The Check-Out Line and Hold Button Have Glaring Similarities

NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 24:  Travelers wait in lin...

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The Wall Street Journal had a great article this morning about the science of finding the best check-out line. Within the article, it talked about what happens when you are in queue for a period of time:

Envirosell, a retail consultancy, has timed shoppers in line with a stopwatch to determine how real wait times compared with how long shoppers felt they had waited. Up to about two to three minutes, the perception of the wait “was very accurate,” says Paco Underhill, Envirosell’s founding president and author of the retail-behavior bible “Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping.”

But after three minutes, the perceived wait time multiplied with each passing minute. “So if the person was actually waiting four minutes, the person said ‘I’ve been waiting five or six minutes.’ If they got to five minutes, they would say ‘I’ve been waiting 10 minutes,'” Mr. Underhill says.

It confirms exactly what we’ve known about customers placed on hold for many years. Put a caller on hold for a minute or two and they typically don’t mind. There’s something that happens, however, between the two and three minute hold. Customers who hit that third minute on hold begin to get anxious. The perceived length of time on hold becomes inflated. They’ve been on hold for just over three minutes but if you ask them they’ll tell you it was ten.

The hold button can be a useful tool to help CSRs avoid dead air or allow CSRs a moment to get information together and confidently prepare their response before addressing the customer. If you leave the customer for too long, however, it’s going to come back to bite you. When using the hold button, remember:

  1. Ask the caller’s permission to place him/her on hold. Customers like to feel that they have control and a say in the service they receive. Forcing the customer to hold or placing a customer on hold without permission runs the risk of the customer feeling they are getting the runaround.
  2. If possible, give the customer a realistic time frame. Many customers feel lied to when a CSR said “Let me put you on hold for a second” only to be gone for three minutes. By telling the customer her or she will be on hold “for a minute or two” is more honest and better manages expectations.
  3. Check back after two minutes. If it’s been two minutes and you’re still working on the issue then return to the line, apologize for the wait, explain that you’re still working on it, and give the customer the option of remaining on hold or receiving a call back in a set period of time.

Call Center managers or supervisors would do well to find a way to give CSRs a two minute countdown timer that starts when they hit the hold button and reminds them when the two minutes has lapsed.

Armed with the knowledge of what we know to be true about customers, we can better manage the process of asking the customer to hold while we serve them.

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  3 comments for “The Check-Out Line and Hold Button Have Glaring Similarities

  1. Anonymous
    December 13, 2011 at 7:50 pm

    Checking back in can make the world of difference. It let’s them know you haven’t forgotten about them and sent them off to hold button purgatory. Plenty of customers will just hang up if they feel abandoned after too long on hold.

  2. Jlevy
    December 14, 2011 at 4:09 am

    Self-service customer care is growing… Would like your opinion by taking this 2-minute survey: http://twtpoll.com/aa8zcg

  3. February 15, 2012 at 6:54 pm

    The countdown timer works wonders. My team had great hold-time protocol, the best in the department, after I provided them with a countdouwn timer and gave them instructions on how I wanted them to use it. It was also useful for after-call work.

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