An idle brain: customer service enemy number one


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Idle brain airport

Our brains hate being idle. It’s why we get annoyed if we must wait for something, but not when it takes us longer to work towards that something. Unfortunately, idle brains become particularly irritable during customer service interactions.

Think of how much you hate being forced into dormancy when you demand action. As a customer waiting for service, nothing is more frustrating than being stuck on hold, stood stationary in a queue, or sat waiting for a reply to an email or message. When it comes to waiting — no matter how smooth the rest of the experience — idle brains make a customer’s overall perception of your service low.

Here’s why an idle brain is enemy number one when it comes to providing great customer service, and what you can do to avoid it.

Real-time response and instant gratification
In years gone by, we might not have liked waiting, but we would do it anyway — it was a necessary evil. Suffering through tedious telephone trees was the one of the only ways to access customer support. Instant answers and support were rare, and our idle brains, while irritated, could weather the wait.

Today’s fast-paced society has made us increasingly impatient. With the rise of instant messaging, for example, we’ve grown used to getting real-time responses and immediate gratification. We’re growing accustomed to accessing customer support at any time of the day, from anywhere, and we don’t like waiting for it. But what happens when this thirst for customer service speed is unsated?

Perception of waiting for service
According to the adage, time flies when you’re having fun. That’s because our brains love being occupied. When we are forced to wait, we aren’t having fun, we aren’t occupied, and our brains get antsy. As a result, time starts to drag. In fact, when we are stuck waiting for service or support, or even just in a queue, our perception of how long we’ve had to wait is longer than the actual time we spend waiting. Happiness tends to go up when wait times go down.

However, we need justification for being occupied. If we can take a shortcut, or get to our end goal ‘faster’, we will choose that option. If that means we end up waiting because we got there too soon, we get grumpy. So, it isn’t enough to distract customers with an irrelevant game or magazine. The activity of the customer needs to feel productive.

For a real-world example, you need only look at Houston airport. Customers complained of long waits at the baggage claim, so the airport made them walk further before reaching their belongings. Their brains were occupied with the journey, and even though it took the same amount of time for their bags to come through, the service was perceived to be quicker and better, and the complaints disappeared.

It’s a simple psychology trick, but keeping brains occupied in a customer service context makes wait times feel shorter. So, when it comes to your customer service, while the process of reaching you might not be ‘fun’, it should be suitably occupying for our impatient brains.

The need for feedback
So, how do you make waiting more bearable for your customers? You feed the need for feedback. When our brains are forced to wait, it’s made more bearable by seeing or knowing that progress is being made towards our wants.

Transparency in your service, then, is a great way to support waiting customers. It reduces the annoyance of wait times, and it also builds trust and confidence in your services when they see that you are helping them get what they want.

In store, this is achieved by customers seeing your team moving to help them. In a fast-food restaurant, customers get feedback when they see their food prepared in front of them. Online, this need for feedback can be fed by informing a customer of how you’re helping them in real-time with live chat software.

Good things come to those who wait
Every cloud has a silver lining, and every idle brain has an occupying hope. If something has taken a long time, then it must be good, right? Think about a meal that you had to wait for when you were hungry. When you finally got it, it probably tasted amazing.

Sometimes we have to wait — it’s a fact of life. But, when we must wait for something, we are often forgiving when it’s better than expected. For customer service, this comes in the form of personalisation. Customers will wait longer for a personalised experience, or a bespoke product. If your product or eventual service is delightful enough, a short wait time will be forgiven.

Against an idle brain, you don’t necessarily need to shorten the process of receiving support. Instead, the importance lies on being there, ready to support the customer whenever they make the effort to get through to you.

Boost customer satisfaction
You could go down the route of Houston airport and make you service processes longer. You could find a way to provide ongoing feedback to your customers, letting them know how you’re acting to serve them. You could simply speed up your service, or find a way to personalise each interaction with your customers.

Regardless of how you do it, you need to successfully manage customer wait times. The devil makes work for idle hands, and customers will make complaints for idle brains. Boost their satisfaction by keeping brains occupied.

Niamh Reed
I'm a Keele University graduate and copywriter for digital engagement specialist Parker Software. I graduated with first-class honors in English with creative writing and was also awarded a certificate of competency in Japanese. I can usually be found feverishly writing business technology articles – covering everything from AI to customer service – and drinking too much tea.


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