"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Why Waiting Is Torture

I just spent a miserable five hours on the plane from San Francisco two weeks after the six miserable hours out to Seattle.  I waited in the long security line, waited for the male assist to pat me down, waited for the delayed inbound flight to arrive, waited for the families to bang their strollers down the jetway, waited for the wheelchair passengers to be escorted to their seats, waited for the premium and ‘Global Elite’ members to get processed, waited for the oversized roller bags to be stowed, waited for the ‘last few pieces of luggage to be put on board’, squirmed and kneed my way into my seat, and finally, nodded, jerked, and painfully counted the hours until arrival at Dulles.

It isn’t always this way.  On some flights the time seems to fly and before I know it I am in Biloxi, Tucson, or Denver.  On my trips home from Paris after three weeks in Africa I loaded up with foreign language magazines and read them all to keep up on my Italian and Portuguese.  I tucked into a good novel or history book, and if I was lucky, chatted with a seatmate. The eight hours passed without my even noticing. On my painful SFO-IAD leg while was fidgeting, knee-banging, and nodding off, I  saw a young passenger across the aisle start a book in San Francisco and close it as the plane rolled up to the gate in Washington.  How did he do it? Psychology.  Perception of the passage of time is relative, conditional, and never the same.

In a fascinating article in today’s Sunday New York Times (8.19.12)http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/19/opinion/sunday/why-waiting-in-line-is-torture.html?pagewanted=all Alex Stone writes about the psychology of waiting and how inexpensive solutions have been found to deal with delays and consumer complaints  .  For years passengers have complained about how long they have to wait for their luggage.  One airline decided that their image was suffering and added additional baggage handlers.  The wait time was decreased and so did passenger complaints.  However, when the airline studied the problem a bit more after they realized that their solution was costly, they found that if they increased the time it took for passengers to get from the plane to the baggage claim area, by the time they got to their carrousel, their bags had arrived.  Complaints went down to zero.  The time it took for the bags to get from the hold to the carrousel remained the same, the number of baggage handlers was small and efficient, but passenger satisfaction and airline brand image went up. 

SOME years ago, executives at a Houston airport faced a troubling customer-relations issue. Passengers were lodging an inordinate number of complaints about the long waits at baggage claim. In response, the executives increased the number of baggage handlers working that shift. The plan worked: the average wait fell to eight minutes, well within industry benchmarks. But the complaints persisted.

Puzzled, the airport executives undertook a more careful, on-site analysis. They found that it took passengers a minute to walk from their arrival gates to baggage claim and seven more minutes to get their bags. Roughly 88 percent of their time, in other words, was spent standing around waiting for their bags.

So the airport decided on a new approach: instead of reducing wait times, it moved the arrival gates away from the main terminal and routed bags to the outermost carousel. Passengers now had to walk six times longer to get their bags. Complaints dropped to near zero.

Studies on the psychological dimension of waiting showed that people routinely over- or underestimated the time taken for an activity, depending on what it was:

The [luggage] story hints at a general principle: the experience of waiting, whether for luggage or groceries, is defined only partly by the objective length of the wait. “Often the psychology of queuing is more important than the statistics of the wait itself,” notes the M.I.T. operations researcher Richard Larson, widely considered to be the world’s foremost expert on lines. Occupied time (walking to baggage claim) feels shorter than unoccupied time (standing at the carousel). Research on queuing has shown that, on average, people overestimate how long they’ve waited in a line by about 36 percent.

The idea of manipulating customers’ perceptions to achieve satisfaction and no extra cost has been the Holy Grail of marketing for decades.  When developers began building high-rises after WWII but had not mastered the art of efficient queuing and efficient passenger delivery, complaints about excessive waiting time were common.  To fix the problem  building managers installed mirrors near elevators so that waiting riders could check out their hair, their clothes, or their smile.  Complaints were eliminated as passengers, occupied with their personal appearance, forgot about the wait.  The elevator didn’t come any quicker, it just seemed that way.

The drudgery of unoccupied time also accounts in large measure for the popularity of impulse-buy items, which earn supermarkets about $5.5 billion annually. The tabloids and packs of gum offer relief from the agony of waiting.

Another successful ploy used to manipulate customer psychology without any additional cost was at Disney World:

Beating expectations buoys our mood. All else being equal, people who wait less than they anticipated leave happier than those who wait longer than expected. This is why Disney, the universally acknowledged master of applied queuing psychology, overestimates wait times for rides, so that its guests — never customers, always guests — are pleasantly surprised when they ascend Space Mountain ahead of schedule.

Airlines have begun to catch on, and by providing passengers with real flying time (gate-to-gate) –based arrival times instead of wildly optimistic ones which ignored routine access, runway and operational delays, they were able to up their on-time performance statistics. This cost them nothing.

Feedback about delays also reduces anxiety and impatience about waiting, and passengers underestimate or accurately gauge their waiting times instead of overestimating them:

Our expectations further affect how we feel about lines. Uncertainty magnifies the stress of waiting, while feedback in the form of expected wait times and explanations for delays improves the tenor of the experience.

Another successful manipulation is for operations managers to speed up the final waiting portion of a queue.  Customers waiting in a slow-moving line have their bad memories erased if the speed to their destination in the final minutes:

This is a powerful ploy because our memories of a queuing experience, to use an industry term, are strongly influenced by the final moments, according to recent research by Carmon and Kahneman .  When a long wait ends on a happy note — the line speeds up, say — we tend to look back on it positively, even if we were miserable much of the time. Conversely, if negative emotions dominate in the final minutes, our retrospective audit of the process will skew toward cynicism, even if the experience as a whole was relatively painless.

Customers will make illogical choices when it comes to lines, and will often pick the shorter line over the longer even though if they were to clock the movement in both, they might find that the shorter one took longer:

Carmon and Kahneman have also found that we are more concerned with how long a line is than how fast it’s moving. Given a choice between a slow-moving short line and a fast-moving long one, we will often opt for the former, even if the waits are identical. (This is why Disney hides the lengths of its lines by wrapping them around buildings and using serpentine queues.)

Perhaps the biggest influence on our perception about lines is fairness:

Surveys show that many people will wait twice as long for fast food, provided the establishment uses a first-come-first-served, single-queue ordering system as opposed to a multi-queue setup. Anyone who’s ever had to choose a line at a grocery store knows how unfair multiple queues can seem; invariably, you wind up kicking yourself for not choosing the line next to you moving twice as fast.

In the fascinating book Traffic author Tom Vanderbilt suggests how to increase the vehicle flow on roads with lanes closed because of construction.  Most road crews set up the ‘Lane Closed’ signs way before the actual reason for the closure.  Drivers will usually begin to use the open lane as soon as they see the sign, thus eliminating any traffic from the other lane.  If any drivers use the open lane and try to nudge in to the longer line, road rage can occur.  Vanderbilt suggested that ‘Lane Closed’ signs be moved way up and much closer to the actual construction and that prominent signs on the closed lane read ‘Merge Now’, and signs on the open, waiting line say ‘Merging Permitted’.  This would encourage drivers to use both lanes and eliminate any sense of unfairness.

Another queuing theory which reflects the fairness principle is Express Lanes at the supermarket:

Fairness also dictates that the length of a line should be commensurate with the value of the product or service for which we’re waiting. The more valuable it is, the longer one is willing to wait for it. Hence the supermarket express line, a rare, socially sanctioned violation of first come first served, based on the assumption that no reasonable person thinks a child buying a candy bar should wait behind an old man stocking up on provisions for the Mayan apocalypse.

All these cases are examples of no-cost innovative solutions which deflect consumer complaints and on occasion actually raise revenue.  The most interesting example I have heard of recently is the removal of trays at college cafeterias.  Studies found that if students were required to use only their plates for servings and had to make extra trips for seconds, salads, or desserts, they made fewer trips.  Not only did administrative costs go down (no trays, no washing, stacking, etc.) but plate waste dwindled, and best of all, weight gain, the famous Freshman Fifteen was curtailed. 

Businesses are built on lowering cost, increasing volume, and maximizing profits. Customer satisfaction is at the heart of sales.   No-cost interventions that lower cost or increase volume are great in themselves, but if they do both, they are perfect.

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