You’re late for an appointment, so you drive faster, scramble for a parking space, and rush to the receptionist’s counter. You apologize for your tardy arrival; then you wait and wait and wait. No one else seems to be in a hurry, and no one tells you how long you’ll be waiting. What message is being conveyed, loud and clear? Our time is valuable; yours isn’t.

Businesses that fail to manage wait times may be losing current and potential customers without even realizing the problem.

And it’s a shame, because most customers understand that service delays are a fact of life. They don’t always expect immediate service, and they’ll forgive delays if a company makes a reasonable effort to mitigate the inconvenience. Standing in line at a busy grocery store when it’s obvious the store manager is working hard to keep things moving — that’s understandable. Waiting for a rental car when the line’s backed up and the clerk is making a personal call on his or her cell phone — unacceptable. Even the most reasonable customer may blow a fuse.

Here are three suggestions for managing wait times.

  • Communicate expectations. When you walk into a restaurant and the host says the wait will be an hour, you have choices. You can go elsewhere or leave your name on a list, take a walk, shop at a nearby store, or fill the car with gas. You know what to expect and can plan accordingly. Train your employees to extend the same courtesy to your customers.
  • Provide a comfortable waiting experience. Provide a surplus of seating in the waiting area to prevent your customers from having to play musical chairs. If a television is turned on, keep it muted with scrolling captions and make sure the content is appropriate for your clientele. Stock current magazines. If it’s likely children will accompany their parents, provide toys, video games, and age-appropriate books to keep them occupied.
  • Apologize and compensate. In some cases, excessive wait times are unavoidable. To let customers know you value their time, tell them you’re sorry, then offer a discount. You may lose short-term revenue but gain long-term customer loyalty.

In short, follow the golden rule: treat customers the way you want to be treated.