Back in 5 minutes: Do your customers deserve better?

No doubt you’ve encountered signs on shop fronts that say they’ll be “back in 5 minutes”, and as a retailer you may even have used a similar sign yourself. The problem is that such signs are written for the benefit of you as a business, not your customer.

Is it better to be specific?

I started to consider the implications of “back in 5 minutes” signs after walking past a shop that instead had “Back at 1.30” posted on their window. Given it was 11am when I passed by, back at 1.30 was certainly much more helpful than “back in a couple of hours”. But if it were only five minutes, would it actually be better to be more specific for your customers?


Certainty vs ambiguity

Behavioural science has established that people love certainty and dislike ambiguity. For instance, tell me whether I should take an umbrella or not rather than whether rain is 60% likely.

A specific time has the benefit of providing your customers certainty where the ‘back in 5’ creates the opposite. As a customer you can’t help but wonder ‘5 minutes from when?’ before being forced to decide whether to hang around or leave. Here’s the problem – you risk them leaving for good.

Of course the business advantage of ambiguous signage is pretty obvious – you can use the same sign over and over without having to rewrite it and you are really just telling your customers that you have popped out and will be back soon. But while that’s good for you, is it best for your customer?

Waiting is painful

Waiting is painful because it interferes with your customer’s sense of freedom. That’s why we hate our phone calls being placed on hold for an indeterminate amount of time – we don’t have the freedom to do anything else in case the call gets answered and have no visual cues for how fast progress is being made.

Reducing customer pain

To resolve this, increasingly businesses are now telling their customers how long the current wait time is and/or offering a call back service. This not only reduces customer annoyance, it reduces their anxiety about how long they have to commit to the call.

And it’s not just phone queues. In his book To Sell is Human, Dan Pink describes a restaurant sign that carried a sign “Don’t Worry This Queue Moves Really Quickly”. The signage, along with actually seeing the queue moving quickly reduced his anxiety about committing to the business.

Improvements have also been made in public transport where waiting is a necessary evil. In Melbourne, for example, both tram and train platforms include a countdown to when the next service is expected, reducing customer anxiety about whether they have missed their ride and allowing people to turn their attention to other activities. Sure, customers still have to wait but now it feels like it’s on their terms.

That’s why I liked the “Back at 1.30” sign on the shop window. Customers were provided the benefit of certainty, which in turn gave them back their freedom. In contrast the ambiguity of “Back in 5” holds the customer hostage to the whim of the business. In reality it may not be worth you trading in your ambiguous sign for one that is more precise, but at least be aware of the impact you are having on your customers.

Bri Williams runs People Patterns Pty Ltd, a consultancy specialising in the application of behavioural economics to everyday business issues. Bri is a presenter, consultant and author who you can find out more about at, [email protected] or by following on Twitter @peoplepatterns.




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