How Long Are Customers Willing to Wait?

With much of the world on lockdown due to the current COVID-19 crisis, contact centers are grappling with both increased workloads and staffing challenges.

One helpful framework—now and in more normal times—is to understand the factors that affect customer tolerance for queues. There are seven, and they influence how long customers will wait in queue, how many will abandon, whether they will try alternative channels, and how they feel about the overall experience. They include the following:


How important is the interaction to customers? What are the consequences to them of not getting through? How badly do they need the product or service? For example, customers experiencing a power outage will usually wait longer to reach their utility than those with billing questions.


Even though they are highly motivated to initiate a contact, customers who encounter difficulties might abandon if they know of another way to get help. Self-service, communities found online or even physically going to a retail location are examples of substitutes. If customers are highly motivated and have no acceptable alternatives, they will generally wait a long time in queue (and will retry if they get busy signals). Even though they do not abandon, they still might be very unhappy about the experience.


If it's easier for customers to use competitive services and if they have a tough time reaching you, they might go elsewhere. (You'll need to consider whether competition is available in a practical sense. For example, if you are a bank and a customer has a problem with an online payment, a competitive bank is not going to be able to help—although if the problem is difficult to get resolved, the customer might decide to take future business elsewhere.) It's also important to consider that a contact center is often its own competition—customers might choose incorrect routing selections in the interactive voice response system or simultaneously try other channels just to reach an agent—any agent—more quickly. This leads to transferred contacts, inaccurate reports, longer handling times, and other problems.


The experiences customers have had with the contact center and the reputation that the organization has for service have a direct impact on tolerance. A 10-minute wait for tax help during filing season might be perceived as good service, but a similar wait for a shipping company that has a reputation for speedy service would be an unpleasant surprise. And the services that customers receive from any organization, including those in other industries, have a bearing on their expectations.<


How much time do customers have when they initiate a contact? Doctors who contact insurance providers have a well-deserved reputation for not tolerating even a modest wait, while retirees contacting the same companies might have more time or inclination to talk. Further, the widespread use of smartphones has created many small windows of time customers have to reach you, such as before boarding a flight or in between meetings, when long waits are unworkable and frustrating.


Customers are usually more tolerant when they are not paying to contact an organization. Most organizations offer toll-free service. In the rare cases they don't, a large percentage of customers will likely have calling plans that provide nationwide calling. But there's a rub: If customers' plans are based on blocks of minutes, they can get understandably upset if the time they purchased is wasted in queue. (Virtual queue technologies that enable customers to leave their numbers for callbacks without losing their places in queue, can help.)


The weather, the customer's mood, and the day's news all have some bearing on customer tolerance.

These seven factors are not static. They are constantly changing. Even so, it's important to have a general understanding of the factors affecting customers' tolerance. Important questions to consider include the following:

  • How motivated are your customers?
  • What are their expectations?
  • How do their expectations vary based on the reason for the contact?
  • Which alternatives to contacting you do they have?
  • Which alternatives would you want/not want them to use?
  • Will they already have spent time seeking help somewhere else (e.g., search or self-service)?
  • What level of service are others in the industry providing?
  • How do customers tend to rate your service at different service levels?
  • What is your customers' tendency to share experiences, good or bad?
  • What level of service best reflects your brand?

This is not an exact science, but it's helpful to understand customers' perspectives as much as you can. Thinking through customers' situations and expectations will help you respond in times of crisis. And they will enable you to evolve services that meet their needs in more stable seasons.

Brad Cleveland is a customer service consultant, specializing in contact centers, support desks, and other customer-facing environments. One of the two original partners in the International Customer Management Institute (ICMI), Cleveland acquired ICMI outright in 1996 and served as its president and CEO from 1996-2008. Today, he consults and speaks to a broad range of organizations and associations and serves as a senior advisor to ICMI. He is author/editor of eight books, including Call Center Management on Fast Forward. His current research is focused on the future of customer access management and the impact of social media; his blog can be followed at