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 aheadof me, those minutes seemed to last much longer. Why?

Other customers seemed irritated, too, shifting from side to side, peeringaround one another, and making small noises when one woman pulled out her walletafter 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, butthe patience of billions of Internet-empowered consumers who have grown used toinstantaneous responses to such critical questions as "When will Earth besucked 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, wedon't want to wait and we're not going to wait any longer. And inthe 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 toa company, we can tweet bad things about the company if they fail torespond. 

Companies that don't understand the power of social media are learning it thehard way, putting out little fires -- and occasional big blazes -- here andthere when customers air their complaints in posts that often harmonize with thefeelings of other consumers. 

Case in point: after clutzy baggage handlers at O'Hare Airport broke one oftheir guitars, the country band Sons of Maxwell recorded the episode in "UnitedBreaks Guitars," a comic video that now has been viewed 14 milliontimes on YouTube, generating more than 74,500 "likes."

Days, Not Hours

My grocery aisle musings popped back into my head today when I read theresults 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 onTwitter.

What struck me most was what passes for improvement. On average, thestudy said the wait for a reply to an email inquiry had "improveddramatically" to a mere 35 hours and 43 minutes. Let's call that a day anda half. As recently as 2012, the figure was almost 67 hours.

And that long wait masked an even uglier truth. Only three-quarters of theretailers ever responded. And of those, only two-thirds -- half of the 40retailers studied -- responded "successfully." That means the answeredcorrectly and consistently with answers they provided through other channels.

Learning Opportunities

Twitter Failure

But now the really nasty part. Only 33 percent of the retailers answer tweetssuccessfully, even though 80 percent of them are on Twitter. The average waittime on Twitter was 13 hours, 10 minutes and even that was extended by onelaggard that took 76 hours to reply. With that retailer removed, the average was6 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 andtransmits them in an instant.

The problem was most acute, by the way, among entertainment retailers whereonly half supported Twitter, 10 percent of tweets were answered, and only 10percent 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 65percent of the answers met the goals.

"The topic of social media in CRM is of a primary importance for modernbusinesses," Shahzaib Malikwrote last year in a scholarly paper at the Saimaa University of Applied Sciencesin Finland. "Today’s customers are very different from the ones living 15years 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, Maliksaid these changes "require marketers to adjust accordingly and thinking aboutmore 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 marketingtool, 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 vendorslike Epitica.

"The retail sector has been revolutionized by the expansion of digitalchannels, meaning retailers have to answer more question, across more channels,than ever before," Eptica CEO Olivier Njamfa said in a statement thataccompanied the study. "However our study shows  that, while someretailers are leading the way, many are failing to deliver fast, accurateresponses and consistency across channels."

Perhaps we'll just have to wait for improvements.

Title image by Elena Dijour /