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Can Fast and Friendly Employees Make Up for Long Lines?

By Stephany Schings, Communications Specialist

As countless businesses expound in their advertisements, customers today expect “quick service with a smile”—and many companies pledge to give just that. But when customers are forced to wait in long lines to be served, can fast and friendly service still leave them satisfied?

SIOP Member Allison Gabriel asked this question when she began developing her honors project at Pennsylvania State University in 2007. Working with her advisor, SIOP Member and Penn State Associate Professor Alicia Grandey, Gabriel developed a research study to determine whether friendliness or efficiency could counteract the negative effects of a long line or if either would lose importance during busy periods.

“When you think about a lot of the literature involving customer encounters, there is a lot that says friendliness and efficiency are important,” Gabriel said. “But we were wondering if there was going to be a trade off at some point. When stores are really busy, for example, would there be a tradeoff where friendliness wouldn’t matter?”

What they ended up finding is that only fast service moderates customers’ negative reactions to a long wait, though friendliness still has the stronger effect on customer reactions and encounter attitudes in general.

To get these answers, Gabriel and Grandey, along with the help of trained undergraduate students enrolled in a first-year customer service seminar Grandey taught and for which Gabriel was a teaching assistant, conducted an observational study in food service settings, coding the busyness of the store pre-encounter, the friendliness and efficiency of the employee during encounter, and the customer reactions postencounter. The undergraduate students observed 208 service encounters between employees and customers in a northeastern college town during the month of October in 2007 and 2008.  They coded busyness as line length, friendliness as smiles and eye contact, efficiency as time elapsed during encounter, and then asked the customer to complete a survey about the encounter.

Gabriel and Grandey made four hypotheses during their study: (a) Long line length is negatively associated with customer reactions to the service encounter, (b) employee friendliness and efficiency will be positively associated with customer reactions, (c) employee friendliness interacts with line length to predict customer reactions, such that the negative effect of waiting in a long line on customer satisfaction will be weakened by friendliness during the encounter, and (d) employee encounter efficiency interacts with line length to predict customer satisfaction and reactions:  efficiency during the encounter weakens the negative effect of a long line length.

As expected, their first hypothesis was true. The longer the line, the lower the customer’s positive reaction to the experience. Based on the study’s results, line length was negatively related to both customer satisfaction and reaction to the encounter.

Part of their second hypothesis was also confirmed, Gabriel said, with employee friendliness accounting for a significant amount of variance for customer satisfaction and encounter reactions.

“We found a positive effect for friendliness, so friendliness was directly affecting customer reactions,” Gabriel said. 

However, the second part of their second hypothesis was not confirmed—employee efficiency did not account for significant variance for either customer satisfaction or customer reactions.  To go along with these results, the study showed that their third hypothesis was not confirmed while the fourth was. These results suggest that employee friendliness did not compensate for pre-wait time but efficiency did compensate for that experience, Gabriel explained.

“We found that while friendliness is important to customers’ reactions and satisfaction whether a business is busy or not, only quick and efficient service helps mitigate the negative reactions of a long line,” Gabriel explained.

If the encounter took a greater amount of time, line length was negatively related to customer satisfaction; however, when the encounter was brief it buffered the negative impact of pre-encounter line length.  This can be attributed to what Gabriel calls the direct compensatory effect.

“Customers expect direct compensation when they have to wait in long lines,” she explained. “They want to get time back during the service to make up for the time they spent in line. Direct compensatory effect says that when you lose something in a service encounter you want to be compensated in the same way; time back in the encounter compensates for time lost in the line.”

So, was there ever a tradeoff, as Gabriel asked, where a store could get so busy that friendliness doesn’t matter? No, Grandey said.

"The results show that on average friendly encounters produce more positive reactions, and this did not depend on busyness," Grandey explained. "In other words, once people get their turn, they still want a smile, even if things are busy.”

Gabriel said some literature has suggested that customers expect the opposite when the line is short or the business is slow.

“Some literature suggests that when the store is really slow, customers want a longer service encounter, with more friendliness and personal attention,” she explained. “But the study showed that when the line was short, the reactions by customers were the same whether the service encounter was brief or long.”

Grandey explained that this previous research that has suggested that busy times mean lower expectations for friendliness were conducted in Israel, "where there are different 'display rules' than in the U.S."

Though friendliness always matters, Gabriel explained, efficiency is the only thing that can counteract the negative effects of a long line, so they are both important in that situation.

“I think this study shows that employers should really put more emphasis on employees to really monitor the entire customer encounter, not just friendliness or just efficiency,” Gabriel added. “But I think it is important for employers to recognize that when a business is busy, you should really make the effort to move the customers through quickly.”