Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Research Fact: Of the customers who register a complaint, between 54% and 70% will do business again with the organisation if the complaint is resolved. This figure goes up to a staggering 95% if the customer feels that the complaint was resolved quickly, and customers tell an average of five others about the treatment which they received.

In 1981 UK punk rock band The Clash released one of their biggest hits “Should I stay or should I go?” This question is doubtless asked by millions of customers who experience delays and queues every day – especially when they have no idea how long they will have to wait.

In the “olden days” my dad used to take the whole family to the bank, and assigned everyone a place in a different queue, until one day, by some miracle, a bright bank manager said, “Why don’t we buy some poles and a rope and make one queue for all the tellers?” You’ve seen this: people abandoning trolleys full of goods right at the end of their shopping experience, customers trying to gauge which queues are moving faster and switching lines at the tills in the hope of choosing a faster moving queue, bored people sitting in front of their computer screens hoping against hope that if they refresh a page it may download faster, callers to dreaded contact centres listening to endless repetitions of boring music and messages about how important their call is, and eventually just abandoning their call. The result? Delay Rage! Before the transaction has even started they are in a bad mood, and the front-line staffer doesn’t even know how it all started.

Many firms struggle to help customers on time, whether it is in consumer/retail outlets or business-to-business industries. Some recent research showed that the speed with which customers are helped is critically important to their ultimate satisfaction, and yet the single most-commonly-cited source of frustration was delays and long queues. Before anything else, companies should take this seriously, because of the potential damage which it can do. There will be times, after all, when a wait will be unavoidable, but it is all about how you react to this that makes the difference.

So how do customers decide whether they want to stay and wait, or to just go? More importantly, what are the consequences and implications for your business and your relationship with customers who are occasionally emotional, irrational, illogical and frustrated?

We all know that we live in a world which is just too full of too much: too much information, too many demands on our time, too many expectations from our managers and customers, and so on. It’s so fat moving that it’s a wonder how we keep up with all of the stimulations we are exposed to. We’ve all heard about or read about how much of our lives is spent sleeping, eating, travelling, and so on, and some writers have suggested that the average citizen in an urban environment will spend two years waiting and queueing.

On the other hand, customers are also upset because they perceive that they are forced to wait because companies are just too greedy to hire a few extra staff or find similar strategies to make it easier for them. The rise of contact centres, sometimes based in countries on the other side of the world, doesn’t help, and neither is it seen as positive when customers are punished by having to pay extra to speak to a live human being, such as what happens with dreadful cheap airlines like RyanAir.

How can your business influence customers in a positive way, and to persuade them to stay rather than go? In their article in The Sloan Management Review_, (1991,) Katz, Larson and Larson summarised how any company should respond to time-effort problems in the title of their paper: *_Prescription for the Waiting in Line Blues: Entertain, Enlighten and Engage.* We couldn’t have put it better ourselves. We somehow need to persuade customers that a queue worth joining, (whether it is “live,” on the telephone, or on a website,) is a queue worth persisting in. Their impatience gets the better of them, and sometimes they try again later – but sometimes they just don’t, and they abandon the transaction and even defect from the business to a rival. Waiting with nothing else to do is dangerous for your business because it gives them time to think about how frustrated they are, and to mull over ways to take revenge on you for wasting their time. It is hardly ever true that they look forward to time when they can just catch their breath and relax a bit. Instead, they think about what else they could be doing while waiting for you to respond.

Waiting customers, in their frustration, may even make a scene, exaggerating the delay, (“I’ve been waiting here for hours now!”), or over-simplifying what needs to happen, (“What does it take to just go and fetch the thing from the stores!”). Some may make unrealistic demands, (“If you don’t get it to me in the next 10 minutes, I’ll go somewhere else”), or suggest difficult, expensive or impossible solutions, (“Why don’t you just hire more staff, for goodness sake!”)

At best, the credibility of the business takes a dive, at worst we lose customers by the dozen. If you don’t do something about this situation, and live in hope that the problem will go away, you are very wrong. We’ve all repeated the expression “time is money,” and so, for them, there is a cost equation involved. They have “lost” something, or given up something precious, so what will they get back in return? And the longer they have waited, the bigger the dilemma for them, because now they have shown such a big commitment, and their sunk costs are so high, they don’t know what to do. It’s a minefield, filled with frustration, disappointment, confusion, and other emotions which may lead to an uncontrollable rage. Can you live with that?

So what can you and your business do to reduce this stress – and to reduce the losses that your organisation will experience? The obvious answer? Reduce the waiting times. Yes, but what can your business do to deal with this so that it doesn’t end up with hordes of unhappy customers? Two priorities need to be achieved:

  • Managers first need to be able to identify hold-ups and slowness. This may sound obvious, but it never ceases to amaze me how out-of-touch many senior managers are with what is happening in their businesses. They are often surprised when customers tell them how bad things really get. Therefore, make sure that you have some way of identifying- and measuring the time it takes to process customer orders, and for “red-flagging” long delays and queues.
  • Then ask why the delays, queues and bottlenecks exist in the first place, and do whatever you can to eliminate the causes. In the majority of cases, you will find that customer complaints are justified, because to carry out the necessary work does not take that long in reality.

There are many possible solutions to reducing delays and queues, but the key mantra should always be “Simplify, Simplify, Simplify.” So many hold-ups and obstructions occur because the design of processes has not been considered from the customer’s perspective, but also because nobody in the business challenges “the way which we’ve always done things around here.” Incorrect assumptions are often made. But what is also obvious from this discussion is that these are relatively easy and nearly costless approaches. You are investing in your own business’ success.

Delays can be caused by poor systems, overworked, demotivated or apathetic staff, overloaded processes which cannot get products and services out, work not done right the first time, and so on. If a little investigative work is done, you will probably find the root causes of delays very quickly, and first prize is to eliminate the causes as soon as you can. In one major life insurance company, they recently reduced the time it takes to process a claim from a few days to a few hours, and discovered that most of the time it took to process a claim was not time spent working on the claim, but rather the fact that the claim was waiting on someone’s desk for further processing. (Who says Just-In-Time principles don’t work in a service environment?)

In another example in a short-term insurer, the senior managers discovered that some claims were just too expensive to investigate and process, (for example, claims for windscreen chips or cell phone damage or theft.) The decision was made to pay these routine claims without delays

However, if there is truly nothing that can be done to avoid queues and delays, then there are other strategies that can influence customers’ reactions in a positive way – and can make a big difference:

  • Visible and obvious concern, empathy and a heartfelt apology from the managers, team leaders or even staff can make a huge difference. It is very hard to not forgive someone who shows true remorse, but a recorded message simply doesn’t do that. It has to be personal. You can also use empathy to say things like, “I know it’s as boring for you as watching paint dry,” or, “We hate this government requirement just as much as you do, so let’s see how we can facilitate this and finish it as soon as possible.”
  • Your empathy and apology may also include some explanations rather than keeping customers in the dark. Be proactive when it comes to communicating with customers. So much trouble can be avoided by talking to your customers before they start getting irritated, and apologising for the wait. Hand-in-hand with the apology, you could also give some explanation of the reasons for the delay. Most people are naturally curious, and just telling them that you are sorry is not enough.
  • Having said that, when communicating with customers, businesses may find that waiting customers are not interested in the reasons why “…we are experiencing high volumes at the moment,” but would rather prefer different information…
  • For example, you could let customers know that there are other quicker and more convenient alternatives such as getting on a website, or leaving a message so that someone in your company will call them back later.
  • Another powerful technique is to give them some idea about how long the wait will be, or to give them a number in the queueing system. (In one bank in Athens, customers took a number from a machine, but were also told that the wait would be around 30 minutes. Some customers chose to sit in the chairs provided, making calls and catching up with friends, or even doing some work. But others actually left the bank to take care of other business, do some shopping, or grab a cup of coffee at the local coffee shop. However, if you weren’t back in time for your turn, you lost your place.)
  • This also provides reassurance that the process of dealing with customers is fair and on a first-come-first-served basis. In a business where customers have to wait their turn, and they know who was before and after them, there is also something else that needs to happen: never compromise yourself by allowing late-comers to obviously jump the queue without an extremely good explanation.
  • You can also share information about exactly what the business is doing to solve the situation, and what actions are being taken to speed up the process. If you are unable to give a fixed time for the end of the problem, then you have to do a great job of explaining what is going to happen next, and reassuring them that they will be taken care of before others are processed.
  • Related to this, especially with complex processes that require a few steps, a business can also automatically send out a text message or similar to let the customer know exactly what and where their transaction is at a certain point in time. Many logistics and courier companies do this with great success.
  • Because the wait is as much about their perceptions, and may not even be close to reality, you could – with care – let them know how long they have been waiting. Typically, in a restaurant as soon as the waiter fills in the order for the kitchen, the time is recorded. Why don’t they proactively share that with the customer?
  • If you are really brave, you may also try one other information-sharing technique, and that is to compare your waiting time or delays with those of your competitors. The leading airline in an industry will usually publish something that says, “Independent research shows that we have 97% on-time arrivals, while number two in this industry sits at 89%.”
  • Again, we probably don’t need to say this, but unless you are really skilled at being warm and empathetic with customers, it is probably also not going to help if you ask them or tell them to be patient. You have to be genuine and sincere in this request, and make sure that they know that you care. Demanding their patience is just not on. I recently found myself in an S.A.A. flight which was delayed on the runway, and the pilot came onto the system before we even knew there was a delay. After apologising sincerely, he told us exactly why this had happened, and reassured the passengers that everything would be fine.

Apart from communication, what are the other actions that a business can take to alleviate the pain? Here are some suggestions:

  • Offer to take responsibility for their transactions yourself at a later time without inconveniencing them, and collect information or take care of the preliminaries beforehand. Some emergency rooms in hospitals begin by getting a nurse to take the brief history and measure vital signs, and to then determine the urgency required by the doctors.
  • You can offer to partially fulfill orders so that the final transaction is speedily and urgently resolved. Bring the drinks, starters and salads while the main meal is being prepared, or partially complete the service for their car, leaving one small final job with a delayed part for the next day – at their convenience and at your own expense.
  • Another possibility is to start to help customers with preliminary work which may save time later, such as, for example, giving them the contract to work through, training them to use their new appliance, or arranging for payment processing. This is also symbolically useful because it shows them that you understand the need for speed.
  • In some cases, you may need to offer some compensation, discount, or something similar for the delays. One of the most dramatic examples I personally saw involved a delayed Virgin Atlantic flight from Singapore. The senior managers stood at the main exits of the ‘plane very early in the morning, personally apologising for the delay, and giving each passenger a free flight for the next time they flew.
  • As an alternative, you may offer customers the option of partially filling their orders so that they can get on with something else. If this occurs, then you also need to offer to deliver the balance of their order at your company’s own expense. But also broadcast this fact to your colleagues because it is a very effective way of helping them to understand how expensive delays can be to the company.
  • While customers are waiting, keep them busy. Providing some entertaining or interesting distraction while people wait can be very powerful in changing perceptions of how long they have been waiting, and also avoid the situation where they plot their revenge. These could include providing some simple activities for customers to do while they wait. (Playing endless loops of your latest advertising campaign is not a good idea.) In fact, if it adds value, or is very entertaining, it may even “make their day,” and they will feel obligated in some way to return the favour. We’ve seen magicians in banks, massage therapists doing neck massages, impromptu bowling alleys using empty water bottles lined up at one end of an aisle, and even television sets at every pay point in a supermarket playing funny videos (like Mr. Bean.) In one hardware chain, staff were even going up and down the queues asking customers what DIY projects they were working on, and offering practical advice. Thus, a primarily frustrating experience can be turned around into a surprising and positive experience that customers want to repeat. (In supermarkets and other retailers, it also means that customers don’t read the magazines without buying them.) Only do business on the telephone? Instead of just one choice of bland music, how about offering customers the chance to pick their own genre – rock, classical, jazz, rap, and so on – by pressing a number on their keypad.
  • Ensure that the physical environment is more comfortable if they have to wait. It’s much easier to become irritated while standing up in an overcrowded and hot environment than in one where I can sit and relax in a cool and quiet place.
  • Ask customers who experience delays on mission-critical activities what impact this has on them or their business, and offer your help in sorting out their consequent problems. For example, the crew of the S.A.A. flight mentioned earlier, which was delayed due to a mechanical problem, offered every passenger the option of sending a message to others who would be affected by the delay. (It happened well before the days when cell phones were common, and while S.A.A. still had some credibility as an airline.) When my computer screen blew up recently, the company offered me a loan screen, at no charge, to help me out while mine was being fixed. I was also given a really nice luxury loan-car to drive recently because the garage screwed-up my service the first time.

Before I finish off, I’d like to share with you an intriguing illustration from a study of the National Health Service, or NHS, in the UK. Its conclusions came as a surprise to many. The study tried to gain some insight into the so-called DNAs (Did Not Attend, or No-Shows) in doctor’s offices. Patients who don’t pitch up for appointments are a significant and costly problem, by some estimates a direct loss of £700m annually. If patients cancelled their appointments on time, this problem could to a large degree be solved, but inevitably this did not happen. It is also illegal to penalise patients by charging them for not showing up. The objective of the research was to come up with low-cost and practical suggestions to reduce DNAs.

One focus was on patients making their appointment telephonically, and after arrangements were made they were asked to verbally repeat the date and time for their next appointment before hanging up the phone. Although this idea was simple and virtually costless, it resulted in an immediate reduction in DNAs by almost 7%.

In a second focus, receptionists of face-to-face patients booking their next appointment asked the patients to physically write out the details of the next appointment instead of filling out the small white card themselves. Again, this small change produced an 18% reduction in DNAs.

In yet another focus area, a very visible sign was displayed in the waiting areas of doctors and professional practices highlighting the number of DNAs of the previous month. The idea was to somehow “shame” those anonymous patients, but, apart from the judgemental aspect of this, it encouraged exactly the opposite behaviour that they were trying to extinguish. (Instead of reducing and dissuading DNAs, this poster was actually encouraging DNAs by implying that it was very common for patients to not show up for appointments.) Telling patients that there a lot of other people like them can work to damage desirable actions.

So in order to try to minimise the DNAs, the study investigators replaced these signs with different signs that simply specified the truth…but in a slightly different way. The change? Each sign showed the percentage of patients at the practice that had pitched up and kept their appointments, (or called to cancel in good time.) Thus, the larger number, (e.g. 95% of patients did keep their appointments,) made people want to be part of that larger, winners group. This tactic, in conjunction with the appointment card involvement described above created a 31.4% reduction in DNAs. An economist working with the NHS calculated that when these simple changes were employed across the country, savings would be the equal to the cost of recruiting and appointing an extra 472 physicians and other professionals every year!

Let me end with a story that is a classic case for how businesses should respond to delays and queues, and once again it involves one of my favourite companies, Virgin Atlantic Airlines. On a trip to London from Johannesburg a few years ago, I arrived at the airport four hours too early to complete my check in and ensure that I boarded the flight relaxed. There were about eight passengers with a similar madness, and one of the ground crew walked up to us in the queue and said they would be opening the counters shortly.

Now all airlines have a practice of overbooking flights by a certain percentage because of the “no show” passengers. Clearly, this popular airline had done the same, but, while most other airlines will wait until the ‘plane is full and then explain the overbooking situation to the frustrated “late” passengers, Virgin Atlantic was different. Very early in the process, when there were only about a dozen passengers in the queues, one of the ground staff called us all together and announced that the flight was overbooked. “If any of you are prepared to catch this exact same flight tomorrow, we’ll give you a free flight from Johannesburg to London to use later.”

I scrambled to call the office and find out if there was any possibility that my client would be able to postpone my presentation at the conference the next day, but it was not to be. I watched ruefully as some of my fellow travellers smugly accepted the offer, but I was struck by how the team at Virgin Atlantic had proactively taken care of a problem which was, after all, of their making. No wonder they are so successful!

In conclusion: Delays and queues may be something which you and your customers may experience occasionally for a number of reasons, and often beyond your control. But, once you have a system for identifying them when they happen, it is how you react to them that is critically important. Make sure that people in your organisation are sensitive enough to understand the impact on customers, to do something to lessen the frustration, and to help customers minimise the impact of the problems.

Remember, since time effort leads to such frustration in customers’ time-poor lives, it must be dealt with urgently. This is the “low-hanging fruit” that quickly shows positive results, and will affect their service experience and their loyalty. On the other hand, if they continue feeling frustrated because they think you are wasting their time, you could lose their current transaction and their future business in an instant.

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