May 30, 2007

Customer Frustration Over Waiting Is Influenced by Several Factors

Research by Dr. Julie Baker

When customers are made to wait (and wait and wait), they may leave with their money still in their pockets, and possibly never return. It's a pervasive issue in service-related companies, which cannot always serve everyone immediately. Research by Neeley marketing professor Julie Baker and colleagues points to five factors that affect the wait and what companies can do about it. 

The good news: savvy businesses can make the wait less bitter and help keep customers from becoming disgusted and going elsewhere. 

So finds one of the first studies to examine the relationship between customers' dissatisfaction and regret about waiting for service, and certain factors that affect their perceptions and emotions about the wait. 

"It Depends: Moderating the Relationships between Perceived Waiting Time, Dissatisfaction and Regret," a working paper by Julie Baker, marketing professor at the Neeley School of Business at Texas Christian University, along with Brian L. Bourdeau of Auburn University, E. Deanne Brocato of the University of Texas, J. Joseph Cronin Jr. of Florida State and Dr. Clay M. Voorhees of Michigan State, was conceived with the goal of benefiting service organizations and customers alike. 

Previous research has shown that most consumers would rather do almost anything else than stand in line, including clean their bathrooms or visit the dentist. 

"Waiting time is a big issue. Service industries and researchers have tried for many years to understand it and find ways to alleviate it, but it's still a widespread problem," says Dr. Baker. "Our study looked at aspects managers can control to reduce customer dissatisfaction and regret for patronizing a business." 

The new study looks at the influence of five moderating factors in two industries: banking and haircutting. 

The five factors were: 1) filled time (whether customers have something to do while waiting); 2) anxiety (which can make a wait seem longer than it is); 3) perceived justice (whether customers view the waiting procedures as fair); 4) affective commitment (the emotional attachment customers may have for a particular organization); and 5) quality of the physical environment. 

"We selected these factors because they're relevant to managers," Dr. Baker says. "They are aspects of the waiting experience that managers can control, and our study provides evidence that doing so does mitigate customers' negative feelings." 

The researchers conducted surveys in two Southeastern cities. Each participant answered questions about a recent experience in one of two industries studied. Follow-up phone calls were made to 20 percent of the sample to verify selected responses. The final sample sizes were 405 participants for banking services and 439 for haircutting. 

While past studies have shown that waiting reduces customer satisfaction, little or no research focused on dissatisfaction. The current paper says minimizing dissatisfaction is just as important as maximizing satisfaction, especially since consumers tend to give more weight to negative feelings than to positive ones. 

"Satisfaction does not run a continuum from highly satisfied to highly dissatisfied. The things affecting satisfaction are not necessarily the same as those affecting dissatisfaction. Different processes are involved," explains Dr. Baker. 

The paper reveals a number of insights about the five moderating factors studied and suggests ways businesses can use them to advantage. It was found that filled time can completely erase customers' negative feelings about waiting, while the other four factors can significantly reduce negative feelings. Greater levels of benefit were seen at higher levels of each factor. 

Examples of ways businesses can fill customers' time include providing newspapers and magazines, televisions tuned to the news/weather or showing entertaining videos, colorful fish tanks, or free Internet access, among others.   

The message to service businesses is that they can help keep waiting customers happy even as they continue to wait. Managers can fill customers' time with engaging distractions in the waiting room, allay anxieties by reassuring the worried, make sure the waiting procedures are equitable, pay extra attention to loyal repeat customers, and ensure the waiting area is comfortable and attractive. 

"Under the right circumstances, people are willing to overlook being made to wait, at least for awhile," explains Dr. Baker. 

The study suggests that future research should examine other moderating influences, different service types and service industries, and additional geographic areas, using surveys and field experiments. 

"Many processes are involved in providing service, but they all go into forming the customers' overall satisfaction or dissatisfaction with the experience," says Dr. Baker. 

The better those influences and processes are understood and strategically managed, the less likely it is for customers to become frustrated and take their money to a competitor down the street.