How Customers Feel When Waiting

waiting room

How Customers Feel When Waiting

Understanding these eight factors can help you improve your organisation from your customer’s point of view.

1. Unoccupied time feels longer

It may not BE longer, but when you are idle, time stretches like a loose rubber band.


Pleasantly distract your customers. Make sure you have magazines, a TV, a radio, even a fish tank can help divert your customers attention from the void of the wait. You could also provide self-service drinks or snacks.

You can also monetise the pre-wait in many situations. If you are in hospitality, for example, ask customers to wait in the bar so they can start ordering drinks. A hotel’s check-in guest can be offered use of the conference room where they can pay for wi-fi or send faxes. If you’re a hairdresser, ask your customer if they would like a hair treatment and have an apprentice to delivery it in a special anteroom.

2. Alone time is longer than occupied time.

Isolation magnifies the experience of time passing. Customers who are waiting alone feel it move more slowly than those who are with somebody.


Engage customers who are waiting. If they are talkative, have staff talk to them. If they are introspective, offer a book or magazine.

3. Waits after a service feel the longest.

Waiting for a service to start feels long. Getting a restaurant table, for example, can be torturous. You can see people who have clearly finished, just sitting, chatting, digesting while your stomach is grumbling. You’re hungry. You’re starving! Ten minutes feels like twenty-five.

Once you have been seated, though, that’s different. The waiter finds you a nice spot, slides out your chair, offers you a menu and says he’ll be back for your order.

Even thought he takes six minutes, that’s not so bad as waiting for that last six outside, anxious for a place. This is because consumers feel that a wait during the service is reasonably okay because the service has begun.

You have finished your meal, had dessert, poured the last of the shiraz down your wet red lips, and you want the bill. You gesture for the waiter. Come hither, sir! He comes and tells you to wait there while he gets it. You wait. And wait. And wait some more. There is another wave of new diners to attend to. He is taking orders, serving drinks. You just want to pay and get out.


Process the customer as soon as possible. Let them leave. You can do the paperwork when they’ve gone. Don’t be disorganised. The post-service wait is the longest. If you need to take time to process the account, move them to an area that will be distracting and enjoyable, such as a bar. Offer them a coffee at the bar.

4. Waits are more anxious when you don’t know why you are waiting.

You’re on the plane, it’s fully loaded. The end of a long day of tedious business in a lovely city you didn’t see any of. The safety pantomime begins. The flight attendant dons the jacket, pulls the zip, finds the whistle. The exits are here and here. Good-o. Demo over, you look back at the in-flight magazine. Finally you start to taxi along slowly. Then you stop. And wait. Five full minutes. You finish the in-flight magazine. You’ve read every word cover-to-cover. You’ve even read the ingredients of the latest wrinkle cream age-defiance and that this multimillion dollar product has been tested on nine women.

Still no motion. No word. The passengers are getting antsy. You’re antsy too. Is it a terrorist? Has someone smuggled a dining fork onto the aircraft? Is there a piece of cutlery missing? Smoke? A faulty light? Heart attack in the cockpit? Are we going to die? Is it the jihadists?  How will we die? Will it be a fiery inferno? Well what’s an inferno if not fiery? Decapitations?

It’s now been thirty five minutes you’ve remained stationary on the runway. Finally, the plane moves forward again. A voice says, “We are ready to depart now. The seatbelt light is on. We’ve been cleared for take-off.”

Thank you, captain. you mutter. While we were waiting for your tower clearance, I was texting my funeral instructions to my family. 


Make sure any customer who is waiting knows exactly why they are. Announcements or queue signage with estimated times are a good idea. A simple, “Hi Folks, we’re just waiting for tower clearance, then we’ll be off” would have worked a treat.

At Disneyland, you can expect to wait an hour and a half to ride Space Mountain. Does anyone care? Not really. Because they know there will be a wait and how long it will be.

5. An uncertain wait is longer.

You get to the train station for your 12.01 trip. You’re early. It’s 11.58. Perfect. Not too long. The departure time arrives. But the train doesn’t. You wait. One minute late. Two.

You pace. You walk along the platform. You crane your neck along the track, searching for that first blessed glimmer of sun on steel. You check your watch. It’s now ten minutes late. Has the train come early? Did it leave already? Is CityRail doing trackwork again? Has the train been cancelled? Is there a new timetable? Should I call in sick? Should I run to catch a bus? Can I make it if I do? Precisely how long do I have before I must make a decision?


Make sure your customers are informed. Never create an information vacuum. Your customers cannot tolerate uncertainty and will draw their own conclusions, and probably the worst kind. If you wreck their emotional experience, they are likely never to forgive you.

If there had have been a loudspeaker or an attendant to advise the train would be delayed by twenty minutes, you would have hrumphed, slid out your paperback, let the time pass without uncertainty. You know the outcome. Yes, the train is late, but I know that it will arrive. I might now call it Shitty Rail, but I will ride again.

 6. An uncomfortable wait is longer.

The hospital ER has one row of beige plastic chairs all moulded together. It’s like being in kindergarten although the youngest here is yourself and you are forty two. And guess what, it’s morbid obesity day and the only vacant space is next to a man whose rolls of stomach are spilling over into your chair space. While you are not usually this unkind, your patience is thin. The pain threshold has well and truly been reached. Yes, you feel sorry for the poor guy. You would stand, but you’ve broken your leg and standing is agony. You’ll have to squeeze in. Hopefully it won’t take long to see a doctor.


The kindly receptionist brings over some extra plastic chairs. She also brings a foot stool. She can see I’m in pain. This helps a lot.

Make your wait as comfortable as possible for your customers. If the room is crowded, have some back-up plan to alleviate the wait. Remember to keep everyone informed about the length of wait. That way, the ones who don’t really need to be there can make a raincheck.

7. New users feel the wait longer.

It’s your first time. The radio ad was compelling. It’s the solution you’ve been after. Laser Hair Removal! You’re nervous. Ouch. This is going to hurt. Surely it will. Oh goodness. It’ll burn. But it’ll be worth it. It’ll all be over soon, and then no more getting hassled from your girlfriend with those crass nicknames for your hairy spots. The magazine are show beautiful people. Girl mags. Oh, here’s one! Cosmetic surgery. Ooh. Botox needles. They are huge! Holy cow, they go in deep. Hurry up, dude. Let’s get this on.


Be mindful about the ‘clues’ you provide in your waiting area. A cosmetic surgery magazine might seem like appropriate information, but how will it make your customer feel?

He already feels nervous about the procedure. Give him a relaxing cup of tea, explain the process, and show him something that will lift his spirits and make him brave. Like a motorcycle mag. Or GQ.

8. Customers will wait longer for a service that they value.

The wait to see Beryl the celebrant is just a week. Beryl does planning as well as the vows and stuff. That’s convenient, for sure. But Beryl, well, she doesn’t really get us.

Marianna, the other wedding planner, takes six months to get a consultation. Cindy saw her in September’s Vogue.But she is the best. She’s done Princess Joanna and Smiley Jackson. The catering, the spectacle, the service is sublime. We’ll get fireworks, water features, arty lighting, croquet on the lawns of the MCA. Our friends will have a ball. They’ll say it was the best wedding ever. Romantic but exciting. It suits us both.


Your customers won’t wait if they don’t perceive your value. If they do, they’ll wait longer for it than a low value service. No one will wait in a queue for a new kind of tic tac dispenser, but they will camp out in the cold for an iPad. Such is the nature of perception.

What do you do to make waiting less insufferable? Do you monetise the wait? Do you make it an enjoyable part of the total experience?



Hoffman, Bateson, Elliott & Birch (2010) Services Marketing: Concepts, Strategies and Cases, Cengage Learning.