Consumers' Reactions to Waiting: When Delays Affect the Perception of Service Quality

Laurette Dube-Rioux, Cornell University
Bernd H. Schmitt, Columbia University
France Leclerc, Cornell University
ABSTRACT - In two experimental studies we tested the prediction derived from Lewin's field theory that consumers who encounter a delay during the preprocess and post-process phase of a restaurant visit will evaluate the service provided more negatively than customers who experience a delay during the in-process phase. We further predicted that the degree of uncertainty about the length of the delay and an individual's need state would influence his or her perception of a delay and evaluation of the restaurant service. Results of experiment 1 strongly supported the point of delay hypothesis. In experiment 2, we found an interaction of need state and point of delay. The certainty hypothesis did not receive empirical support.
[ to cite ]:
Laurette Dube-Rioux, Bernd H. Schmitt, and France Leclerc (1989) ,"Consumers' Reactions to Waiting: When Delays Affect the Perception of Service Quality", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 16, eds. Thomas K. Srull, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 59-63.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 16, 1989      Pages 59-63

CONSUMERS' REACTIONS TO WAITING: WHEN DELAYS AFFECT THE PERCEPTION OF SERVICE QUALITY

Laurette Dube-Rioux, Cornell University

Bernd H. Schmitt, Columbia University

France Leclerc, Cornell University

ABSTRACT -

In two experimental studies we tested the prediction derived from Lewin's field theory that consumers who encounter a delay during the preprocess and post-process phase of a restaurant visit will evaluate the service provided more negatively than customers who experience a delay during the in-process phase. We further predicted that the degree of uncertainty about the length of the delay and an individual's need state would influence his or her perception of a delay and evaluation of the restaurant service. Results of experiment 1 strongly supported the point of delay hypothesis. In experiment 2, we found an interaction of need state and point of delay. The certainty hypothesis did not receive empirical support.

Waiting can be time-consuming, annoying, and incredibly frustrating. Just imagine how many hours you spent last year in check-out lines in hotels, or how restless you got waiting in line for theater tickets or waiting to be seated in a restaurant. Perhaps you can also recall other occasions that were less inconvenient or situations when waiting was, in fact, a pleasant delay. Depending on the context, a delay may be experienced as an enjoyable pastime or as an inexcusable imposition. It may pass quickly or it may seem to last forever. How do consumers respond to different waiting situations? What are the determinants of their psychological reactions to such situations? Can a delay influence consumers' overall evaluation of a product or service?

Waiting is a complex phenomenon to which a consumer often reacts in an emotional way. Waiting is often psychologically painful, because it causes us to renounce more productive and rewarding ways of using our time and because it may increase the investment that we have to make to obtain a product or service. Waiting may also be costly in and of itself as we become aware of the passage of time. In other words, there are both extrinsic disadvantages of waiting (e.g., profitable alternatives foregone) and intrinsic costs (Schwartz, 1975).

The study of waiting and delays is relevant, in particular, to services marketing. Unlike consumer goods, many of which are produced in remote factories and stored in warehouses before they are delivered for sale, services cannot be inventoried. Services extend over time and, in most cases, they are produced, delivered, and consumed during a single encounter. Therefore delays undermine the efficiency with which these systems conduct their businesses; in turn, delays may affect consumers' perception of the quality of a service as well as their overall evaluation of the service.

Although many delays are caused by inefficiencies in the service delivery process, waiting in some service situations seems to be almost unavoidable. For example, consumers often do not arrive at a restaurant at equal interval sequences but rather in a less predictable fashion. Moreover, some individuals may encroach upon the service time of others and cause them to wait. Managers may have difficulties regulating such waiting situations. Yet even in those situations, a service provider may be able to decrease the negative impact of such delays if he or she has some knowledge of the situational factors that influence consumers' reactions to delay. By uncovering the factors that influence psychological reactions to waiting and the contexts in which those factors occur, managers can have a significant impact upon consumers' satisfaction with the service encounter.

Maister (1985) has proposed several situational effects on consumers' perception of waiting. Among others, he suggested the following four propositions: (1) Unoccupied time feels longer than occupied time; (2) preprocess waits feel longer than in-process waits; (3) uncertain waits are longer than known, finite waits; (4) unexplained waits are longer than explained waits.

Maister's assertions are intuitively plausible but none of them has been tested empirically. Nor have Maister or any other researcher made an attempt lo relate these propositions to a broader theoretical framework. In our research, we related Maister's propositions to a prominent social-psychological theory, namely Kurt Lewin's (1943) field theory. Despite its integrative power as a general framework for the study of consumer behavior related phenomena, field theory has been largely ignored in the marketing literature (Kassarjian 1973). In two experiments we tested the above propositions on waiting in the context of a service encounter in a restaurant. A restaurant setting was selected because the phases of the service process in a restaurant are relatively distinct and occur successively; moreover, they cover the experience of the whole service.

An individual's visit to a restaurant may be divided into three relatively distinct phases: a preprocess phase from a customer's arrival at the restaurant until he or she orders the meal; an in-process phase that includes placing orders and consuming the meal, and a post-process phase from paying the bill until the customer leaves the restaurant. During each of these phases, there is a "natural intermission" that customers expect to encounter. However, what happens if this natural intermission extends beyond customers' expectations and causes a delay?

Following Lewin's field theory, we predicted that delays at different phases of the restaurant visit will have differential effects on customers' reactions. We further predicted that the degree of uncertainty about the length of the delay and an individual's need state would influence his or her perception of a delay and evaluation of the restaurant service.

According to Kurt Lewin's field theory, a individual's behavior (including his or her cognitions and feelings) is the result of the psychological forces acting upon the individual at a given time (Lewin, 1943). Psychological forces correspond to a relation between at least two regions of the individual's life -space. They depend upon the strength of the individual's needs (internal forces) and upon the nature of the region (external forces and barriers). According to Lewin, changes in an individual's feelings, cognitions and behavior are the result of changes in the constellation of the psychological forces acting upon the individual.

The closer an individual is to a goal, the more pressing the forces are toward the goal. On the other hand, when the individual gets into the region of the go-al, the pressure is relieved. Thus, a barrier (e. g., a delay) occurring during the F e-process phase should -be experienced as more unpleasant by the individual than a delay occurring during the in-process phase. In the restaurant situation, a delay may, of course, also occur during the post-process phase. For example, after consumption a customer may wish to leave but still has to wait for the bill. According to Lewin, in the post-process phase an activity becomes satiated, and the customer, perhaps already striving for other goals, is motivated to terminate the activity. As a consequence, the customer will become upset if the termination of the process is blocked (Karsten, 1976). Just think about your natural tendency to rush toward the exit after an airplane has reached the gate. At this point, the flight is over and you are motivated to terminate the process because other goals are on your mind. Thus, field theory would predict that a delay occurring during the post-process phase will be as unpleasant as one occurring during the pre-process phase and will definitely be worse than a delay occurring in-process (Karsten, 1976). These predictions derived from field theory are closely related to Maister's propositions 1 and 2.

Field theory also makes predictions about the effect of uncertainty on the dynamics of forces (Lewin, 1946). According to Lewin, being in an unstructured surrounding is an unpleasant experience, because it is not clear whether a certain action will lead to or away from a goal. Consequently, a high level of uncertainty should increase the negative effect of a barrier on the way to the goal--a prediction that is very similar to Maister's propositions 3 and 4.

Beyond Maister's propositions, Lewin's (1943) field theory proposes that different levels of need create forces of different strength and, as a consequence, more or less pressure toward the goal. Thus a delay occurring when an individual is very hungry should be more unpleasant than when an individual is less hungry.

In sum, based on Lewin's field theory we derived the following predictions which are consistent with Maister's propositions: (1) Pre-process and postprocess delays will be perceived as more inconvenient, frustrating and inappropriate than in-process delays; moreover, the quality of the service will be rated lower and the consumer will be less likely to return to the restaurant for another visit. (2) Under conditions of high uncertainty about the length of the delay, the delay will be perceived as more negative than under conditions of low uncertainty. (3) Individuals will perceive a delay as more negative if they are in a high need state (very hungry) than in a low need state. Predictions 1 and 2 were tested in experiment 1, and predictions 1 and 3 were tested in experiment 2.

EXPERIMENT 1

Method

Subjects were 113 undergraduates (53 males, 60 females), enrolled in a marketing course at the School of Hotel Administration at Cornell University. The study, conducted at the end of a regular class session, was presented as a study on service delivery processes. Subjects were asked to read a scenario of a restaurant visit. Subsequently, they indicated on five nine-point scales (1) how they would rate the quality of the service provided by the restaurant on this occasion ("very low quality - very high quality"); (2) how likely it is that they would come back to the restaurant ("very unlikely - very likely") and (3) how inconvenient ("not at all inconvenient - very convenient"), frustrating ("not at all frustrating - very frustrating") and inappropriate ("not at all inappropriate - very inappropriate) the delay was. The latter three dependent variables were scored in a reverse direction.

The experiment took the form of a 3 x 2 factorial design. "Point of delay" (pre-process, in-process, post-process) was crossed with "levels of uncertainty" (high/low). A between-subjects design was selected to avoid demand characteristics. Subjects were randomly assigned to one of the six experimental conditions .

Other factors that may possibly influence subjects' responses were controlled. Specifically, the physical comfort provided during the delay, the social surrounding during waiting, the cost of alternative time allocation, the amount of excuse and explanation provided, and the individual's need state were held constant (as much as possible) in the different scenarios. In each scenario. after the delay had occurred, the service person apologized for the delay and provided the service.

Great care was taken to ensure the ecological validity of the scenarios. In a pretest, subjects' expectations about normal intermission times were assessed for the three phases and specified accordingly in the scenarios. The waiting time exceeded the expected intermission time by the same amount in each scenario.

The basic situation provided to all subjects was the following:

Beginning of scenario

It is Saturday evening. You and your friend have decided to have dinner with another couple. You have selected an elegant, yet reasonably priced restaurant serving French cuisine. You have made reservations for 7 p.m. The four of you had a beer at a nearby bar and arrive at the restaurant at 7 p.m.

In the following parts of the scenarios, the two independent variables were operationalized. In order to operationalize "point of delay," the delay occurred at different points in the different scenarios. In the Low Uncertainty condition, the service person explicitly stated how long the delay would take. The following scenarios were used in the Low Uncertainty condition. (In the High Uncertainty conditions the length of the delay was left unspecified.)

Pre-process delay

The hostess greets you, acknowledges your reservation and asks you to have a seat in a nice waiting room. She asks you if you would like to have a drink or wine, but you decide to wait. You expect that you may have to wait for about ten minutes. After ten minutes the hostess returns and apologizes that, for some unforeseen reason, your table will not be available for another 20 minutes. After 20 minutes, she returns to tell you that your table is ready. The evening proceeds quite pleasantly; the food and the wine are good, and the service is nice and well-paced.

In process delay

The hostess greets you and acknowledges your reservation. She walks you to your table and presents you with your menus: The waiter comes to take your order about ten minutes later. You order a bottle of wine which you wish to have served with the main entree. You expect your appetizers to be served within the next ten minutes, but after ten minutes you still have to wait. After another 20 minutes the waiter returns to serve the appetizers; he apologizes and explains that the delay has happened for some unforeseen reason. The evening proceeds quite pleasantly; the food and the wine are good, and the service is nice and well-paced.

Post process delay

The hostess greets you, acknowledges your reservation and walks you to your table. Your orders are taken and the dinner is served. The food and the wine are good and the service is nice throughout the course of the meal. You ask for your bill and expect to receive the bill within the next ten minutes, but after ten minutes you still have to wait. After another 20 minutes the waiter returns with your bill; he apologizes and explains that the delay has happened for some unforeseen reason. You pay and leave the restaurant

Results

Because the five dependent measures were significantly intercorrelated, a factor analysis was conducted to reduce the number of dependent variables. Only one factor had an eigenvalue bigger than 1 (eigenvalue = 3.0) and explained 61% of the variance. The loadings of each variable on the factor exceeded .70. The factor could easily be interpreted as "overall evaluation of the restaurant service." Each subject's factor score was computed and used as the dependent variable.

The means of the factor scores for subjects in each experimental condition are shown in Table 1; higher means indicate a more positive evaluation. A 3x2 ANOVA was conducted on the factor scores. The main effect of certainty and the interaction effect were not significant. However, as predicted, "point of delay" produced a significant main effect (F[1,100)= 6.41, p < .01). In order to test our specific predictions that in process delays are perceived as less negative than both pre-process and post-process delays, two orthogonal contrasts were computed. The contrasts revealed that, as predicted, there was a significant difference between in-process and the other two delays (M = 0.42 vs. M = -.01 and M = -.38) (F[1,1003 = 10.00, p< .01) but no significant difference between pre-process and post-process.

In sum, experiment 1 provided strong support for our predictions concerning customers' reactions to delays that occur during different phases of a restaurant visit. Subjects were more upset when the delay occurred before they ordered their meals or once they had asked for the check than when the delay occurred in the middle of the dining experience.

EXPERIMENT: 2

Method

The same subjects as in experiment 1 participated in experiment 2. The dependent variables were identical to the ones used in experiment 1. In experiment 2, "process phase" was limited to preprocess and in-process; the two levels of need were operationalized as absence or presence of hunger. The study took the form of a 2x2 orthogonal design and subjects were randomly assigned to one of the four experimental conditions. In order to provide some variety to our subjects, the basic scenario was slightly changed.

Beginning of scenario

You and your friends have been working all morning on a group project and after three hours of intense work, the group decides to have lunch at a "pizza place" close to campus.

In the following sentence "need level" was operationalized.

TABLE 1

MEAN EVALUATION SCORES AS A FUNCTION OF POINT OF DELAY AND DEGREE OF UNCERTAINTY

Low Need

Having had breakfast at 7 a.m. and a snack at 10:30, you are not really hungry, but you decide lo come along.

High Need

In the High Need condition subjects read: Having had breakfast at 7a.m. and nothing since then, you are very hungry.

The scenarios continued in the following way:

Pre-process delay

The restaurant is busy at lunch hour, but there are always some tables available. You sit down at one of them. Usually, it takes about a five-minutes wait before the waiter comes to take your order. Today, five minutes have passed and you end up waiting another ten minutes before the waiter comes. He apologizes and explains that some unforeseen reason has caused the delay. He takes your orders. The food is good and served without any further delay.

In-process delay

The restaurant is busy at lunch hour but there are always some tables available. You sit down at one of them. The waiter arrives and takes your orders. Usually, it takes about a 15-minutes wait to be served. Today, 15 minutes have passed and you end up waiting another ten minutes before the pizza is served. The waiter apologizes and explains that some unforeseen reason has caused the delay. The food is good and no further delay occurs.

Results

Like in experiment 1, the five dependent measures were significantly intercorrelated and a factor analysis was conducted. Based on a scree plot, the one-factor solution was selected. The factor explained 61% of the variance, and the loadings of each variable on the factor exceeded .6. The factor could again be interpreted as "overall evaluation of the restaurant service."

Table 2 shows the mean evaluation scores in the four experimental conditions. A 2x2 ANOVA conducted on the factor scores revealed one significant effect: an interaction of "need state" and "phase when the delay occurs" (F[1,100] = 3.90, p = .05). As Table 2 shows, in the Low Need condition, the restaurant was evaluated more negatively when the delay occurred in-process rather than pre-process (M = -.13 vs. M = .23). In the High Need condition the effect was reversed; the restaurant was evaluated more negatively when the delay occurred before rather than after ordering the food (M = -.26 vs M = .16).

FINAL DISCUSSION

Following Lewin's field theory, we predicted that delays at different phases of a restaurant visit will have differential effects on customers' reactions. We further predicted that the degree of uncertainty about the length of the delay and an individual's need state would influence his or her perception of a delay and the evaluation of the restaurant service.

In study 1, we found strong support for our first hypothesis. The same length of a delay had different consequences depending upon when it happened. OUT results have clear implications for restaurant management. Restaurant managers should arrange their business (e.g., through scheduling of reservations, employment of personnel etc.) so that their customers will not be annoyed at the beginning or end of their restaurant visit. Customers, on the other hand, seem to be more understanding when the actual dinner is delayed.

Contrary to our predictions, we found no significant uncertainty effect. The fact that consumers were given explicit information or no information about the potential length of the delay did not make a difference. One reason for this negative result may be the fact that subjects may have had some difficulty putting themselves, through mental simulation, in a condition of high versus low uncertainty. This problem points to the need to verify the results of our simulation study in an actual restaurant setting.

TABLE 2

MEAN EVALUATION SCORES AS A FUNCTION OF POINT OF DELAY AND NEED LEVEL

In contrast to Lewin's prediction of a main effect for need state, we found an interesting crossover interaction between need state and point of delay in experiment 2. Our results make sense when interpreted in the specific context of hunger. A hungry person may perceive ordering as a subgoal toward need satisfaction and be more upset when even this subgoal is blocked by a barrier. On the other hand, a person who is not hungry when he or she arrives at a restaurant may get his or her palate stimulated only after having read the menu and may then get upset if the meal does not arrive during the expected time frame.

There is not only a need to replicate our studies in a field setting, but also to extend our results to other service encounters. Although a restaurant setting seemed to be ideal for testing our hypotheses, it may be that our results do not generalize to other services (e.g., an airline trip, a theater performance) in which the phases are more temporally separated. In those cases, delay during one phase (e.g., while purchasing tickets) may have local effects only and may not influence the total service experience.

REFERENCES

Karsten, A. (1976), "Mental Satiation-The Transformation of Activities," in Field Theory as Human Science: Contributions of Lewin's Berlin Group, ed. John De Rivera, New York: Gardner Press, 208-235.

Kassarjian, Harold H. (1973), "Field Theory in Consumer Behavior", in Consumer Behavior: Theoretical Sources, eds. Scott Ward and Thomas S. Robertson, Englewood Cliffs NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1 18-140.

Lewin, Kurt (1943), "Defining the Field at a Given Time". Psychological Review, 50, 292-310.

Lewin, Kurt (1946), "Behavior and Development as a Function of the Total Situation," in Manual of Child Psychology, ed. L. Carmichael, New York: Wiley and Sons, 791-844.

Maister, David. H. {1985), "The Psychology of Waiting Lines", in The Service Encounter. Managing Employee/Customer Interaction in Service Businesses, eds. John A. Czepiel, Michael R. Solomon and Carol F. Surprenant, Lexington: Lexington Books, 113-' 23.

Schwartz, B. (1975), Queuing and Waiting, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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