When you’re doing something you love, time seems to fly by, but if you’re bored to the point of tears, minutes can seem like hours. And what’s more boring than waiting in line? As the owner or manager of a business, you can improve your customer’s queue experience by implementing a little psychology to make wait times seem like nothing at all.

The Psychology of Service

First, it’s important to take into account a customer’s expectations: What do they want from your business and how do they think their experience in your care will be? In a perfect world, we would meet each and every customer’s expectations to the letter, but unfortunately, we know the reality is that this can’t always happen.

Expectations come to a head in the form of perception: How does the customer feel about their experience? Even if you couldn’t meet all of the customer’s expectations, their perception of the experience in your shop is invaluable. A good perception of their experience means they’ll consider becoming repeat customers and possibly pass on word-of-mouth advertising to their friends and family. A bad perception of your customer service could mean a loss of that customer’s future business and potentially bad reviews.

Perception and expectations are both psychological. It would be nice if they were rooted in fact and while they often are, this isn’t always the case. As a business owner, you need to consider three different facets:  What the customer expects, what you actually did for them and how they felt about it. When it comes to wait times and queue management, things can get a little hairy.

You Can Make Time Fly By

Most customers don’t expect a wait time. So it’s of vital importance to make wait times seem as miniscule as possible – altering the customer’s perception while trying to meet their expectations. One way to do this is by occupying the customer’s time. Time spent doing something, even a passive activity, seems to go by quicker.

One example of occupied wait times is hold music – something customers can listen to when they call your business about a product or service and all of your lines are busy. When you choose a relevant theme or topic to your hold music – one that appeals to your target market – your customers will perceive their wait time as going faster. If you’re a sports bar, for example, you could choose to play highlights from last week’s big game so that customers on hold will have something engaging and relevant to pass the time until you can take their call.

Conversely, if you choose generic muzak from a generation prior to your target market’s age group, don’t expect your customers to be too pleased with their wait time experience. They have nothing to relate to. What was meant to occupy their time is quite possibly seen as an annoyance, making time feel like it’s passing slowly.

Reassuring Your Customers Helps

In-person queue management is a little bit different – you have to consider the customer’s physical comfort. Are you making your customers stand in line for long waits? Try offering some seating options and a system – either number tickets or a list of who showed up when – and letting your customers relax while they wait to be served. Again, having something your customers can engage in will make time seem to go more quickly and lead to an improved customer perception.

Another consideration when implementing a queue management system is customer anxiety. If you’ve ever waited to board a plane, you may recognize that familiar feeling of tension when you think (no matter how unrealistically) that not everyone will get on board. That’s customer anxiety in a nutshell. By reassuring your queued-up customers and stomping out the anxiety over waiting in line, you’ll improve the queue experience.

Similarly, finite periods seem to move more quickly than uncertain times. If you tell your customers that someone will get to them in five to ten minutes, they’ll be less anxious over seeing someone about your product or service and they’ll be more likely to exercise patience when queuing up. In person, this can equate to having an announcement over your sound system of the expected wait time. A phone message telling the customer their place in the queue is equally effective.

Fairness and Value Impact the Ability to Wait

The importance of customer perception and queue management can’t be stressed enough: Research has shown that waits that seem unfair are perceived as longer than waits that are equitable. Let’s say you have a number system policy in effect. If there’s no way for customers to check what number is currently being served, they might get agitated because it feels like people are cutting in line – even if they aren’t. Manage this perception and cut anxiety by figuring out a way to assure people that everyone will be served in due – and fair – time.

The customer’s perception of your product value also affects their ability to wait. The more valuable your service is to the customer, the more likely they are to sit (or stand) patiently in line until someone can help them. A person trying to catch a subway train is going to see that as a valuable service – it’s their mode of transportation, after all, and they will tolerate long wait times since they value the service. That same person might not tolerate a two minute wait while on the phone with customer service personnel because it just doesn’t hold the same urgency and value to them. The more you sell the value of your service, the longer your customers will wait patiently.

Foster a Sense of Community

Finally, try to foster a sense of community in your queued up customers. “Group waiting” is more tolerable and seems quicker than individual, solo wait periods. Customers camped out in line for concert tickets or waiting for stores to open on Black Friday, for example, often form little groups because a feeling of camaraderie is present. This can make wait times – often very long ones – much more tolerable. Foster that group mentality and customers will hang in there.

The bottom line is that by providing a relevant, meaningful activity to pass the time, coupled with managing the customer’s perceptions against their expectations, you’ll be able to effectively manage a queue. If you make waiting in line part of the fun – part of the experience of your business, which you’ve made seem quite valuable – then customers will wait for you.