Does your PR start at the back of the queue? 8 ways you can win over customers while they wait for you

By Jim James,
Founder EASTWEST PR and Host of the SPEAK|pr Podcast

After months in lockdown, everywhere people go, there is suddenly a stark difference in the customer experience. Just like many people having to wait in long queues, public relations also finds itself at the back of the line, because people see it as a necessary evil. They feel that it’s too much hard work, that the results can’t be proven, and people are worried they might say the wrong thing. But the things is, public relations isn’t just about media relations. Public relations is about influencing and engaging with all those involved in the wellbeing of the business.

 In the SPEAK|pr methodology which stands for Storify, Personalise, Engage, Amplify, and Know, Personalisation is about the different audiences: the internal or staff, the partners, and the external or customers. Personalisation implies that public relations really should be at the front of the queue. A French maître d’ in London named Fred Sirieix says that hospitality is about connecting with people and giving first and giving generously, which is the essence of customer service. The point is that businesses should give people the sense that they are being invited to undertake a customer journey not just once but multiple times, so that these people become customers for life. 

What people can learn from PR expert David Meister

David Maister is an expert public relations and management consultant and author of many books including Managing the Professional Service Firm and The Trusted Advisor, which are guidebooks for anyone interested in running a consultancy firm. On his website, he has an article called The Psychology of Waiting Lines where he talks about how products are consumed and services are experienced, and sometimes, businesses forget that the journey on a customer experience starts well before the clients or customers entire the office or shop. David reflects on a Federal Express advert that says waiting is frustrating, demoralising, agonising, aggravating, annoying, time-consuming, and expensive. He then shares what he calls the "first law of service." He defines as [s = p – e], where S stands for satisfaction, P is for perception, and E is for expectation. If people expect a certain level of service and perceive the service they get to be higher, then they are satisfied. In other words, if you are expecting something mediocre but end up getting great service, the outcome is positive. Whereas if you are expecting a high level of service and are treated poorly, you will be dissatisfied. Next, David says the second law of service states that if you start off well with a client or a customer, then it’s much easier to keep them smiling rather than if you start off on a bad one. There’s the expression, "You can’t make a good first impression a second time.

All this matters because, in this day and age of social media, there are platforms like TripAdvisor or Google My Business where consumers can share their experiences, and this is all out of the business’ control and purview unless sites like Talkwalker are used. This calls for business owners and entrepreneurs to pay attention to levels of satisfaction and the expectation levels of clients. It’s not just about what was done for the client, but also what was perceived by the client before, during, and after they were taken care of. Luckily, these can all be managed.

The Psychology of Waiting Lines

David Maister then goes into eight important concepts. The first concept is that unoccupied time feels longer than occupied time. Boredom is watching the passage of time, as Henry James once said. As people wait, they think about what else they could be doing instead of waiting. The second idea is that people want to get started immediately, as the idea that you’re not doing anything with your time, for most people, is frustrating. Number three is anxiety makes waiting times seem longer, just like if you are waiting to see the doctor or the dentist. Another thing that happens is cognitive dissonance; in other words, questioning one’s own decisions, like if it’s the right product, if you can afford it, and so on. In an industrial setting where a purchase can affect a business and there’ll be other people in oversight, people could be making a purchase that makes a difference to the business. If customers are anxious, what could they be asking themselves whilst they’re waiting and how can they be reassured as they are waiting that they’re not wasting their time and that they’re going to end up satisfied?

The fourth concept is that uncertain waits are longer than known, finite waits. Some sophisticated call center chat bots inform you that you’re going to be in a queue and how long that’s going to take, which is somewhat annoying but also reassuring. Another point is that unexplained waits are longer than the explained waits, because in a way, explaining the wait does abate customers’ anxiety or frustration. People want to have the part of their brain that needs resolution met and the part of their ego that needs to know they’re being taken seriously, because being ignored and disrespected may cause them to turn away, leave the queue, and go somewhere else. Number six is that unfair waits are longer than equitable waits. It’s this idea of FIFO or first in, first out, that whoever comes in first gets to go first. In bigger queues, social distancing guidelines must be complied with, but when the crowd starts to head towards the front of the line, people tend to crowd together thanks to an anxiety about missing out, such as on aeroplanes. 

Number seven is the more valuable the service, the longer the customer will wait. Some appointments during these times will force you to wait for months at a time, which people may be willing to put themselves through, as long as they see it as worth the wait. So, the more valuable the service, the longer the customer will wait, but understand how long that should be against their expectation, not against the business own’ers own expectation of how important the business is. The eighth concept is that the solo wait feels longer than the group wait. When waiting in queues, it’s not just social distancing. It’s almost like social isolation. People stand around in absolute silence. It’s almost like they’re afraid to talk to each other from two meters apart. If that’s the case and you have a facility, a venue, or a store, can you somehow reassure people by having a performance, giving them samples, or simply keeping them preoccupied as they await their turn? Waiting gets them thinking about what they’re waiting for, why they’re waiting, and whether they’re making the right choice.

These lessons from David Maister are great public relations ideas, so remember that public relations isn’t all in the media. It’s in the mind of the partners, the staff, and the customers, and it’s important that not only are they not kept waiting for too long, but also that they have great experiences associated with the company. With that said, hopefully, these tools and ideas may be something that you can use for your business.

This article is based on a transcript from my Podcast SPEAK|pr, you can listen here.

Cover Photo by Adrien Delforge on Unsplash

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