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Chronicles from a Caribbean Cubicle

3/09/2006

Waiting and the Customer Experience

One of our recent clients is a financial institution serving Caribbean customers. Their interest is in boosting customer service levels, and hopefully gaining a competitive advantage that will result in greater market-share, margins and profits.

This shouldn't be too hard.

The service rendered by the financial houses in the region is seen by most as mediocre at best, and no company stands out in either the research or in anecdotes in the level of service provided. Our job is to find clues that will assist the client in gaining all that it can to break out of the pack.

One clue that we have found has to do with waiting.

Waiting times, according to the research conducted by De Man, Vandaele and Gemmel of the University of Gent, can be seen to be made up of two parts that seem to be approximately equal in weight: the actual wait, as measured in minutes and hours, and the perceived wait as determined by the experience of the customer. It is becoming clear from the research that if a company is committed to providing better service in this area, then it must become skillful in reducing both kinds of waiting time simultaneously.

To put it simply, at the end of the day it is the customer's experience that counts, and little else, in defining the level of service delivered.

As a formally trained Operations Researcher, I learned a multiplicity of of tools that can be used to tackle the problem of reducing measured waiting times, ranging from queuing theory to digital simulation, to stochastic modeling. Fortunately for me, I have completely forgotten how to use them!

These tools are helpful, but when used in isolation they are less than useful. Millions of dollars can be spent on process changes that end up making no difference to the customer's perception.

On the other hand, a company that systematically addresses not just measured times but psychological waiting time is marching more in time to Einstein's tune, in which time (and space) are relative phenomena. His theories were proven decades after he developed them when empirical evidence was gathered that showed that he was correct in his thinking.

The University of Gent researchers conducted the first empirical study to prove what many researcher have been saying since the early 1990's -- there are specific techniques that can be used to improve customer satisfaction. Some of the techniques include:
  • telling the customer how long a wait is likely to be
  • explaining why the wait will be as long as it will be
  • advising and updating the customer on the progress of the activities on which they are waiting
  • providing effective distractions for the customer that occupy their attention during the wait
Each of these techniques has been found to be useful in changing the customer's perception of the length of the wait, and their overall perception of the quality of service being received.

Here in the Caribbean, banking is seen as one of those exceedingly time-wasting activities, moreso than many other activities that take less measured time. People carry books, radios and family members to their lines at financial institutions -- anything to alter what for many is often a mind-numbing experience.

Most banks provide little more than an extremely sterile and secure environment, free of amenities such as bathrooms, and distractions of any kind. Many are quite proud of this fact. Some are even intent on making it hard for customers to stay in the establishment for too long a time, and are quick to usher them out the door, or encourage them to go elsewhere.

The first financial insitution in the region that is able to change this important aspect of the customer's experience would win my business, and probably that of many others.

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