Why Customer Service is Always Running Late

This wasn't a bucket list item, but it was close.

My favorite winery in Napa was hosting an exclusive winemaker dinner, with another party the following day. My wife, Sally, and I love this winery and it sounded like an amazing weekend.

I signed up for the interest list to get notified when tickets went on sale.

Five weeks went by with no news. I emailed my contact at the winery for an update. She replied a day later, "Tickets go on sale Tuesday." It was Friday.

Tuesday came and went with no notice. I emailed again the following Friday but received no response. On Monday, I called and left a voice mail but still no response.

A day later, my winery contact emailed me. The tickets are finally on sale. It was a week later than she'd promised and too late for us. We'd already made plans with some family members who were visiting from out of town.

Why are customer service professionals constantly running late? Here's a look at the reasons why, plus some potential solutions.

Group of businesswomen running late.

Our Overly Optimistic View of Time

A few months ago, I wrote this post about why employees are often late. A problem occurs when employees are overly optimistic about how long it takes to get things done. 

One of the studies I cited was a 1994 series of experiments conducted by Roger Buehler, Dale Griffin, and Michael Ross. They wanted to see how accurately people could forecast the time it takes to complete a task.

A group of 37 psychology students were asked to estimate when they would complete their honors thesis. The average estimate was way off.

Days to complete thesis.png

Only 11 of the 37 students finished their thesis by the time they predicted. That means 70 percent of the group was overly optimistic.

The researchers anticipated this optimism problem, so they asked participants to make a second prediction after their first one had been recorded. Participants were asked to imagine everything went as poorly as it possibly could. How long did they think it would take them to complete their thesis given that scenario.

The worst case scenario predictions were still off.

Days to complete thesis - worst case.png

Buehler, Griffin, and Ross ran a second experiment where they asked another group of psychology students to think about a school project that was due within the next two weeks. The subjects were asked to predict when they would get it done. As before, the subjects were overly optimistic, with only 43.6 percent finishing by the predicted time.

There was an additional twist. Subjects were asked to think aloud as they estimated the project completion time, and the experimenters recorded and categorized what people thought about. The results were startling:

  • 71% of the subjects' thinking focused on how they would complete the project.

  • Only 3% of thoughts were spent on anticipating problems.

  • Just 1% of thinking considered problems encountered on previous projects.

That last one amazed me. Participants continuously failed to learn from their experience when making plans to complete a task. It also explains why some employees and companies are consistently late.

How to Meet More Deadlines

There are a few things you can do to meet more deadlines and keep your customers happy.

First, whenever planning a task, start with the deadline and work backwards to create your plan. Buehler, Griffin, and Ross found that having a clear deadline can be very helpful—in one experiment, 80.6 percent of school projects were finished on time when the students had a deadline. 

Try to negotiate the latest mutually agreed-upon deadline to give yourself some extra time. So if you think you can get something done by Thursday, ask if Friday is okay. (More on that technique here.)

Next, think about potential obstacles. Here are some common ones I consider:

  • Travel: My available time is limited when I'm on a plane or with another client.

  • Workload: I consider other projects I'm working on at the same time.

  • Personal: My personal life factors into my availability as well, such as an upcoming vacation.

As you think about each potential obstacle, think about how similar situations have gone in the past. For example, if I'm traveling, I know from experience that I'll likely be too tired to do much on the return flight from a long trip. So I don't count on having that time to work.

Finally, lay out a project plan and track the important milestones as you go. My goal is always to get work done early, because you never know what will come up.

In case you're wondering, I told a few people I was working on this post. My promised delivery date was next week. And now I'm early.

Are You Suffering From a Customer Service Time Crisis?

The service manager arrived at the auto repair shop for what promised to be another busy day.

He opened up the lobby, booted up his computer, turned on the TV in the waiting room, and started a pot of coffee. The manager went into the shop to touch base with the mechanics as they arrived for work, and went over the day's jobs.

I had an 8am service appointment, but it was 8:10 before he greeted me and checked me in.

If this seems like poor customer service, it's because it is. And it's also an epidemic. So my real question is, do you struggle to be on time with your customers?

Here's why being on time is critical, and what you can do to make sure you are.

Happy man holding a clock.

The Problem With Being a Tiny Bit Late

Like you, the service manager, and just about everyone else on this planet, I've had a busy week. And my ability to get things done has been impacted by service providers being chronically tardy.

My physical therapist kept me waiting for five minutes. A contractor arrived at my house ten minutes late for a sales call. And the service advisor kept me waiting for ten minutes after my scheduled appointment.

So what's the big deal?

One issue is the message it sends. Being just a few minutes tardy sends a signal that you value your own time more than your customer's. Or it could be a signal that you're not very well organized.

It can also have a cascading effect on your customer's day.

A few weeks ago, my physical therapist kept me waiting for fifteen minutes. Our appointment was scheduled for an hour, and I had to get to another appointment soon afterwards. I had to skip out on the last portion of my therapy session as a result of it running over our scheduled time.

The contractor who arrived at my home ten minutes late caused us to rush through his pitch for a remodeling project my wife and I are considering. We had other appointments lined up after his and couldn't run late, so the meeting probably wasn’t his best pitch.

And the service advisor? You guessed it—I had other things to do that day.

Why Are People Late

A few months ago, I uncovered some fascinating research about why some people are chronically late.

One of the most interesting aspects of the research was a study that suggested people with personalities most suited to customer service—easygoing and not prone to frustration—are the most likely people to be late.

There are other reasons as well. One is being over-scheduled.

If you schedule a meeting from 2pm-3pm and another meeting in a different conference room from 3pm-3:30pm, how exactly do you plan to be on time for your 3pm meeting? Unless your 2pm ends early (what are the odds?), you'll be late.

Another reason is we're unrealistic about time.

The service advisor promised to call me in 45 minutes with an update on my car. Unfortunately, that 45 minutes was a best-case scenario. It didn't factor in other customers, mechanics taking longer than expected, or any number of other things that might get in the way. I ended up calling after an hour because I hadn’t heard from him.

We also perpetuate tardiness as customers by letting people off the hook too easily. 

What did you do the last time a service provider kept you waiting a few minutes? In all likelihood, here's how the conversation went:

Service provider: "Sorry to keep you waiting!"

You: "That's okay."

If that's what happened, you accidentally gave the service provider a free pass on tardiness. And you've made it more likely that they'll be tardy again.

Now I'm not suggesting you freak out every time someone is five minutes late. What I am suggesting is you don't let them off the hook.

For example, when I started going to physical therapy for a shoulder injury, I asked my physical therapist how much time I should budget for each appointment. I explained I wanted to be fully present during our sessions, but also had other appointments to schedule around each visit. He told me one hour, so I planned on one hour and fifteen minutes just in case.

So when our scheduled one-hour session ran late as a result of his tardiness, I stayed for an extra 15 minutes, and then left without finishing my workout. I kept my word about honoring other commitments.

The result? I only had to wait five minutes the next time.

Take Action

None of us are perfect.

I was ten minutes late to a phone meeting with a prospective client the very same day I drafted this post. And I didn't even have a good excuse—I simply didn't notice my calendar reminder going off and I got sucked into another project. It was embarrassing.

What we can do is make punctuality more important.

I apologized profusely to my client, but I've also made a mental note that I need to demonstrate my punctuality to this client if I hope to win her business. One of the things my clients know me for is I get project work done faster than promised. If I say I'll get you something by Friday, you'll probably have it Thursday. 

How do I do that?

  • I plan all my work holistically, keeping in mind everything that's on my calendar.

  • I strive to arrive early (my recent flake-out notwithstanding).

  • I work hard to wait on my clients, rather than keeping them waiting on me.

And the service advisor? 

He promised my car would be ready in four hours. I told him I would hold him to it. And he came through. He called me at four hours exactly and told me my car was ready, which was a big relief because I had other stuff to do that day.

9 Ways Your Employees Waste Time at Work

Advertising disclosure: We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.

Employees waste a lot of time at work. 

A 2014 Salary.com survey discovered that 57 percent of employees admitted to wasting at least one hour per day. These employees spend paid work time goofing off online, using social media, or shooting the breeze with colleagues. 

There's another hidden time waster. Many employees waste time through inefficiency. The result is we spend the day frantically working without accomplishing very much to show for it.

Here are nine common ways employees waste time without knowing it.


Common Productivity Killers

This is by no means a complete list, so please share other time wasters you've seen. You can leave a comment on this post or drop me a line.


Meeting Invites

You exchange emails with a colleague and agree to set a meeting for a specific date and time. "Ok," comes the reply. "I'll send you a meeting invite."

This approach doubles the amount of communication required to organize the meeting. There's the email exchange to schedule the meeting and then the meeting invite that comes after it.

A meeting invite is great if you are coordinating multiple schedules or are actually using it to invite someone to a meeting. Skip it if you already agreed to meet with just one person.



We get a lot of meeting invites because we get asked to a lot of meetings.

A 2015 report from Workfront revealed that meetings are a huge time waster reported by employees in large companies, with 57 percent saying unproductive meetings were the biggest drain on their time.

Meetings should have a clear purpose, a set agenda, and a carefully curated invite list. Otherwise, skip it.


Formal Training

A lot of formal training classes are wasted.

Participants arrive without a clear idea of what the training is about, how it will impact their job performance, or what they need to do to implement what they learn.

Even worse, existing work procedures, old habits, and even the boss can counter what was learned in training, making it difficult to develop new habits.

You can dramatically improve training by using the 70-20-10 rule to create more consistent learning experiences. This works by aligning what's taught in training with feedback from the manager and the employee's actual work.


Useless Email

I once cobbled together a few email studies, ran the numbers, and discovered that the average U.S. worker wasted 24 percent of their day on useless email.

The problem comes from misuse. 

Many emails are incomplete and poorly written. People are in a hurry so they skim and scan messages, missing important information. That generates a ton of back and forth.

The email provider Front analyzed email boxes and learned the average email conversation takes 4.5 messages.

The counterintuitive solution is to slow down and give email more attention. It may take slightly longer to read and respond to each message, but you'll receive far fewer emails overall.


Checking Email Constantly

People tend to check their email constantly throughout the day.

This feels productive because you are really, really busy. It isn't. What's really happening is you are constantly starting and stopping tasks and not giving email your full attention. That leads to the useless email problem discussed above.

Timothy Ferriss has some pretty extreme takes on email management in his bestselling book, The 4-Hour Workweek. I've adapted some of them to check email just a few times a day and it's made an amazing impact on my productivity.



Constantly checking email is just one way we try to multitask throughout the day.

Customer service professionals in particular are guilty of running multiple software programs simultaneously for both personal and business. Many of us keep our cell phone perched on our desk, which constantly invites personal distractions.

Multitasking inevitably leads to more errors and less productivity even though it makes us feel busy. You can experience this yourself by taking a Stroop Test.

You can reduce multitasking by reducing distractions, such as pop-up messaging notifications. You will also make some progress through a conscious effort to focus on one task at a time, though many people find this initially difficult as multitasking can be addictive.



There's a software solution for just about everything.

The problem is many of these software programs don't talk to each other. It's not uncommon for a contact center employee to have to use five to seven different programs just to do their jobs. 

All that switching back and forth between software programs creates a lot of multitasking. It also causes a lot of repetitive work, where employees have to enter the same information in multiple places to keep all the records up to date.

The best fix here has nothing to do with the employee. Smart companies are making their employees' jobs simpler by providing a unified desktop that puts multiple software programs in one interface.



Email isn't the only form of communication that sucks up a lot of time.

Many workplaces have an instant messaging or internal chat app that allows employees to interrupt each other from across the room or even across the country. If we're honest, most of the times we "ping" a coworker we're really asking for something that's not urgent.

My controversial suggestion is to shut it down. Most workplaces don't have a real business case for instant messaging that overrides the negative impact of constant distractions. And if you really need someone's attention, there's other ways to do it.



I can still remember reading David Allen's time management book, Getting Things Done, way back in 2001. It truly was a game-changer for me.

One piece of advice that really stuck was limiting the number of inboxes we have. An inbox is any place you have to look for new information, messages, or assignments.

Examples include our email inbox, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, text, voicemail, physical mailbox, and a physical inbox. Most of us have more than ten. (Try doing your own count, it may be scary!)

You can automatically save time by eliminating or combining your inboxes. For instance, you can use the same software program to manage multiple email addresses so all of your emails go to one place.


Take Action

We're addicted to these time wasters for a variety of reasons. 

Take meetings for example. Have you ever tried to pushback on an unnecessary meeting that had no clear purpose and no agenda? People act like you are being some kind of jerk.

I suggest two things.

First, if you're the boss, you need to set an example. It's pretty hard to take your employees to task for wasting time if you are constantly sending half-baked emails and scheduling useless meetings.

Second, focus on incremental progress if you want to make a change or help your employees become more productive. Pick just one small thing to try and work on it for a few weeks. Make it a habit and then reflect on how it has helped you before taking on something new.

Over time, you'll be amazed at how much more productive your team can become.

How to quickly find lost time and increase productivity

My wife, Sally, is an efficiency expert. From my perspective, this gives us plenty of exciting things to talk about at the dinner table. One recent conversation focused on why it takes me five times longer than she to pack for a business trip. You might be able to relate if you consistently find yourself running short of time at work or at home.

Explanation #1: We have different natural abilities
Sally has the ability to visualize what she wants to pack before she starts packing. When it comes time to pack her suitcase she simply goes to her closet, grabs the clothes she visualized, and puts them in.

I can't do that. I process information in a highly kinesthetic manner. When packing for a trip, this means I have to pull all sorts of clothes out of my closet and then imagine how and when I might wear them on my trip. I also have to write down the days I'll be gone and what I'll be doing each day so I can pair an outfit with each activity. (Not doing this almost always results in me over packing but still not having enough clothes to wear.)

Sally's ability to visualize gives her a natural ability to pack faster than I can. Natural ability definitely plays a role in our packing productivity.

Explanation #2: Self-imposed distractions
I usually put the TV on in our bedroom to watch while I pack. This seems like a good way to kill the monotony, but Sally correctly points out that it also slows me down. Each time I pause to pay attention to the television I slow down the process just a bit. This can really add up if something interesting like a Laker game is on.

Sally does all her packing without any distractions. Consequently, she focuses all of her attention on the task at hand and finishes much faster.

If you want to do something more efficiently, you should understand which obstacles are natural and which are self-imposed. The self-imposed obstacles are a lot easier to reduce or eliminate. If I want to pack faster the easiest solution is to simply turn off the TV. I still won't be as fast as Sally, but I'll be a lot faster than I am now.

Where did all the time go?
Sometimes these inefficiencies aren't obvious. A good way to spot pockets of inefficiency is to track your time for a week and then look at the results.

I've created a simple time tracking worksheet that you can use. You can download it here or watch the nifty how-to video.


Our weird relationship with time

I did a little experiment this morning in my kitchen. I guessed how long it would take me to make a delicious breakfast of coffee and English muffins with melted cheese. My estimate was three minutes. The actual time was nine. Was this how my day was going to go?

This little tale may come as a suprise to people who know me well. Over the years, I've crafted the illusion that I am very organized and punctual. A friend of mine once said, "If you are ever five minutes late to a meeting I'm going to call the police because I know something happened." Ah, but there's one big secret to my apparent organization. I keep it real with time.

Use the Rule of 3 to Avoid Disappointment
The next time you give someone a time estimate multiply your gut instinct by three. For example, if your gut says "1 hour" then propose you get back to the person in 3 hours. If your gut says 5 minutes, propose 15. I call this the rule of three.

Why do this? Our desire to please coupled with a lack of time-awareness leads us to make unrealistic promises and sets us up for failure. If I promise I'll get back to you in an hour because I want to appear responsive, I'll look like a slacker when it actually takes me three.  On the other hand, it's likely you'll be OK with a promised response time of three hours.  And, you'll be please if I actually do respond in an hour.

Avoid the Procrastination Chain Reaction
We often find ourselves in a time crunch when we procrastinate. A time crunch increases our stress levels and may impact the quality and thoroughness of our work. High stress and low quality is a perfect recipe for poor productivity. It's a mean chain reaction.

In his book Predictably Irrational, Dan Ariely details an experiment where he compared the grades of three classes that had different types of deadlines to submit their papers. Here are the results:

  1. Pre-set deadlines. The class that was told when each paper was due got the best grades.
  2. Set your own deadlines. The class that was allowed to set their own deadlines at the start of the semester got the second best grades.
  3. No deadlines. The class with no deadlines at all received the worst grades.

The experiment highlights our problems not only with procrastination, but our inability to fully understand it. It also suggests that the way to avoid the pracrastination chain reaction is to set deadlines for yourself that represent incremental progress toward a goal.

Arrive Early not Late
I don't often worry about trying to get to a meeting on time because I plan to arrive early. The result of being early is I'm more focused and ultimately more productive. For example, I'm going to a meeting this evening that's about 45 minutes away from my office. Here are two ways I can approach it.

Just in Time
I could plan to leave my office 45 minutes before the meeting to arrive just in time. The problem with this plan is I might get caught up in a project, caught on a phone call, or caught in traffic on the way there. All of those situations would cause me to arrive late (annoying others) and a little stressed out.

Plenty of time
What I'll do instead is leave two hours early and drive to a Starbucks down the street from my meeting. I'll bring work with me and get caught up on a few things. Changing my environment to Starbucks will positively impact my productivity because it will refresh my mental state. I'll also be able to arrive a few minutes early to the meeting which means I'll get to do a little networking and will be in a positive frame of mind once the meeting begins.

Needs some help?

Check out our Time Management workshop. Better yet, contribute to the discussion and let me know what you do to keep it real!