But, I Don’t Want to Go: Managing Waits for Negative Service Events

Elizabeth G. Miller , Boston College, USA
Barbara E. Kahn , University of Miami, USA
Mary Frances Luce, Duke University, USA

Overview of the Research

The common customer service insight is that consumers hate to wait. Consequently, marketers often hype their earnest attempts to shorten waiting times or, in situations where shortening waits is impossible, they promise to provide customers with information or distractions to make the waiting time more palatable. However, such insights come largely from studies of consumers waiting for neutral or moderately positive events. In our work, we demonstrate that these types of well-meaning wait management strategies may backfire when consumers are waiting for stressful events, such as those related to medical or dental appointments or college or job interviews. Specifically, we show that the effectiveness of wait management strategies depends on both the nature of the waited-for event and how consumers prefer to cope with the event.

We report four experiments that take the perspective that waits themselves can serve a coping function and demonstrate the adverse effects of common wait-management strategies in negative service environments. In non-negative service environments, it is expected that the main source of consumers’ stress will be the wait itself. Thus, any mechanism that reduces this stress (such as information about the remaining waiting time) should be helpful or, at worst, have no effect. In contrast, in negative service environments, consumers may be less concerned about stress due to the wait itself and more concerned about stress due to the impending (negative) event. In such cases, strategies designed to reduce wait-generated stress may actually disrupt the consumers’ ability to cope with event-generated stress, paradoxically resulting in a more stressful overall experience.

Consistent with these hypotheses, we found that, in some cases, consumers actually preferred extra waiting time so that they could cope with the impending event. In an experiment, where participants were required to wait before engaging in a specific task, shorter waiting times and information about how long the wait would be reduced total stress for those waiting for neutral events, but increased total stress for those waiting for negative events.

Although these results are consistent with our hypotheses and economic predictions of time discounting, they appear to contradict work by Loewenstein, who has found that people will pay more to avoid a shock delayed by one year than they will pay to avoid an immediate shock. Our work differs from Loewenstein’s in that he focused on the experience of dread associated with a long waiting period (e.g., from 3 hours to one year), while we focus on waits that are shortened to fall below expectations. In addition, Loewenstein suggests his participants prefer to speed up negative events because they imagine spending their waiting time dwelling on the dreaded event itself. Our perspective suggests that participants’ wait-focused coping resources could be used during an extended wait, potentially reducing dread. Loewenstein’s participants may underestimate these potential coping effects, consistent with work suggesting that people often mispredict their reactions, at least in part because they fail to consider the impact of their own coping efforts.

Consistent with our coping arguments, in the realm of negative events, the effectiveness of different wait management strategies depended on consumers’ personal coping strategies. Two categories of coping strategies were examined. “Approach” coping strategies are those where consumers try to make the best of things by doing as much as they can to mitigate the problem, such as seeking information or identifying and implementing a plan. “Avoidance” coping strategies are ones where consumers try not to focus on the problem so that they can prevent the anxiety from becoming overwhelming; such strategies include distraction, passivity, and wishful thinking. We found that decreasing the length of the wait increased stress for those using approach-oriented strategies (compared to those using avoidance strategies), while providing duration information increased stress for those using avoidance-oriented strategies.

Significance of the Research

Our work provides a new perspective on managing waits. While research has historically viewed waits as something negative that should be reduced, we demonstrate that the validity of this assumption is contingent on the situation. By considering the wait as one part of an entire experience, one can identify activities that can be conducted during the wait to improve the customers’ overall evaluation of the experience. As our findings show, such activities may or may not be consistent with traditional wait management strategies. The effectiveness of the wait management strategy will depend on both the nature of the waited-for event and the preferred coping strategies of the individual.

Implications for Marketers

The overall implication of our work is that managers should consider the valence of the awaited event (i.e., whether the event is positive or negative) when designing or choosing wait management strategies. More generally, managers should be careful when exporting wait management strategies that have worked in one environment to another environment. Wait management strategies that work for theme parks or even for banks may backfire in some airport or specific hospital settings.

Further, our studies highlight that consumers’ coping strategies can impact the effectiveness of different wait management strategies. Consequently, managers may be able to use approach- versus avoidance-oriented coping as a potential segmentation variable. It is possible that avoidance-oriented coping may be more prevalent the closer one gets to the aversive event, and thus, wait management strategies could be adjusted accordingly.

In summary, in order to implement successful wait management strategies that will decrease customer anxiety, marketing managers must examine the overall customer experience, including the valence of the event (i.e., whether the event is positive or negative) and the coping orientation of the consumer. The waiting time must be considered as one component of the total overall experience. Traditional strategies that focus only on the wait and not the overall experience may result in wait management strategies that can exacerbate overall customer satisfaction rather than improve it.

Journal Article on which this article is based:

Miller, Elizabeth G, Barbara E Kahn, and Mary Frances Luce (2008), “Consumer Wait Management Strategies for Negative Service Events: A Coping Approach,” Journal of Consumer Research, 34 (5), forthcoming.

Related Sources of Information

Duhachek, Adam (2005), “Coping: A multidimensional, hierarchical framework of responses to stressful consumption episodes,” Journal of Consumer Research, 32 (June), 41-53.

Durrande-Moreau, Agnès (1999), “Waiting for service: ten years of empirical research,” International Journal of Service Industry Management, 10 (2), 171-89.

Loewenstein, George (1987), “Anticipation and the valuation of delayed consumption,” The Economic Journal, 97 (September), 666-84.

Morgan, Ivor and Jay Rao (2006), “Growing negative services,” MIT Sloan Management Review, 47 (3), 69-74.

Nie, Winter (2000), “Waiting: Integrating social and psychological perspectives in operations management,” Omega: The International Journal of Management Science, 28 (6), 611-29.

Taylor, Shirley (1994), “Waiting for service: The relationship between delays and evaluation of service,” Journal of Marketing, 58 (2), 56-69.