How Invisible Ropes Ruin the Customer Service Experience

The prank was pure genius.

Two boys, each about 12 years old, stood on opposite sides of the road. As a car approached, the boys would pantomime picking up a rope and pulling it taught across the road. 

This caused speeding cars to slow down as the drivers perceived they were about to run into whatever the boys had stretched across the road. They couldn't see anything in front of them, but the boys' actions told the drivers' subconscious brains that some danger lurked ahead.

Of course, there was no rope. The drivers were reacting to their perception, not reality.

Customer service is often the same way. The experience is almost always amplified for good or bad by invisible ropes—things that alter your customer's perception of reality.

This post will help you identify invisible ropes that might annoy your customers and ruin their experience.

Sign asking customer to wait to be called.

Wait Time

Customer service often involves waiting. Waiting in line for help. Waiting in line to make a purchase. Waiting on hold for a customer service representative to answer the phone. 

Long waits tend to make customers very unhappy, but there's an invisible rope here.

A 1996 study by researchers Ziv Carmon and Daniel Kahneman revealed that people overestimate wait times by as much as 36 percent. They discovered several factors in particular that increase our perception of how long we've been waiting:

  • Expectations: The wait time is longer than we expected it to be.

  • Fairness: People are cutting in line.

  • Competition: Another line appears to be moving faster.

  • Movement: The queue is moving slowly.

  • Line Length: We can see a long line.

  • Boredom: Our wait time perception increases when we are bored.

  • Unpredictability: There is no information telling us how much longer it will be.

The easiest fix is to shorten the actual wait., but that's sometimes not possible. So some companies have found a set of techniques to make the wait time feel shorter.

Contact Friction

Customers must often deal with an unnecessary amount of friction to contact a company, even for the most basic of transactions.

A 2015 study from Mattersight found that 66 percent of customers who called a contact center were frustrated before they even started talking to a live person. The amount of phone menu hoops we have to jump through is ridiculous.

I recently tried to sign up for a webinar that looked mildly interesting. The registration field for this free event contained 20 required fields. Suddenly, I was no longer interested.

A certain florist has been sending me several spam emails per day, ever since I made the mistake of ordering flowers through its website. I never signed up (hence, spam), and I've clicked "unsubscribe" on multiple emails. All to no avail.

Perhaps I can send a simple direct message on Twitter? Nope! The "primary" Twitter handle directs customers to the customer service Twitter account. That account still uses outdated techniques, such as requiring customers to email, or follow the account so the customer can san a direct message. 

I won’t be ordering from that company anytime soon. (Side note, if your company uses Twitter, make sure your account is set up to allow customers to send you a direct message without following you, like mine.)

In reality, this extra effort might add an additional minute or two to the interaction. That's really not too much, but it's the perceived waste that really annoys us.

The solution here is simple. Make it as easy as possible for customers to contact your company. If you’re having difficulty getting support to make necessary changes, ask your executives contact your company through the same channels your customers use. That should get their attention.


So many customer service situations can be solved or ruined based on the perceived friendliness of the employee. 

A restaurant meal can become "an amazing experience" or the "worst meal ever," depending on the rapport the server can develop with their guests.

A retail shopper can become "a customer for life" or vow to "never go back," based on the retail associate's ability to listen carefully to the customers' needs.

A cable company can ensure a problem is "quickly solved" or deliver "nightmare customer service" based on the technician's ability to solve a problem and make customers feel okay in the process.

Yet getting employees to be friendly isn't as simple as demanding or expecting it from the people who report to us. They need a work environment where they can actually be happy. They want to feel respected, and support products and services that make them proud.

And when they don't feel great, acting friendly can be incredibly difficult.


You can see an example of the invisible rope prank in this short video. It's a great example of how perception can alter the way we see reality.

Look for invisible ropes in your own organization. A sure sign is when customers complain about something unreasonable or their complaint seems untrue. That's often an indicator that an invisible rope tripped them up somewhere along their customer journey.

Another solution is improving your ability to set clear expectations. You can identify some situations with this short video.

Jedi mind tricks for reducing customer wait time

It’s no secret that customers hate to wait. What may be surprising is customer satisfaction isn’t just influenced by the actual amount of time spent waiting. How customers spend that time is also important.

A recent New York Times article provides a nice summary of ways that psychology influences our perception of wait times. One statistic really jumped out:

People overestimate actual wait times by as much as 36 percent. 

In other words, waiting a little bit makes us feel like we’ve waited a bit more. The good news is companies can influence customers’ perceptions of wait times even when they can’t decrease the actual time spent waiting. 

Would you be interested in learning a few Jedi mind tricks to help your customers feel less aggravation, frustration, and dissatisfaction the next time they have to wait?

If so, read on.

Customers hate to wait. 

Customers hate to wait. 

What influences wait time perception?

Let’s start with a basic overview of some of the factors that influence our perception of wait times. These are primarily directed at physically standing in line, but many can be connected to other situations such as being on hold with a call center. Much of the background data is neatly summarized in a 1995 research paper called The Experienced Utility of Queuing.

However, here are factors that can make the wait seem longer:

  • Expectations. The wait time is longer than we expected it to be.
  • Fairness. People are cutting in line.
  • Competition. Another line appears to be moving faster.
  • Movement. The queue is moving slowly.
  • Line Length. We can see a long line.
  • Boredom. Our wait time perception increases when we are bored.
  • Unpredictability. There is no information telling us how much longer it will be.

Understanding these factors can allow companies to reduce customers’ perceptions that they are waiting a long time. Disney is a master of this science in their theme parks.

The Indiana Jones Adventure ride is a great example. A sign at the ride’s entrance displays an expected wait time, which is usually a slightly conservative estimate. The line is clearly demarcated so interlopers are less likely to wander in. There’s a single line (except for “Fast Pass” holders and disabled guests), so nobody gets anxious over choosing the wrong line. The line is designed to keep moving so guests feel as though they are constantly making progress. Guests are led through a series of rooms so they aren’t able to see the length of the line. They’re engaged with entertaining videos and clever displays that make guests feel the adventure has already begun while they continue to move forward. Finally, the line is designed to give guests a glimpse of the end so they get a sense that they’re getting closer.

Make no mistake. The line for the ride is often quite long. However, a little Disney magic has prompted more than one guest to say, “I wish we didn’t have to wait in line for an hour, but it didn’t seem that long.”


Ways to reduce perceived wait time

You don’t have to design an entertainment extravaganza to help your customers feel like the wait isn’t quite so long. A few simple strategies can make a big impact.

Strategy #1: Provide accurate estimates. Restaurants, call centers, cable companies, and many other businesses routinely provide estimated wait times. This strategy cuts both ways. Customers are generally satisfied if the estimated wait time is agreeable and it matches (or is slight longer than) the actual wait. Customers generally get upset if they end up waiting longer than expected or the original estimate is too long.

The key here is to give accurate, but slightly conservative wait time estimates. Historical data and operational knowledge often enable these fairly precise forecasts. Just be careful to check your estimates frequently to make sure they’re still accurate.

Strategy #2: Provide a fair and common queue. We’ve all played the game at the supermarket where you select the line you hope will go the fastest. Another surprise from the New York Times article was that the negative feeling associated with seeing another line move faster than yours is much stronger than a positive reaction from picking the best line.

The common queue or common-feeder line is a way to reduce this anxiety. It also makes it more difficult for interlopers to exploit confusion and cut their way in front of someone else.

Well-trained employees can step in when it’s not possible to physically denote the line. I recently rode the cable car in San Francisco and was amazed at how well the cable car operators ensured passengers boarded the car in the order they were waiting. Knowing they were making sure the process was fair reduced a lot of passengers’ anxiety.

Strategy #3: Occupy their time. Another sure-fire way to make wait times feel shorter is to keep your customers occupied or entertained.

You don’t have to be Disney to take advantage of this simple principle. Some restaurants put out free coffee at breakfast to help guests warm up while they wait. Waiting rooms have magazines, television, and free WiFi. Call centers have music or messages played while customers are on hold.

One of the best ways to occupy your customers’ time is through engaging them directly. Initiating conversation will make the time fly for your customer and it may even help uncover additional ways to be of service. Don’t worry if you aren’t a natural conversationalist – you can always borrow my five question technique.


The best trick of all

The previous tips can all enable you to improve your customers’ perceptions of wait times. What would happen if you could reduce actual wait times?

Long waits increase aggravation and increased aggravation means lost business. Customers will turn around and leave if a restaurant wait is too long. They’ll hang up and call your competitor if they’re on hold too long. Even if they stick it out, customers may choose to take their business elsewhere if the wait was too long the last time.  

Conversely, shorter wait times can easily become a source of competitive advantage (Kumar, 2005). Improving a process or hiring more staff might be another great way of using service to attract and retain customers.