I'm Waiting as Fast as I Can


We spend 34% of our time waiting. Waiting in traffic. Waiting in lines. Waiting on hold. Waiting for tech support. Waiting for information.

We spend 34% of our time waiting. Waiting in traffic. Waiting in lines. Waiting on hold. Waiting for tech support. Waiting for information.

Actually, I made up that statistic. I have no idea what the actual percentage is, but it often seems like it must be at least 34%. Most people are willing to tolerate a certain amount of waiting. But they get annoyed with waiting that feels excessive, especially when they have no idea how long they'll have to wait. As a result, how you manage your customers' waiting experiences can affect how pleased or distressed they are with whatever they're waiting for.

For example, when my husband and I ordered dinner in a charming restaurant, we didn't expect immediate delivery of our meals. Good food takes time. Even still ... Just as I was teetering on the edge of wondering how much longer we'd have to wait, along came our waitress, quite possibly straight from Intro to Waiting 101, to tell us, "I've just checked on your order and it's almost ready."

What a simple, effective wait-managing tactic. When customers are made to wait, and then wait some more, they begin to fidget, fuss, fume and find fault with those serving them. In letting us know the status of our order, our waitress disrupted this mental fidgetry.

Waiting is a perceptual experience; when we're eager for a given outcome, we perceive that we've been waiting longer than we actually have. Receiving an update can reset our internal stopwatch, so that we perceive the total wait time as less than it actually is. Giving customers the status can have a satisfaction-boosting impact even when the wait time is minimal.

Buffalo Standard Time

We had the opposite experience during a vacation trip. We were in buffalo country, and my husband was eager to try a buffalo burger. We gave our orders. And then we waited. And waited. And ... Customers have certain expectations about how long they'll have to wait in various situations. This was an unpretentious restaurant, a buffalo burger sort of place. It was 1:30. The lunch crowd had thinned out. And all we'd ordered were sandwiches. How long could it possibly take?

Recalling the afore-mentioned waitress, I imagined our waiter sidling up and explaining, "We're trying to lasso a buffalo for you. It'll just be another few minutes." But no sign of our waiter or of a lasso-ing in progress. And no sign of our lunch, not for a Really Long Time.

In both of these gustatory situations, a little extra waiting was a minor matter. Not so one day last year when I discovered my website was down, and along with it, my email. A call to tech support determined that the ISP was switching to a new thingamajigger and the server was down. When will it be up again? "I have no idea," claimed Mr. I'm-Not-Here-to-Help-You.

Wait a Minute—or a Day

Consider the circumstances. The ISP had given customers no advance notice that a major switcheroo had been scheduled and that we might experience some downtime. As a result, we were unable to make arrangements that might have enabled us to tolerate the downtime. To make matter worse, they were tackling this change during peak business hours.

In the restaurants we had visited, nothing critical hinged on speedier delivery. But my ISP? I'd been willing to ignore some previous service lapses as just one of those things. But it didn't take me the full 30 hours that service was down to conclude that an unannounced midweek upgrade that required an unknown period of downtime is a sign of a company that doesn't care about its customers. As to an apology from the ISP after the fact, well, there was none.

If you know your customers will have to wait for some specified outcome let them know in advance. They may not like to hear it, but at least they'll be able to anticipate it and prepare for it. And whenever you can, minimize the perceived wait time by giving customers regular updates or at least a quick "your meal's almost ready" type of message. Overall, think about who might be waiting for something you're delivering and take steps to prevent their perception of a wait that's interminable.

As for me, after my ISP pulled its switcheroo, I did one of my own and changed ISPs. Oh, and in case you're wondering, buffalo tastes like beef. Tasty, but not worth the wait.

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