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Are you being served? Why it’s important to set customer expectations

Are you one of those people who cannot abide queuing? Do you stand there fuming and raging over the length of time you’ve been waiting, while repeatedly looking to the front of the line in the deluded hope that your venomous glares will hurry them on? If so, then you will appreciate that as a customer your experience of the company will be tainted with the frustration at having to wait for so long. But would this still be true if there was a little sign that says ‘You are 10 minutes from being served’?

Queues impact almost every industry at some point, and waiting line psychology, as explained by David Maister, shows how queues can affect our customers. Companies have long been using waiting line psychology to their advantage but it’s worth revisiting the idea that our pre-service is just as, if not more, important than our in-service provision. A long wait can suggest a lack of concern for the customer and can hint at poor service quality. Yet a queue for our service is the opportunity for us business owners to offer a glittering pre-service – the opening act before the headliner. Customers will gain a good understanding of a company’s effectiveness from the pre-service, and if they’re not happy with it, well, why should they stick around for the main act?

Set expectations

Anyone who has ever had to queue will understand that our expectations affect our experience. If we expect a queue to move quickly and it turns into a snail’s race we are left annoyed and frustrated. So, make the early stages of your customers’ experience a positive one by managing their expectations and you will win over the customer. Can you let your customer know how long they’ll have to wait before they reach the front of the queue? Ikea’s Customer Service has a number ticket system, a technique that’s been around for decades now, but it still works exceptionally well. Let your customers know what to expect.

Keep them entertained

Can you entertain customers while they wait? Distractions, or ‘service-related time fillers’ will divert your customer’s attention so the wait is not so onerous. Strategies such as a TV or reading material (think magazines in dentist waiting rooms), shops to browse at train stations, even the muzak we (are forced to) listen to when we’re waiting to speak to a service human on the telephone (which is actually more annoying to some than having to wait in silence) are all designed to keep customers occupied while they wait. Can you go one step further? An offer to call them back perhaps? Is there something they can be doing that will make the next step of your service run more smoothly, such as completing forms or providing entertainment as part of the wait? What can you offer your waiting customers?

Respond quickly

Appreciate what anxiety your customer might be feeling. Perhaps they need some acknowledgement that they’re waiting, rather than worry they’ve been forgotten or overlooked. Got an email query that you cannot deal with right away? You could send a reply that acknowledges the customer’s query and that they will be served as soon as someone is available. This takes the pressure off both the customer and you and in most cases can be automated.

Investing in your customer goes a long way. For instance, should there be a problem or a delay in your service, you could just ignore the customer, letting him wait in limbo, or you could go ‘over and above’ and take the opportunity to wow him with your efficiency. Love them or loathe them, a recent experience with Amazon left me in no doubt as to the time I should expect my delayed parcel to arrive. I appreciated their consideration immensely and forgave the delay.


Ultimately, what is most important throughout the process of dealing with customers is to manage their expectations. And every customer has expectations, from the very initial stages of his interaction with your business. If a customer is impressed with your pre-service then he’s more likely to remain your customer.


Photo credit: Xiaojun Deng Follow, Nairobians queuing up for a bus.