Lines. You see them everywhere, especially this time of year. You wait in line at the mall. You wait in line at the grocery store. You wait in line to see Santa Claus. Long line of customers

As a retailer, you don’t like to keep anyone waiting. But if you are successful, then waiting will be inevitable. The best thing you can do is keep customers from feeling like they are just waiting. Studies suggest “that customer satisfaction with waiting can be improved by managing customer expectations of the waiting and customer perception of the waiting, even without shortening the waiting time itself. (PDF)”

Managing wait times and expectations
In his article “The Psychology of Waiting Lines (PDF),” Donald A. Norman explores the issue of waiting in physical lines. His research outlines the environmental and cultural factors that determine a person’s reaction to waiting in a line. He breaks down eight principles to designing lines that manage wait times and expectations.

1.   Emotions dominate: Emotions will color a person’s perceptions and memory of any event, so creating a positive emotional experience is critical, Norman said. Disney theme parks are the prime example of this practice, with their employees in costume to entertain guests as they wait.

2.   Eliminate confusion: Customers respond better to a line that is clearly organized and easy to follow.

3.   Wait must be appropriate: People must know why they are waiting, Norman said. And they must agree that the wait is unavoidable and reasonable.  Waiting for a flight delayed by weather is one thing, but a long checkout line seems even longer if customers see several unmanned cash registers.

4.   Set expectations, then meet or exceed them. Some design tips that help manage expectations include designing lines with several turns (so each leg feels shorter) and creating one line that feeds 10 cashiers (the longer line will appear to move faster than each of the 10 shorter lines).

5.   Keep people occupied: Norman’s argument here is that “filled time passes more quickly than unoccupied time.”

6.   Be fair:  Avoid arbitrary practices like allowing people to cut in line. People will be more willing to tolerate waiting if they perceive the wait is equitable for everyone.

7.   End strong, start strong: Evidence shows that the beginning and end of an experience bear more wait on a person’s memory of the experience, Norman said.

8.   The memory of the event is more important than the experience: Leaving a positive impression is important because that’s how a person will remember the event.

These rules can help manage the physical lines of people that show up at any brick-and-mortar business. But businesses also must manage at least one line they cannot see: the line of callers seeking support over the telephone.

“Invisible” Lines Are More Frustrating To Customers
Customer support via telephone — particularly through call centers — continues to grow, even as social media outlets gain popularity as a way for customers to interact with companies. When incoming calls outnumber the representatives available to answer those calls, an invisible line begins to form. And while many of Norman’s rules still hold true, the invisible nature of the waiting line can make callers’ expectations more difficult to manage.

A customer in a physical line can literally see where they stand in relation to other customers who are waiting. That observation helps build the expectation of the wait time. Larger call centers might have telephone systems that will estimate a caller’s place in the queue and the estimated wait time. But if your phone system cannot provide those estimates, the risk is greater that a caller’s frustration will grow the longer they stay on hold without a sense of when the wait will end.

An effective way to manage callers’ expectations and wait times is with on-hold messaging. An on-hold message allows a company to project its brand in a positive way while also encouraging callers to remain on the line until a customer service representative can take their call. Studies show that callers with messages on hold will stay on the line up to 3 minutes longer than with silence on hold.

But an on-hold message does more than occupy a caller’s time. Effective hold messages add value to customers:  informing the about products and services, special promotions and other company news. Other uses include promoting a company’s website and social media channels and answering some frequently asked questions.

Design is the key to managing customers’ experiences in both visible and invisible lines. How you lay out the checkout lanes — several lines that feed a single cashier or one line that feeds multiple stations — can determine how a customer feels about the in-store experience. Your performance in other customer service channels can also determine how callers will perceive your customer service. A positive experience in all cases is critical to creating repeat customers.