Do Your Customers Feel They Are Waiting Too Long?

26th November 2013
In the waiting line: A Creative Commons Flickr photo by ButterflySha http://www.flickr.com/photos/butterflysha/

Can changing the line improve perceived wait times?

Improving speed of service and reducing wait times are common goals for restaurants. They are of particular importance for Quick Service Restaurants (QSR’s), especially those with a drive-through.

However, it’s not just the actual wait time length that matters. Research shows, most people perceive their wait time to be longer than the actual time spent – meaning there’s room to “correct” that gap and, in doing so, improve customer satisfaction.

There are several things that impact how long a person perceives the amount of time they have spent waiting in a retail setting to be.

  1. Culture: Some cultures are just better at waiting. The British and Canadians, for example, are very “queue friendly”. Experiments have shown they prefer situations where lining up (rather than people just gathering and then pushing to the front) is encouraged or facilitated. In some conditions, the British, when faced with a crowd waiting for something, will line themselves up – even if there is no indication of where or how.
  2. Distraction and occupation: People who are distracted don’t perceive the length of time they have been waiting to be as long. Digital menu boards, with entertaining or informative video content can provide a distraction. Providing taste samples can be an effective way to promote menu items and increase impulse purchases. It is easy to understand why a person who is occupied will not feel they are waiting in line as long as someone with nothing to do.
  3. Fairness: People generally find not knowing which line up to be in stressful. Situations where it is clear where a person should enter the line, which line to enter and what order they will be processed in, reduce uncertainty and people perceive the wait to be shorter. That is why “banker’s” lines (one long line instead of many short ones) can reduce perceived wait time. The person in the line quickly has a good gauge how fast it is moving, the entire line moves quickly (instead of one person clogging the small line you are in up) and you know your exact place in the queue.
  4. Signals on length of wait: People perceive their wait to be less if they have signals as to how fast things are going. Digital counters showing what number is being served are helpful. As mentioned above, so are “banker’s” lines.
  5. Size of group waiting: People who are waiting in ones and twos can perceive the amount of time they have been waiting to be longer than if they are in a crowd. So again, the “banker’s” line is effective here, because you create one long line instead of many short “grocery” style ones that only have one or two people at each.
  6. Where in the process they are: People who are “in-process” don’t perceive waits to be as long. In general, a person that waited 4 minutes to order and then immediately received a hamburger would find their wait longer than if they ordered after two minutes and waited another two minutes for the same burger.

It’s worth noting that many of these signals are about reducing uncertainty. When people experience uncertainty or unfairness in waiting situations they feel some stress. That stress, even if it’s only a small amount, makes the wait seem longer. Restaurants owners can reduce that uncertainty and perception of unfairness by creating an atmosphere where it is clear whose turn it is next, how long it is taking to be served and ensuring everyone is treated equally.

How are you reducing perceived wait time at your locations? Let us know in the comments below.



Chief Operating Officer at LIVELENZ. Greg began working part-time in restaurants when he was 15 and continued in the industry for a decade. He then began working for technology companies developing a passion for improving operational efficiencies at fast-growing organizations.

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