The other evening, I found myself impatiently waiting on the supermarket checkout line. Although I waited just a few minutes while the clerk rang up the customers ahead of me, those minutes seemed to last much longer. Why?
Other customers seemed irritated, too, shifting from side to side, peering around one another, and making small noises when one woman pulled out her wallet after the clerk told her the total. How dare she waste five seconds? Didn't she know she'd have to pay?
It all made me realize that patience is wearing thin -- not just mine, but the patience of billions of Internet-empowered consumers who have grown used to instantaneous responses to such critical questions as "When will Earth be sucked into the sun?" or "What is Beyonce's shoe size?"
Wait For It
Now, when we want to find something out, we don't have to wait, we don't want to wait and we're not going to wait any longer. And in the rare moment when we do have to wait, it's very irritating.
Social media has only compounded this effect. Now, if we fire off a tweet to a company, we can tweet bad things about the company if they fail to respond.
Companies that don't understand the power of social media are learning it the hard way, putting out little fires -- and occasional big blazes -- here and there when customers air their complaints in posts that often harmonize with the feelings of other consumers.
Case in point: after clutzy baggage handlers at O'Hare Airport broke one of their guitars, the country band Sons of Maxwell recorded the episode in "United Breaks Guitars," a comic video that now has been viewed 14 million times on YouTube, generating more than 74,500 "likes."
Days, Not Hours
My grocery aisle musings popped back into my head today when I read the results of a study from Eptica, the Berkshire, England-based customer management company. It noted how retailers in the United Kingdom are "improving" their email response times, but failing to deliver on Twitter.
What struck me most was what passes for improvement. On average, the study said the wait for a reply to an email inquiry had "improved dramatically" to a mere 35 hours and 43 minutes. Let's call that a day and a half. As recently as 2012, the figure was almost 67 hours.
And that long wait masked an even uglier truth. Only three-quarters of the retailers ever responded. And of those, only two-thirds -- half of the 40 retailers studied -- responded "successfully." That means the answered correctly and consistently with answers they provided through other channels.
But now the really nasty part. Only 33 percent of the retailers answer tweets successfully, even though 80 percent of them are on Twitter. The average wait time on Twitter was 13 hours, 10 minutes and even that was extended by one laggard that took 76 hours to reply. With that retailer removed, the average was 6 hours and 44 minutes -- a lightning flash compared to the email response time, but eons on a social network that limits messages to 140 characters and transmits them in an instant.
The problem was most acute, by the way, among entertainment retailers where only half supported Twitter, 10 percent of tweets were answered, and only 10 percent of those were answered successfully. The best was in the fashion sector, where all the retailers were hip to Twitter, 70 percent answered tweets and 65 percent of the answers met the goals.
"The topic of social media in CRM is of a primary importance for modern businesses," Shahzaib Malik wrote last year in a scholarly paper at the Saimaa University of Applied Sciences in Finland. "Today’s customers are very different from the ones living 15 years ago. They buy considerably more and have become much more demanding as regards quality, innovations and functions of their purchases."
The 98 Percent
Reflecting the views of many customer expectation experts worldwide, Malik said these changes "require marketers to adjust accordingly and thinking about more and more new, creative ways of how to get closer to customers. Social media is one such way, which has a great potential as a new marketing tool, because even today 1.2 billion people (potential clients) use Facebook; 490 million or more visit YouTube per month; 98 percent of people aged between 18 and 24 regularly use social media."
Of course, none of this is lost to customer expectation management vendors like Epitica.
"The retail sector has been revolutionized by the expansion of digital channels, meaning retailers have to answer more question, across more channels, than ever before," Eptica CEO Olivier Njamfa said in a statement that accompanied the study. "However our study shows that, while some retailers are leading the way, many are failing to deliver fast, accurate responses and consistency across channels."
Perhaps we'll just have to wait for improvements.