Customer service, time and exectations

Customer Service, Expectations
and Time

How long is a minute?

Have you ever had someone tell you that “I was on hold for five minutes,” when you know it was only two? Have you ever told someone that something is urgent, but he (she) still seems to take forever? You think of a customer as impatient, your customer thinks you are don’t have a sense of urgency – who is right? It’s frustrating when other people’s concepts of time appear to be completely out of sync with yours. It’s one of the things that makes external and internal customer service challenging.

Time is fluid

The reality is that we all perceive time very differently depending on our situation. For the technical support person on the other end of the phone, moving from screen to screen looking for the solution to your problem, time passes very quickly. For the customer on the other end, who is sitting there listening to the canned music on the phone, time passes much more slowly.

Try this exercise

We do a simple, but very powerful exercise in our customer service training programs to illustrate this. We tell participants that they need to sit quietly for sixty seconds. They are instructed to not look at their watches or count out the seconds. As soon as they think one minute has passed, they are to raise their hands and keep them up.

The first hand inevitably goes up at around the twenty-second mark. The majority are up by the time forty seconds have passed and all are up at forty-five seconds. It’s a vivid illustration of how fluid our perception of time is.

Respecting people's time sends the message that you care

Time perception is an important factor to understand when working with customers, including internal customers. The core of outstanding customer service is ensuring that every customer believes that you genuinely care about them. One of the ways we send this message is by respecting their time.

To do this, we need to always be mindful that our perceptions of time will be different than our customers. We need to understand and manage their expectations, then make sure that we meet those expectations. There are a lot of ways to do this, and the following six are great examples:

6 ways to manage time expectations

  1. Avoid phrases like ‘right away,’ ‘shortly,’ or ‘asap.’ Give someone a concrete time or time frame.
  2. If you have to leave a customer, or put them on hold while you are trying to sort something out, make a point to apologize for the delay – even if you don’t believe it had been a long time.
  3. If customers or coworkers contact you by email and you won’t be able to give them the answer they need right away, don’t just keep them waiting. Respond to them immediately, acknowledging their question, then give them a time frame as to when you should be able to respond more fully.
  4. For internal customers who are looking for something, make a point to ask when they need it by. This gives you the opportunity to arrive at a mutually acceptable time.
  5. If you are working behind a counter, and doing paperwork or finishing up a transaction, don’t just ignore the next customer. Look at them, smile, invite them up then say something like, “Hi! I just need to finish this up, then I’ll be right with you.
  6. If you are a manager, and you want to have a meeting with one or more employees, don’t just tell them to drop what they are doing. Say something like, “I want to get together for a half-hour meeting today. When is the best time for you?”


When you respect people’s time – and their perception of time, you send the clear message that you respect them.

2 Responses

  1. Great info Shaun. Thanks for the article. I would change just one thing – let me know your thoughts on that one thing …. in the point you make below – I would rather teach my reps to thank the customer for waiting – not apologize which I believe focuses on the wrong thing there …

    If you have to leave a customer, or put them on hold while you are trying to sort something out, make a point to apologize for the delay – even if you don’t believe it had been a long time.

    1. Great discussion point Janice! Apologies had long been considered – and trained – as bad things to be avoided. I was never comfortable with this (probably because apologies are Canadians’ national pastime 🙂 )

      A growing body of research is actually pointing to the power of apologies. One of the most noteable has come from a series of studies from the University of Michigan, illustrating how apologies will reduce both the number and value of malpractice suits against doctors.

      I think that one of the reasons that customer apologies work is that, by definition, they are acknowledging the importance of customers and their satisfaction. The contrition sends the message that we care, and wish we could have done better.

      Saying ‘thank you’ in some service situations can sometimes, ironically, send the wrong message. When used in the wrong context the perception can be that our expectation of a customer’s patience takes priority over the customer’s expectation of our timeliness.

      Thank you for reading, and bringing up such a great topic for discussion!

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