It’s no secret: People hate to wait.
Waiting in line is a timeless form of torture. Americans spend roughly 37 billion hours each year waiting in line and nearly 50% of them find waiting in line not just a little annoying but highly irritating. Whether we’re staring at our watches in a checkout line, tapping our fingers on hold, lingering for a cab to arrive, the longer customers spend waiting for a service translates into a diminished customer experience. A survey conducted revealed that speed of service contributes to customer satisfaction – for customers quality in service is now a given but is useless without speed.
In the quick-service world, long lines are a good problem to have, but slow service times that prevent the line from moving efficiently, isn’t. Wait times not only affect customer frustration and abandonment but also how much customers are willing to spend. A study by Gad Allon of the Kellogg School of Management discovered that in the fast food industry, each extra second of wait time reduces the amount that customers are prepared to pay. Each second.
However, research on “queuing” has shown that, on average, people overestimate how long they’ve waited in a line by about 36%. M.I.T. operations researcher Richard Larson, widely considered to be the world’s foremost expert on lines, notes that “often the psychology of queuing is more important than the statistics of the wait itself” i.e. the experience of waiting is defined only partly by the objective length of the wait.
When it comes to quick-service, a study by the Journal of Consumer Behaviour found that the total wait time for a customer can be divided in 3 cycles; pre-process, when the customer is in line waiting to make an order; in-Process, when the customer is at the counter, gives his order to the employee and pays and then post-process, when they are waiting for their order to be ready.
Surprisingly, the pre-process cycle has the greatest influence on how customers perceive waiting times and service quality. Customers don’t mind waiting for good food if they feel that a long line is steadily moving, but a customer who has to wait 10 minutes in line before ordering will feel more dissatisfied than a customer who waits 10 minutes for their order to be prepared, even if the total service time for both customers was the same.
Basically, while speed of service is integral, perception of that speed of service is paramount.
So, what can businesses do to improve the waiting experience for customers and make the process feel shorter and far less painful than we think it is? Well, understanding the psychology of customers in lines is half the battle won, there are few simple strategies that can make a big impact.
#1: Set expectations. Many businesses already routinely provide estimated wait times but the key here is to give accurate, but slightly conservative wait time estimates. By under promising and over delivering customers will feel happier since they expected to wait longer. Historical data and operational knowledge can aid forecasts and predict approximate wait times. Just be careful to check your estimates frequently to make sure they’re still accurate!
#2: Provide a fair queuing. People expect waiting lines to be fair. A study of three major fast food chains found that people feel better about standing in line at Wendy’s compared to McDonald’s or Burger King. Why? Because Wendy’s guarantees customers will be served in the order they arrived in. Basically, when it comes to queuing for food, no one is more important than anyone else, and everyone should be served in the order he or she arrived.
#3: Add Alternate Ordering Models. Starbucks is a perfect example of this. On any morning, the number of pick-up orders (typically ordered from their loyalty) matches the in-house orders. Or take a tip from Panera and Wawa where the use of kiosks expands the number of order takers exponentially, resulting in a greater number of shorter lines and less wait time. If you ever have lines, you should consider an app, a kiosk and an online ordering website.
It’s not enough to have a great product; waiting times and speed-of-order completion are now important components of customer satisfaction at fast food restaurants. With the quick-service industry becoming increasingly competitive, maintaining speed of service can make a world of difference to an operator.