Waiting Games

Waiting is frustrating, demoralizing, agonizing, aggravating, annoying, time consuming, and incredibly expensive. Federal Express

Most of us spend a fair amount of our daily life waiting—waiting for the bus, waiting for the letter in the mail, waiting in line at the market, waiting in a traffic jam, waiting for luggage at the baggage carousel, waiting on the phone to talk to someone, anyone other that an automated voice.

Several months ago Alex Stone wrote an article about this topic in the Times, “Why Waiting is Torture” (8/18/12). Sometimes it does feel a little like torture, doesn’t it? He begins by describing a problem at the Houston airport, one that I am sure is true at most airports, namely, waiting for your bag at the baggage claim area.

It takes forever for the bags to begin rolling out onto the carousel, finally they arrive everyone finds their luggage fairly soon—except you. You begin to wonder if it has been lost once again. Eventually, there it is, all by its lonely self, you grab it, and utter a profanity or two.

In Houston, passengers were lodging a sizable number of complaints at this seemingly endless waiting period. The airport executives added baggage handlers. While the wait time decreased, the complaints didn’t. What to do? They solved the problem in a clever way.

They moved the arrival gates further away from the main terminal and routed the bags to the most distant carousel. As a result, arriving passengers had to walk several minutes longer to get to the baggage claim area. This didn’t seem to be much of a problem. The complaints dropped to “near zero.”

The effect of the increasing walk time points to a more general principle: If you can occupy wait time with some other activity, people won’t grumble so much about long waiting periods. This principle builds on the widely reported fact that perceived wait time is generally overestimated from actual wait time, Stone says by about 36%.

This has led some buildings to place a mirror or bulletin board next to elevator doors. Similarly, call centers play music, often loud, aversive music, during the lengthy period while you wait for “representative.”

Consider other applications of this principle: Delivery services often provide consumers with a tracking number so they can follow the progress of their purchase on its usually circuitous route to you. At more and more multiple roadway intersections, an automated sign is posted indicating the remaining number of seconds before the signal changes.

In tall buildings, the wait time for the arrival of one of several elevators is similarly indicated by a central panel showing the number of the floor the elevators are on and their progress or lack thereof toward your floor. Wouldn’t it be nice if a comparable technique could be employed at bus stops, where the wait time for the next bus going your way seems to be an eternity or while you wait to check out at the supermarket, for a taxi, or delivery of your mail?

All these little distractions sometimes help to pass the time, not much to be sure, but they usually lead to fewer complaints. There are many other situations that stand in need of natural distractions or activities to minimize the overestimation of actual wait time. Doing so would also increase the overall satisfaction of consumers who wait and wait in one queue after another for periods that sometimes border on the intolerable.

Stone concludes, “Americans spend roughly 37 billion hours each year waiting in line. The dominant cost of waiting is an emotional one: stress, boredom, the nagging sensation that one’s life is slipping away….when all else fails, bring a book.”