In Brief

To keep customers from hanging up, service centers should tell them where they stand in line instead of apologizing for the wait, according to a study in March's Journal of Applied Psychology (Vol. 92, No. 2). What's more, the researchers also found that caller satisfaction was more closely related to their sense that the line moved swiftly than the length of time they thought they had waited, says study author Anat Rafaeli, PhD, a professor of organizational behavior at the Israel Institute of Technology.

Rafaeli and graduate student Nira Munichor set up a system where students who called the psychology lab to sign up for an experiment had to hold for almost two minutes before someone answered their call. One-third of the 123 callers listened to music while they waited, and another third listened to music that was occasionally interrupted by a message apologizing for the wait. The remaining participants' wait-music was punctuated at regular intervals by a message telling them how many people were ahead in line.

Almost 70 percent of the students who heard wait music alone hung up before their call was answered, and adding apologies only brought down the call-abandonment rate to 67 percent. In comparison, just 36 percent of the callers who received information about their progress in line hung up.

In a follow-up experiment, 83 students dialed a simulated call center. As in the first study, they listened to music only, music plus apologies or music plus queue information. The participants indicated at what point in the wait they felt like hanging up. After holding the full 108 seconds, participants reported how much time they thought they had waited, how quickly they felt the queue moved and how satisfied they were with the experience.

Surprisingly, the amount of time participants thought they had waited did not correlate with how satisfied they felt afterward, though their sense of progress did. This suggests that people may prefer long, quickly moving lines to short, stalled ones, says Rafaeli.

"It is not an issue of time; it is an issue of obstacle," says Rafaeli. "What makes me happy is when I realize that I am getting closer to removing this obstacle and getting what I wanted."

The finding may be applicable to other kinds of waiting, Rafaeli says. For instance, people may be willing to wait longer for a Web page to load if they can see its progress, and grocery stores may want to combine the check-out lanes to create one quick-moving line rather than several short, slow lines.

--S. Dingfelder