How Should One Be Told to Hold?

France Leclerc, University of Chicago
ABSTRACT - Please hold, all our agents are presently busy helping other customers! Every one of us has had to listen to this or a similar message while trying to get through to airlines, phone-ordering companies or utilities. In fact, it is common to hear such messages more than once in a single phone call since often the same message is repeated at regular intervals while the caller is waiting for the service provider to answer.
[ to cite ]:
France Leclerc (2001) ,"How Should One Be Told to Hold?", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 28, eds. Mary C. Gilly and Joan Meyers-Levy, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 78.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 28, 2001     Page 78

HOW SHOULD ONE BE TOLD TO HOLD?

France Leclerc, University of Chicago

ABSTRACT -

Please hold, all our agents are presently busy helping other customers! Every one of us has had to listen to this or a similar message while trying to get through to airlines, phone-ordering companies or utilities. In fact, it is common to hear such messages more than once in a single phone call since often the same message is repeated at regular intervals while the caller is waiting for the service provider to answer.

Presumably, one of the objectives of the service provider for using such tactics is to affect how people experience the waiting time. Not surprisingly, the amount of time spent waiting for a service appears to be negatively correlated with customer satisfaction (Clemmer and Schneider 1989). Since reducing waiting time is not always possible (or profitable), managers may opt to rely on tactics that can affect subjective waiting time. As suggested by Maister (1985), if customers are kept busy, the wait should feel shorter. This view would suggest that the more messages heard during the waiting period, the shorter the wait will feel.

Theories of time perception suggest that whether this assumption holds is a function of whether consumers are indeed trying to evaluate the waiting time while they hold. More generally, it has been proposed that when people are told ahead of time to evaluate the length of a time period (prospective judgment), more "events" occurring during this period make the period seem shorter. On the other hand, when people are asked about the length of the time period only after having experienced it (retrospective judgments), the more events, the longer the time period appears. Said differently, when under a prospective mode, consumers seem to process according to an attentional model. The attentional model holds that judged duration is a direct function of the amount of attention paid to the passage of time. The less attention spent focusing on waiting because of distractions the shorter the wait will feel. On the other hand, under a retrospective mode, since there is no memory trace of time, the judgments have to be reconstructed and duration estimations are based on encoded information available in memory. At the time the duration is judged, the person retrieves stimulus information and estimates duration based on the amount of information that was retrieved. Therefore, when a time interval is filled with more events, more informatio, more complex information, or when the interval is more segmented or altered in any other way that would increase the amount of information available in memory, the perceived duration is greater.

Predictions derived from these theories were tested in a laboratory study. Subjects were asked to evaluate a new "phone-ordering" system that was entirely computerized (no human interaction). They were told that they would have to order a good using the new system and would be asked afterwards to evaluate their interaction with the system on a number of dimensions. After having dialed the service, subjects were put on hold for 4 minutes. The temporal paradigm (i.e., whether or not they were explicitly told to attend to the wait per se) was manipulated as well as the messages the subjects heard while waiting. At the end of the wait, subjects were asked how long they had waited.

The pattern of results obtained supports the predictions fully, but only for the female subjects. An additional condition was added to this experiment to contrast the two underlying models (attentional and memory) by independently manipulating the number of messages and the amount of time devoted to messages. In the prospective condition, the amount of time spent listening to the messages affected female subjects’ evaluation of how long the wait was whereas the number of messages did not. As expected, this pattern of results supports the attentional model. In the retrospective condition, however, female subjects’ evaluation of the time waited was affected by the number of messages listened to, but not by the amount of time spent listening to them, supporting the memory model, as predicted.

This research suggests that the tactic of keeping someone busy while waiting will not necessarily lead to consumers remembering the waiting period as shorter. Clearly, a number of other factors have to be considered. This research highlights the challenge of defining optimal managerial practices in this domain.

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