This article was originally published in 2015 and has been completely updated in 2020.
As a customer, I had a disappointing ‘moment of truth’ recently when I went to a major discount drugstore (pharmacy) to get a prescription filled. Had to wait 35 minutes, which seemed like an eternity, and it made me late for a meeting. Apparently a pharmacist was off sick, so they dropped well behind in filling prescriptions. But not a word to waiting customers to explain this.
They could have easily put up a little sign explaining customers would have to wait a bit longer than usual for service due to staff sickness and that people in a hurry could leave their prescriptions to be filled and picked up later. They could also have arranged for the sales assistant to mention to each customer they were running behind. But not a word. If they had kept customers in the loop, people would have been understanding. Instead, I saw angry customers ask for their prescriptions back so they could take their business elsewhere. This customer anger and frustration could have been avoided if the firm had kept its customers informed.
Image: Professor Robert Cialdini
In the same way, persuasion guru Robert Cialdini summarized research that found when you give a reason to people for your decision or action, their cooperation rises by around 50%. A spectacular increase in compliance! At the most basic level, you can use the word ‘because…’ to achieve the magic increase: eg “Would you be able to do this because…?” People like to have reasons for what they do. This is a well-known principle of human behavior, especially in response to requests for a favor. There are profound lessons from this for dealing with employees, customers and other stakeholders.
Similar implications apply to web visitors, according to researchers Michael Norton and Ryan Buell in their article,“Think Customers Hate Waiting? Not So Fast…“, in the Harvard Business Review of May 2011 (access by subscription). All web users have experienced the wait for digital material to download to our computer. But if you show people what is taking so long, customers are much more patient.
For instance, in one experiment, participants booked a travel trip through two different sites and received identical results. One set of results for the travel bookings was delivered instantly without any indication on-screen of the processing that had taken place, while the other took 30 or 60 seconds, but showed the work being done to get the result. Most people preferred the second site because they could follow progress, even though the results took a lot longer.
Interestingly, the US Postal Service has installed screens to show customers each step in the process of postal workers following up their query. Likewise, international postal and courier services enable you to track the movement of your items across the world via the internet.
Similarly, Apple’s automatic voice response system apparently gives a pre-recorded sound of a person typing while the customer waits in the queue. This gives the perception of working industriously for the customer and is called a ‘labor illusion’. Also, Starbucks now requires each barista to steam milk individually for each customer, which increases waiting time, but allows customers to see what is happening. In this way, smart operations departments are benefiting from keeping customers in the loop.
These examples show that respect for people pays off. If you give them the courtesy of letting them know what is happening, they will respond positively. This amounts to better communication. See if you can think of ways to implement this at an operational level with your organization or clients.
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