Manage wait times to improve customer satisfaction

Whether you’re sitting in a busy dentist’s office or standing in line at the airport, waiting for service can be frustrating, stress-producing, and downright annoying. As the owner or manager of a business, it’s crucial that you mitigate such frustration. Handle wait times effectively, and even grumpy customers may become loyal to your business. Handle wait times poorly and those same customers may complain to their friends and spend their dollars elsewhere.

Of course, most consumers do not expect immediate service in every venue. When a grocery store has ten counters and all are operating at full capacity on a busy Saturday afternoon, customers typically expect to be waiting in line for some period of time. The key is to manage their wait time and, if possible, turn a potentially negative experience into a positive one. With that goal in mind, consider the following two strategies used by successful companies.

  • Let customers know what to expect. When you enter a busy restaurant and the hostess informs you that you won’t be seated for at least an hour, you’re given options. You can provide your name, shop at a nearby store, and return for dinner. Or you can decide to eat at another establishment. The business has managed your expectations.

    Consider the same transaction without such communication. You wait and wait and wait. Frustrated and annoyed, you finally approach the podium to ask when you’ll be seated. The hostess responds with a shrug and says, “Not any time soon.” Will you return to this restaurant? Will you tell your friends about the experience?

  • Provide distractions. Why are Mickey Mouse and Snow White hovering near waiting lines at Disney theme parks? The business wants to turn your negative experience (standing in line in the hot sun) into a positive one (capturing memories of your kids with cartoon characters). The same idea works for waiting rooms at a local business. Provide magazines (current issues only, please), video games, or television (preferably with the sound muted and captions turned on). Or give clients a view into the service bay. Distract them and the wait will seem shorter.

When customers must wait an excessively long time for service, be sure to offer a timely apology. Don’t forget also that service recovery efforts — for example, willingness to write off part of a bill — may mean the difference between repeat business and lost sales.

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