It’s no secret: People hate to wait.

Whether we're staring at our watches in a checkout line or tapping our fingers on hold, the time we spend waiting for service diminishes our customer experience. Long wait and hold times also mean lost sales, bigger service issues when they do come up, and customers who are ready to jump to another provider at a moment's notice.

In one industry study, 58 percent of respondents reported that being on hold made them feel frustrated. This frustration often manifests itself in a lack of patience. A different study showed that 15 percent of callers are likely to hang up at around 40 seconds.

Want to keep your marketing director up at night? Figure out how much your company pays to generate sales leads (your Cost per Lead) and then calculate the financial impact when 15 percent of those leads hang up the phone after 40 seconds.

Wait times not only affect customer frustration and abandonment but also how much customers are willing to spend. A study by Gad Allon of the Kellogg School of Management discovered that in the fast food industry, each extra second of wait time reduces the amount that customers are prepared to pay. Each second.

Whatever the scenario, longer customer wait times translate into diminished customer experiences.

So what can organizations do to decrease customer wait times? Here are five tips that will work in almost any industry.

1. Find the chokepoints

Wait times often result from bottlenecks. Even the most efficient processes have chokepoints where the process slows down.

Most business school graduates are familiar with Eliyahu Goldratt’s seminal work The Goal, a book that is required reading in business schools across the United States.

In The Goal, Goldratt puts forth his theory of constraints, which proposes that the limitations of a system are usually created by a small number of constraints. Goldratt uses the metaphor of Herbie, an out-of-shape child who was slowing down a group of hikers. Once the constraint – the Herbie – was identified, its impact could be mitigated.

Look for the Herbies in your organization. Where do your processes tend to congest and how does this affect customer wait times?

At what point in your customers’ journey (or path-to-purchase) are they experiencing the longest wait times?

2. Focus on the front end

Why do many customers end up waiting? Because they are in the wrong place. Take a look at the beginning of your customer’s experience.

  • Does your website have clear detailed information that helps customers know the correct channels to use or processes to follow?
  • Does your team have the information they need to correctly route customers the first time?
  • Do your systems ensure that customers who are routed will be connected with a service rep promptly?

Wait times often occur because your customer is not in front of the person who can help them. Make sure your front-end processes are as accurate and effective as possible.

3. Create self-service opportunities

In customer experience, we often speak about the importance of the human touch. The reality, however, is that many customers like to be self-sufficient. They often do not want to talk to us at all or want to do so via the channels and methods they prefer.

Research by Steven Van Belleghem and SSI found that 40 percent of respondents prefer self-service to human contact for their future contact with companies. In the digital realm, a study by one live chat provider found that 88 percent of respondents said having live chat made the digital experience better. If we assume that a successful live chat session prevents a phone call, then both the customer and the organization win.

Technology is often key to creating self-service opportunities. Whether your organization uses a better web interface, has a self-serve checkout lane, or arms its floor reps with tablet CRM systems, technology that takes into account customer preferences creates the ability to decrease wait times and create more enjoyable customer experiences.

In the end, the equation is fairly simple: the less customers have to wait on someone from your organization to assist them, the less they have to wait overall.

4. Focus on customer expectations

The impact of customer wait times is inevitably dependent on context. A 15-minute wait time at your doctor’s office will hardly register; a 15-minute wait time at a fast food restaurant will send many customers off the rails.

  • What are the expectations in your industry? If you are in the quick oil change business, your wait times should not be two hours.
  • What are the expectations created by your marketing? If your marketing campaign promises a one-day delivery, a two-day delivery will not cut it – even if it is still faster than your competitors.
  • What are the expectations created by your past performance? We can become victims of our own success. It doesn’t matter if your competition makes customers wait a half hour for an appointment. It does not matter if your marketing guarantees 20 minutes or less. If you have served the customer in less than ten minutes on the last five visits, that will be the expectation going forward.

Do your best to make sure both you and your organization understand your customers’ expectations at every stop along the customer journey.

5. Optimize your staffing

Wait times are often the result of too few people to help. Once you have focused on optimizing your systems and processes, you need to make sure you have the right teams in the right places at the right time.

We’ve all had to checkout at a busy grocery store that had only one register open – it is not a great customer experience. Here are a few quick tips for approaching the relationship between wait times and staffing:

  • Analyze your customer data to understand your peak times and to make sure you are adequately staffed.
  • Create contingency plans for when employees call out.
  • Look for ways to operate as seamlessly as possible when you enter a period of being understaffed. (Hey, in the real world, it happens!) Can you sacrifice some internal procedures like low-value reports or maintenance in the short term while you staff up? Look for ways to make sure your customers feel the shortage as little as possible and you keep your wait times to a minimum.

These tips should provide a strong starting point for analyzing your organization’s service delivery and beginning the process of decreasing customer wait times. Make sure to focus first on the few changes that will yield the greatest results; you can refine the smaller details once you have made progress on the key drivers.