People waiting in line.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).


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