Customers and Wait Times


We human beings have a very curious perception of time.

Experiments and analysis have shown that when people wait for something for up to 90 seconds, their perception of how much has elapsed is accurate. If someone is waiting in a bank line for 60 seconds, and you walk up and ask that person how long they’ve been waiting, they’ll say for about “one minute”.

However! Beyond 90 seconds, a person’s time perception begins to distort. If you ask them how long they’ve been waiting, their answer will usually be a very exaggerated one. If it’s been two minutes, they’ll say it’s been three or four.

I’m sure you’ve experienced this yourself. Go back and think about the last time you waited at a stop light in traffic that was unusually long. Even better, think about the last time you were in your car, and suddenly, without planning on it, you had to wait for a train that crossed the street in front of you.

In these cases, you probably felt like it was an eternity, like you were really spending a long time, when in fact it may have only been about four or five minutes.

The reason for this time distortion is because at the 90 second mark, a waiting period goes from being a transactional pause to a full fledged activity on its own. If you went to the grocery store and only waited in the checkout line for 90 seconds, then when you left the store, in your mind you “went to the store”. However, if you had to wait four minutes in the checkout line, then you “went to the store” AND “waited in line”. To your mind, you did two different things. The fact that there’s barely any difference between 90 seconds and four minutes is completely irrelevant.

It helps to be aware of this not only for yourself, but for the people you interact with, especially your customers if you have a face-to-face business. A good customer service goal is to service every customer within 90 seconds at best, or at least within two minutes. After about three minutes, you’re really ticking that person off, and whether that person’s irritation is justified or rational is irrelevant.

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