The Power of Wait Time in Driving the Customer Experience

26 min read

What are the Problems in the CX World? | Gabe Larsen and Vikas Bhambri

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In this episode of the Customer Service Secrets Podcast, Gabe Larsen is joined by Tom Rieger from NSI, to learn about customer retention through enhancing wait times. While this is a hot topic in the industry, companies seem to be missing the mark. Tom teaches us everything we need to know in the podcast below. Listen along to learn more. 

The Science of Wait Times and Rewarding Customers

We’ve all been there – waiting for what seems like hours, listening to horrible elevator music, hoping that at some point, someone picks up to solve our problem. It seems that many companies are handling wait time wrong. Either they put the customer on hold for too long because they don’t have enough resources to answer efficiently or they haven’t utilized data to their advantage to better understand the customer’s problems. In the CX world, wait times are inevitable and it’s impossible to deliver a good experience when agents are overwhelmed. Little do people know there’s a science to perfecting the wait time. When we get too stressed, cortisol is released in the brain, causing us to not effectively pay attention or be able to process stressful situations. As humans we tend to create an opinion of an experience based on the end result. Keeping these two factors in mind can help leaders to lessen the pressure on agents and to help agents deliver a better end result. Even with long wait times, customers tend to be happier and more connected to the brand if they have a satisfying experience at the end of the interaction. “If you have to wait a short amount of time to get bad service, because that rep feels so rushed to keep their service levels where they are, you’re not going to be as happy as if you waited longer and then got a good experience.”

Scripted Language vs. Natural Dialogue, How Do They Compare?

So many companies have resorted to using scripted language for each rep interaction, turning agents into robotic employees. Customers can sense this. While it’s okay to automate some aspects of the service experience, leaders should be actively seeking ways for agents to personalize their interactions beyond the script. Providing personalized service is what sets a brand apart from the competition. This tactic can really set the tone for how customers think of the brand in the future; if they have great service and feel their problems are solved, it’s likely that they’ll continue shopping with the company. What really matters in CX is the outcome of each interaction. Did the rep solve the customer’s problem? Did they make the customer feel valued and understood? As Tom points out, “You can’t differentiate your brand based on a recording, but you can differentiate your brand based on the entire experience that you provide.” Forcing agents to stick to the script at all times is ultimately a waste of valuable energy that would be better spent on personalizing the experience for each individual customer through naturally flowing conversation.

Tips for Beginners: How to Enhance the Wait

For those who are just starting their journey as a leader in CX, one of the best things they can do to improve the customer and wait time experience is to take a holistic look at the data and to utilize it in every aspect. Data is helpful for understanding human behavior and altering processes accordingly. “So making sure you have the data, that you have the right metrics and then just rolling up your sleeves, quite frankly, and being willing to keep an open mind with what the data tells you.” Taking a deep dive into how your company is performing according to customer feedback can really open up so many opportunities for improvement.

The experts leave us with one final tip. While a customer’s waiting to speak to an agent, don’t try and sell them things. In order for an agent to successfully upsale, the customer has to be in the right mindset. They have to be open and ready for new information whereas in a call to the CX team, they are most likely not in the right mindset and will end up more frustrated and feeling taken advantage of. Selling to customers during their wait time, in a way, diminishes their needs and shows them that they’re only worth the money they spend. Wait time provides a chance for companies to garner lasting loyalty through making the entire interaction worthwhile.

To learn more about wait time and how it affects CX, check out the Customer Service Secrets podcast episode below, and be sure to subscribe for new episodes each Thursday.

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Full Episode Transcript:

The Power of Wait Time in Driving the Customer Experience | Tom Rieger

Intro Voice: (00:04)
You’re listening to the Customer Service Secrets Podcast by Kustomer.

Gabe Larsen: (00:11)
All right. Welcome everybody. We’re excited to get going today. We’re going to be talking about the power of wait time. Wait time, one of the things everyone talks about but I don’t know if everybody is doing it right. And we have a special guest joining us today and that is not Vikas. Vikas is not our special guest today, although I’m glad he’s here as always. Vikas Bhambri. But we do have Tom Rieger. He’s currently the president of NSI. On the NBI side, which is their consumer facing organization over there at NSI, he’ll talk a little bit more about that. Tom and I go way back. We were actually colleagues at Gallup. He wrote a book about barrier busting in 2011 that I thought was so fascinating and just broke down the customer experience, each step, and how you look for barriers and break them. And then recently, actually, he’s got a new book out, just published a couple of months ago, calling culturing organizational blindness, the three deadliest blind spots and how to avoid them. So appreciate you joining and how the heck are you?

Tom Rieger: (01:18)
I’m doing great, Gabe. Thanks. Thanks for having me.

Gabe Larsen: (01:20)
Yeah! Tell us just a little bit more about your role, your background, what you do over there at NSI. Give us that brief overview if you don’t mind.

Tom Rieger: (01:26)
Sure. So NSI and then NBI are a customer facing entity, really specializes in human behavior analytics. So we’re a group of behavioral scientists of different disciplines – social psychology, political science, decision science, and so on. And we tend to tackle wicked problems. We do a ton of work for the Department of Defense, supporting the joint staff. And then we also work for a variety of different clients. We work in call centers, the video game industry, we’re doing a fair amount now in the medical device field. So really, wherever we can apply that multi-disciplinary, multi-method look to try to get different ways of looking at problems.

Gabe Larsen: (02:09)
Yeah, that’s what we’re going to dive into today. So without further ado, let’s hit it. Let’s start just big picture. Wait time, why the fascination with it? Is it really that important?

Tom Rieger: (02:24)
Wait time is something that I found with our call center clients, it’s always something they’re trying to figure out because if you drive a shorter wait time, that means one of two things. It means either you hire a lot of people and your costs go through the roof or you depersonalize your experience and you automate everything. And one is not necessarily good or bad, but it’s certainly not an absolute. But the problem is when you drive it to be faster and faster, invariably you change the amount of time you have actually with a rep, creating that one-on-one relationship and really providing a differentiated value. And so it’s a trade off that really fascinated me. And it’s got so many different aspects of it. That’s something I love studying and it’s something our clients have asked us to say now a few times to help them figure it out.

Gabe Larsen: (03:17)
I love it. Vikas, I mean, 20 years in a contact center is, wait times, it’s not ever going away, right? I mean, it’s one of those terms that you’ve heard for years and you probably will continue to hear for years.

Vikas Bhambri: (03:29)
Yeah, no. I mean, it’s one of those, Tom hit the nail on the head. It’s one of those age old problems, which is, it’s something that, unless you’re just going to staff so that you’ve got somebody who can grab, pick up the phone call right when somebody comes into the queue, which is virtually impossible to do, it’s going to exist. So the question is, what do you do with it? Because it’s time that’s there. How do you use it so that it’s the most benefit to you as the brand, as well as your consumer customer base?

Gabe Larsen: (04:03)
I love that. I love that. So let’s get into that because it seems like the age old conversation would be about how do we increase satisfaction by lowering wait time and driving service level? I mean, it’s always how we lower the wait time, lower the wait time. Is that the way we should be framing it, Tom? Or how have you kind of helped organizations think through this?

Tom Rieger: (04:24)
So not necessarily. So let me put it this way, Gabe. Let’s say that you’re in a bar and you ever have an argument with someone and it’s clear you guys are going to have a fight. And he says to you, “I’m going to throw my beer in your face, but can you just wait here five minutes? I’m gonna make a phone call first.” So that five minutes is going to be really annoying, right? Because of the outcome at the end of it is something bad, something unpleasant.

Tom Rieger: (04:52)
Let’s say, you’re going to Disney world with your family and you want to go to space mountain and you’re expecting a one hour wait and you get there and it says, the wait time right now is 11 minutes. You’re going to think that is the shortest amount of time in the world. Even though the 11 minutes is more than twice as long as the five minutes. So it is just the pure satisfaction with wait time is very context and expectation dependent. But beyond that, what really matters isn’t the wait time, it’s through what, is the wait worth it? It’s what’s happening at the end. There was a study done in 1993. It was published in the Journal of Psychological Science by Danny Conoman, who we all know from great work along with Barbara Fredrickson and some other noted social psychologists and behavioral economics specialists. And it was basically, it was really interesting. What he did is he had people stick their hand in painfully cold water for 60 seconds. Yeah, I think it was 57 degrees. And then in the second trial, they had to stick their hand in the same 60 seconds, but they kept it in the cold, painfully cold water for another 60 seconds while it was increased one degree Celsius. So up to about 59 degrees Fahrenheit. So it was a lot more pain to keep your hand in the water, that extra 30 seconds. And then they were asked and it was randomized, which one was first. And then they asked, which would you repeat for a third trial? 70% percent, just about, just under 70% said the longer one, even though it was, it was more pain sticking around cold water, but in a better end. And this relates, and that actually increased all the way up to over 80% for people who noticed the difference in temperature. So that’s called peak end theory, that you judge the experience by what happens at the very end or by the page. So let’s put that in a call center context. If you have to wait a short amount of time to get bad service, because that rep feels so rushed to keep their service levels where they are, you’re not going to be as happy as if you waited longer and then got a good experience, which is less expensive for the clients who delivered.

Gabe Larsen: (07:17)
Whoa, whoa, whoa. Vikas, he just kind of blew my mind. Are you following this? You’ve been in contact-

Vikas Bhambri: (07:23)
I am. I understand what Tom is saying, right? I think the challenge is most contact centers do both. And what I mean by doing both is long wait times and a negative result when you actually do engage with the agent, right? If you look at CSAT results. So, I think what Tom’s saying is, look, you can keep your wait time. I’m sure it’s going to be within reason, but you can keep it lengthy, as long as when the person actually engages the agent, they resolve their issue. And I think just so many of us, and obviously it varies by brand and by industry, have been set up awaiting that negative experience. So as that time clock keeps going, our frustration and anxiety continues to build as you –

Gabe Larsen: (08:13)
As you know it could potentially be probably negative. You’re like these guys are jokers anyways, right? Is that what you’re saying?

Vikas Bhambri: (08:19)
Right. And then Tom, your kind of Space Mountain example and very fresh in mind because one of the few trips I made pre-COVID, are you all kind of advocating to say, “Look, tell them it’s going to be a five minute wait, but have an agent pick up the phone in two minutes?”

Tom Rieger: (08:37)
It’s not that simple. When you do the math, you have to look at this by issue type, because there are some types of tickets that are critical. And if it’s preventing them from using your brand, you’re going to want to get those resolved immediately. There’s others that are less critical. And here’s a really cool thing. When you actually build a regression curve, matching satisfaction or brand usage or dollar spend versus the actual wait time, almost always the shape of the curve is cubic. So in other words, there’s a point where it’s so short, they’re really happy. It’s like, wow, they answered instantly. So it’s really high. And then you reach this flat zone where it kind of doesn’t matter. And then eventually it gets to be so long that you fall off a cliff. Now, if you do a little calculus, once you determine that curve, you can figure out, well, where do you take off where people are really thrilled and you know what? It’s expensive to do that. So you have to be very choosy, what types of tickets you really want to get. Then where’s the inflection point? Where do you start to fall off a cliff? And then where are you really falling off a cliff? And almost always, you can extend your service levels, get them a little bit longer, just so you’re in that flat zone, but not falling off the cliff. And your customers may not notice, but that could free up enough time to provide more of that individual focused experience that the reps are probably feeling they can’t afford to deliver because there’s so much pressure on the service level.

Gabe Larsen: (10:11)
Yeah. Well, I was going to say, I mean, just the conversation of getting people to move away from always wanting to lower wait times, it just feels like it’s almost like religion at times. It’s just almost fanatical. It’s like, no, no, no. I can’t even hear what you’re saying, Tom, because I have to lower my wait time.

Vikas Bhambri: (10:29)
And Tom, what I heard was that flat lines could almost be specific to the type of issue.

Tom Rieger: (10:36)
Absolutely. Absolutely. And that cliff is going to be in a different place for different types of issues.

Gabe Larsen: (10:42)
So quick on that, just for one second. So you’re basically saying what you would recommend or what you often do with clients is one, probably kind of give them the pitch big picture, just so they’re starting to think differently about wait time, but the execution comes into running some sort of analysis around issue type and wait time and finding this kind of optimal spot and then potentially implementing that as, do I hear that right?

Tom Rieger: (11:10)
Right? Yeah. It’s just math. It’s just math finding that, but that’s only half the battle because that doesn’t –

Gabe Larsen: (11:19)
With a lot of battle. Because when you said calculus, again –

Tom Rieger: (11:22)
Oh, come on. It’s easy. It’s not that hard. So that’s only half the battle because then you have to deliver a great experience to make the wait worth it.

Gabe Larsen: (11:32)
Oh, I see. I see.

Tom Rieger: (11:32)
So then that gets into making sure that you in-group, that it’s not us versus them. Treating them as a valued customer, but here’s another side of this and this is something I talk about a lot in my new book. If someone is in a threat state, if someone is feeling pressured, if you release cortisol in your brain. That shuts down your prefrontal cortex. And when that happens, it becomes very hard for that rep to really think clearly because they’re under so much pressure and it’s a two way street. If you have someone out there who’s falling into these blind spots and just trying to rush through, then that’s going to put the customer in a threat state and then they’re going to be unhappy and they’re not going to be listening. And you know what’s going to happen? They’re probably going to call back. Your first call resolution is going to tank and your cost just doubled in an effort to save a penny in wait time. So it just cycles the plan itself. So you really have to focus on making sure you support that rep, give them the tools and really focus on in grouping and providing that great experience.

Vikas Bhambri: (12:41)
So Tom, one of the things you mentioned is obviously the agent side of it and making sure the agent doesn’t feel rushed. And what about on the consumer side? I’m just thinking about, as you said, wait times are inevitable unless we staff to the point where literally, you can just pick up the phone the moment somebody dials on one end. What can brands do to use that time effectively? Because I think about things like even the whole concept of callbacks, right? Where I give you my number and you call me back. Now, I’m still waiting, quote-unquote, but I’m not waiting in an IVR queue, listening to some diabolical music. I can watch my own television. I can surf the internet. I can cook dinner and you’re calling me back. I’m still waiting, but it’s my wait time. You see how the consumer mindset fundamentally changes? What are some things that brands, other than callbacks, are doing to make the consumer, I guess, have a better experience?

Tom Rieger: (13:46)
So I think there’s a few things to think about with this. One is prioritizing your tickets. So what are the things that have to be answered right away? What are the things that have to be answered sort of right away? What things can wait a little bit? Secondly, there are some things where automation is just fine. If it’s, my account is frozen and I just have to flick a switch somewhere, I check a box somewhere and I’m back in business, just fine to do that in an automated way. So it’s being smart about what’s automated and what’s not and then always not making it impossible where someone has to spin around three times, do a magical incantation, brew a potion, sacrifice a goat in their backyard and then they’ll get to a rep, versus just pressing zero.

Tom Rieger: (14:36)
And that creates a lot of frustration. It can put your customers in a threat state again. So don’t try to make it hard for them, just make it easy for them to solve their problem. So you’re right. You don’t want to, the whole idea is you don’t, you shouldn’t have to hire a million people to find this right balance. So it’s being smart about what you automate. It’s being smart about your channel prioritization and it’s being smart about how you train and equip your reps to provide that individualized service. You can’t differentiate your brand based on a recording, but you can differentiate your brand based on the entire experience that you provide.

Vikas Bhambri: (15:19)
So, I think, where we’re seeing customers move to is kind of a differentiated queue experience or wait experience, which is kind of almost like an emergency room, wait room, right? Where we can prioritize certain types of incidents or somebody comes in with a heart attack. Well, guess what? It’s not like, “Sorry, sir, you’re second in line. But this person over here with an ingrown toenail really takes priority,” which actually is the way most contact centers have operated and unfortunately so many still do because they’re flying blind with lack of data, lack of that automation that you’re talking about, where somebody comes in and we treat everybody the same and it’s like, “Well, you’re in the wait queue, even though you’ve got this really critical heart attack.” So I think where we’re seeing more customers move to, Gabe, is this whole concept of almost like an ER wait room where we can shuffle the deck and prioritize certain people based on who they are and their issue, which I think delivers a different experience as well.

Tom Rieger: (16:30)
Yeah. Triage is fine. But again, keep in mind what matters is what happens at the end. Did you solve a problem? Did you keep them in your brand? Did you keep them as a customer? Your call center is your defense. They are the frontline of the defense of your brand. So keeping someone where they are is a win. If you can get them to buy more, that’s even better. Like, but your job as a call center rep is to play defense. And just make sure that the customer’s happy, the problem is solved, and that you carry on being your customer when you’re done.

Gabe Larsen: (17:03)
Do you feel like the, I mean, you mentioned the rep stuff and I’m sure there’s training, but maybe what happens is if you did that analysis, you could coach reps better on how much time they do have, because it does just for like reps are just, “I gotta get this done. I gotta get this done.” And their bloods starting to boil and they’re sweating and it’s, you know. What are, on the rep side, have you seen brands, companies do anything there to continue the coaching, to continue the strategy and structure, to empower them to actually deliver that great experience?

Tom Rieger: (17:31)
Yeah. One of the things that I’ve seen are people completely overhauling their QA process and trying to make it a little less rigid. And we don’t see it as much of it as we used to, thankfully. But the one that drives me crazy is, is there anything else I can help you with? Because if you couldn’t solve their problem for whatever reason, keeping them on the phone to ask that isn’t going to help anything. It’s just going to send them into a towering rage. So it comes down to, these call centers take such care in how they hire and how they train. So then taking away the talent of the route doesn’t make any sense. So it’s establishing clear guidelines, clear outcomes, and then letting them use their judgment and coaching them along the way on how they maybe could handle things better versus you didn’t use this phrase and you didn’t ask this question this way and you didn’t follow the sequence. If it’s not appropriate, don’t do it.

Tom Rieger: (18:26)
So if you want to really establish that connection and not out group corporate policy and take people through a process that may not make sense, those are some of the ways that you can help achieve this. In some cases it may take a little more time. And it does take some skills for the reps to be able to listen to the problem. And they surely asked the right questions. Doesn’t mean you can’t provide guidelines on how to structure the call. That’s great. But trying to script every word is simply not going to work. It just isn’t. I mean, if you have 10 different types of customers and 22 different types of issues and 15 different products, do the math. You would have to script thousands of different types of specific combinations and that’s just not practical and it wouldn’t work if you did.

Gabe Larsen: (19:17)
Yeah, it does seem like we’re moving away from that scripting. Vikas –

Vikas Bhambri: (19:23)
Absolutely. I think the contact center is for brands that really want to deliver that optimal customer experience, it’s really turning into a knowledge worker role. You’re going to give the agent as much data as you can about the customer, about the situation they’re in, maybe some context of previous resolutions or whatever, but you’re really going to leave them to, quote unquote, script how this particular interaction is going to take place. So you’re actually seeing a very different profile of individuals – in types of roles. Tom, do you think the KPI average handle time is antiquated? Is that something that maybe contact centers shouldn’t even be looking at anymore?

Tom Rieger: (20:10)
Well, I think you need it from a budgetary perspective. So I think that’s just something strictly for managing the cost side of a call center, it’s always going to be important, but I think it is absolutely not a measure of customer satisfaction. It’s again, a cubic function, right? Because there’s the total time. There’s the amount of time they wait, then there’s the amount of time of the actual interaction. And then maybe there’s some resolution time. And again, it’s that entire time that’s important. Each will have their own function and this is just math to solve. So I wouldn’t say handle time is unimportant, but saying it always has to be shorter is very short-sighted and quite frankly, flat out wrong.

Vikas Bhambri: (20:53)
Right. And I think where we’re seeing a lot of our clients move to is more of this just understanding effort. Customer effort score. So I guess average handle time or the total time that that conversation took place can factor into that effort score, but at the end of the day if, look, if I need to spend three minutes with you to explain the situation and you resolve my issue as a consumer, I might be okay with that. You’ll probably get a CSAT of five, as opposed to me spending 30 seconds with you or 10 minutes with you and you don’t resolve my problem, then I’m really going to be ticked off.

Tom Rieger: (21:27)
Exactly, exactly.

Gabe Larsen: (21:30)
Well, we’ve hit a lot, Tom. And as we look to wrap wanting to get, we have listeners out there who are, I think, debating this within their own organization and trying to figure out kind of how they potentially move from here. For those CX leaders, call center leaders, who are just starting this journey, where would you recommend they kind of start to kind of tackle this? I, again, we hit a lot of topics, but where would you recommend they start?

Tom Rieger: (21:57)
Well, you start by getting the data and doing the work. You have to look at this place, you type, you have to roll up your sleeves and do the quantitative analysis to say, first of all, do we have the metrics we need? What are they telling us? What are our real budgetary constraints? And then what do we need to do with them? What can we do within that? You have to look at your training, you have to look, are there barriers in the way? I mean, it’s a bit of a holistic response and it may seem overwhelming, but honestly it really isn’t. The projects we’ve done, I mean, we just, this summer, I had to do a quick turn for one of our larger clients. They were facing some decisions they had to make. We executed the entire effort in I think three weeks. So it can be done quickly. So it doesn’t have to be a giant project that takes you a year, but there is work that has to be done. So making sure you have the data, that you have the right metrics and then just rolling up your sleeves, quite frankly, and being willing to keep an open mind with what the data tells you.

Gabe Larsen: (22:59)
I love it. Vikas, any takeaways or quick summaries on your side?

Vikas Bhambri: (23:04)
No, look. To any of the CX leaders that are listening, the practitioners, if I can just give you one word of advice, do not try to sell anything while people are waiting in your queue. Generally speaking, people are coming there because they’ve got an issue and the last thing they want to hear about how it’s 30% off, or you’ve got this promotion, or this other product or service. They’re not in the right state of mind to even absorb that. So really be mindful about what are you, if you are going to put your customers into this queue or this wait time, what are you, what are you using, to Tom’s point, to put them in the right state of mind, so when they engage that agent, they’re not taking out their frustration and really starting that conversation on a negative track?

Tom Rieger: (23:57)
You have to get them out of the cognitive threat state to be able to upsell them. Period.

Gabe Larsen: (24:04)
Good. Well Tom, really appreciate you taking the time. Fun. For those of you, we’ll make sure we put a link to his newest book that just came out a couple months ago. So Tom, have a great day. For the audience, also have a fantastic time. Thank you everybody.

Tom Rieger: (24:20)
Thanks. Thanks guys. Really a pleasure.

Exit Voice: (24:27)
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