solution for consumers would be to have enough humans answering phones, but that’s not likely in this lifetime.

  • Aki Kalliatakis

    Hey Steve, great article!
    I recently put the following together for a client. Confirms what you said, and gives a couple of examples. (Sorry it’s so long-winded!)
    Many firms struggle to help customers on time, whether it is in consumer/retail outlets or business-to-business industries. Some recent research showed that the speed with which customers are helped is critically important to their ultimate satisfaction, and yet the single most-commonly-cited source of frustration was delays and long queues. Before anything else, companies should take this seriously, because of the potential damage which it can do. There will be times, after all, when a wait will be unavoidable, but it is all about how you react to this that makes the difference.
    Waiting customers, in their frustration, may make a scene, exaggerating the delay, (“I’ve been waiting here for hours now!”), or over-simplifying what needs to happen, (“What does it take to just go and fetch the thing from the stores!”). Some may make unrealistic demands, (“If you don’t get it to me in the next 10 minutes, I’ll go somewhere else”), or suggest difficult, expensive or impossible solutions, (“Why don’t you just hire more staff, for goodness sake!”)
    At best, the credibility of the business takes a dive, at worst we lose customers by the dozen. So what can a business do to deal with this so that it doesn’t end up with hordes of unhappy customers? Here are some suggestions:
    • Managers first need to be able to identify hold-ups and slowness. This may sound obvious, but it never ceases to amaze me how out-of-touch many senior managers are with what is happening in their businesses. They are often surprised when customers tell them how bad things really get. Therefore, make sure that you have some way of identifying- and measuring the time it takes to process customer orders, and for “red-flagging” long delays and queues.
    • Then ask why the delays exist in the first place, and do whatever you can to eliminate the causes. In the majority of cases, you will find that customer complaints are justified, because to carry out the necessary work does not take that long in reality.
    Delays can be caused by poor systems, overworked, demotivated or apathetic staff, overloaded processes which cannot get products and services out, work not done right the first time, and so on. If a little investigative work is done, you will probably find the root causes of delays very quickly, and first prize is to eliminate the causes as soon as you can.
    In one major life insurance company, they recently reduced the time it takes to process a claim from a few days to a few hours, and discovered that most of the time it took to process a claim was not time spent working on the claim, but rather the fact that the claim was waiting on someone’s desk for further processing. (Who says Just-In-Time principles don’t work in a service environment?)
    If delays and queues are unavoidable, then here are some more ideas:
    • Be proactive when it comes to communicating with customers. So much trouble can be avoided by talking to your customers before they start getting irritated, and apologising for the wait. Hand-in-hand with this apology, you should also give some explanation of the reasons for the delay. Most people are naturally curious, and just telling them that you are sorry is not enough.
    Unless you are really skilled at being warm and empathetic with customers, it is probably also not going to help if you tell them to be patient. You have to be genuine and sincere in this request, and make sure that they know that you care. Demanding their patience is just not on. I recently found myself on a plane which was delayed on the runway, and the pilot came onto the system before we even knew there was a delay. After apologising sincerely, he told us exactly why this had happened, and reassured the passengers that everything would be fine. Which brings us to the next point…
    • If possible, tell customers exactly how long the delay will be, and what you and the company are currently doing to sort out the problem. If you are unable to give a fixed time for the end of the problem, then you have to do a great job of explaining what is going to happen next, and reassuring them that they will be taken care of before others are processed.
    • In a business where customers have to wait their turn, and they know who was before and after them, there are two additional things that need to happen: firstly, never compromise yourself by allowing late-comers to obviously jump the queue without an extremely good explanation.
    Secondly, keep informing those still in the queue how far they are from the top of the list. I have seen this working very effectively even with some telephone systems, where, every once in a while, you hear, “There are now 12 calls before yours will be answered.”
    • While customers are waiting, keep them busy. The Hyperama in Eastgate has installed a television monitor visible at every single till point in the store, and customers watch videos (and a few ads), while they wait for their turn. I’m willing to bet that customers are far less aggressive about the queues, and that the cost of magazines damaged while being read at the till has also dropped.
    Music on the telephone is another example of this, although many people today find this irritating, so try to make sure that someone live is regularly, (every 40 seconds or so), getting back to the waiting caller. My all time favourite story involves Virgin Mobile, where the person at the contact centre patiently told the customer she would call back in a few minutes because the system was slow that morning. When he insisted on waiting, she casually asked him “What’s your favourite song?” Caught by surprise, he eventually said, “Uuhm. New York, New York, by Sinatra.” After a pause, she replied, “Oh, I know that one,” and started singing the song for him! It created an incredibly loyal customer.
    • Another possibility is to start to help customers with preliminary work which may save time later, such as, for example, giving them the contract to work through, training them to use their new appliance, or arranging for payment processing. This is also symbolically useful because it shows them that you understand their need for speed.
    • As an alternative, you may offer customers the option of partially filling their orders so that they can get on with something else. If this occurs, then you also need to offer to deliver the balance of their order at your company’s own expense. But also broadcast this fact to your colleagues because it is a very effective way of helping them to understand how expensive delays can be to the company.
    • Ask customers who experience delays what impact this has on them or their business, and offer your help in sorting out their consequent problems. For example, the crew of the flight mentioned earlier, which was delayed due to a mechanical problem, offered every passenger the option of sending a message to others who would be affected by the delay.
    When my computer screen blew up recently, the company offered me a loan screen, at no charge, to help me out while mine was being fixed. I was also given a really nice luxury loan-car to drive recently because the garage screwed-up my service the first time.
    In conclusion: Delays and queues may be something which you and your customers may experience occasionally for a number of reasons, and often beyond your control. But, once you have a system for identifying them when they happen, it is how you react to them that is so critically important. Make sure that people in your organisation are sensitive enough to understand the impact on customers, to do something to lessen the frustration, and to help customers minimise the impact of the problems.

  • John Symes

    Excellent article and very helpful comments and examples of how to overcome customer dissatisfaction from Aki, thanks.
    I can add another example of the personal touch which will keep me a customer of the RAC for life: Recently my car broke down in a remote location in the South of France in holiday season and it seemed like it would take quite a while to resolve. Apart from sorting out a hire car and a hotel to make the delay somewhat bearable, the intervention of a bi-lingual RAC technical expert who took a genuine interest in my car and it’s rectification reduced the discomfort and made it genuinely interesting along the way. This is apparently not normal policy but the personal touch (like the agent at Virgin Mobile) was incredibly powerful.
    Companies need to think more about the power of the human touch, both for their customers, and the innate reward that it creates for their staff.

  • Brian Ahearn

    As always, I enjoy your articles and perspective. I have a few thoughts to share on the subject. First, sometimes we look for the longer lines to get in because they can be the indication we’re making better choices – consensus. There’s a reason some night clubs and restaurant have no wait – because they’re not very good.
    As technology progresses we might soon hear personalized messages like this, “Sorry for your wait. We know you’ve been on hold for 16 minutes. The good news is someone should be with you in just 5 minutes.” By comparison I’m more than half way home so I’ll wait it out.
    Lastly, here’s how I deal with lines – technology. Whether I’m reading on my iPhone Kindle app, texting a friend or updating Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter, I’m doing something I want to do that makes use of my time in a way I want. So for me it’s no longer wasted time.

  • pati

    I’ve always found it helpful when a customer service rep, whoever that might be, came out from behind the counter, or office, and spoke individuall with people in line. Just a simple inquiry of what I was in line for (stamps, mailing a package, pick-up), often made be at least feel like SOMEONE cared. I suppose the biggest annoyance in waiting, is having the customer service rep come back on the phone line and begin reading off the que card about how sorry they are, and they understand my frustration, etc. Some natural humanity and grace would go a long way.

  • David Smith

    Steve, great article, both you and Noah can always be relied upon to get my mind thinking in new ways and directions. I thought Aki’s contribution was really insightful too. Thanks Aki for sharing some of your thoughts and work.

  • Steve Martin

    Hi Warren,
    Hope all is well. I am not aware of any specific work that has been done to measure the blame effects that you refer to. I am pretty sure someone out there will know though. You are right about exploiting scarcity effects. One of the examples we cite in Yes! is a UK based business owner that used an ethcially questionable approach during the UK gas crisis of 2001. He won in the short term but it backfired badly on him days later and cost him dear.
    Thanks Warren.

  • Steve Martin

    I think your comment about the potential spillover effects of someone’s annoyance is an important consideration for anyone who has responsibility for designing strategies where a customer wait is possible / likely.
    Thanks for contributing to the IIR.
    With my best wishes,

  • Steve Martin

    I enjoyed reading your response. Thank you so much for sharing your insights and work which I believe will be very helpful to anyone working in a business where a customer may experience a wait in line.
    Thanks again for your valuable contribution to the IIR

  • Stella Collins

    My worst queue experience was waiting to get into Tel Aviv airport about 10 years ago – there were multiple queues and nobody to tell you which queue to join but people were periodically hauled out of queues to be taken for extra questioning. Another passenger explained they deliberately made the process complicated and unpredictable so that nobody could beat the ‘security system’ but it did nothing for customer service.
    One of the best was at Gatwick airport when queuing with my sister to travel to Dubai with a new baby. She was very distressed at leaving the UK, the baby was bawling and all the othe passengers were beginning to get distressed too. A kind uniformed person came and asked if we’d like to be ‘fast tracked’ and explained clearly to all the other passengers why that was the case. Everyone was hugely relieved. It was a triumph of someone taking the initiative and treating everyone with humanity.

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