HBR: It pays to underpromise and overdeliver on wait times

UC professor Eric Webb's research cited in Harvard Business Review

People hate waiting. In fact, a recent survey found that wait-related issues are the number-one reason that retailers lose customers, but forcing customers to wait is often unavoidable. That's why it's important for businesses to best minimize the adverse effects of wait times.

Research led by a University of Cincinnati professor was cited in a recent Harvard Business Review column entitled, "When Providing Wait Times, It Pays to Underpromise and Overdeliver." Penned by Quiping Yu, an assistant professor at Georgia Tech University, the column references research that Yu worked on with UC Lindner College of Business assistant professor Eric Webb, academic director of undergraduate programs with the Department of Operations, Business Analytics, and Information Systems.

Webb was the primary author of the research, "Linking Delay Announcements, Abandonment, and Service Time." Webb, Yu and Kurt Bretthauer with Indiana University analyzed more than 50,000 calls to a bank call center to explore the impact of wait time on customers' behavior once they were connected with a representative.

"We found that customers who waited longer than the expected wait time ended up also spending longer on the call once they were connected," Yu wrote. "This may be because customers who were forced to wait longer than expected spent more time complaining, or felt the need to ask for additional services in order to justify the extra time spent waiting."

The research suggests that by providing pessimistic wait times and then exceeding customer expectations, companies can induce customers to work more quickly to get their issues resolved and ultimately take care of more customers in a fixed time period. 

"For example, if a restaurant provides more pessimistic estimates, their customers are likely to finish their meals more quickly, increasing the restaurant’s total throughput," Yu wrote. 

Other findings in the column: Providing customers with wait-time estimates lowers overall wait times; pessimistic wait-time estimates are preferable to optimistic ones; and more frequent progress updates improve the customer experience.