Setting your customers' expectations is almost always better than relying on their blind patience.
Looking down the tunnel won't make a train arrive any faster, yet thousands of New Yorkers insist on craning their neck over the platform edge anyway. For almost a century, seeing the lights of an upcoming car illuminate the pitch-black tunnels was the only way to know when a train was pulling into your station down in the New York Subway. The MTA's estimate that trains run every 5 to 12 minutes couldn't be corroborated by a single resident of the city, and even if it were miraculously proven true on a stopwatch, it didn't feel true to any single soul waiting down there for their next ride.
That changed in 2018, when the MTA completed its 11-year mission to install countdown clocks in each of their 472 subway stations. With almost 300 stations only receiving coverage in the final year of installation, New York finally joined Chicago, Washington DC, London, Paris, Tokyo, Berlin, and many other cities in letting its subway riders know when the trains are coming.
While the MTA still faces massive infrastructure issues resulting in overcrowded trains and delays so frequent as to become the expectation rather than the rule, the countdown clocks have provided a measure of relief for millions of commuters.
Electronic arrival-time clocks, a convenience long enjoyed by users of mass transit in London, Paris and Washington, started to trickle into New York City’s labyrinthine transportation network only in 2010.
ETA and customer mindset
The MTA's countdown clocks are just one of many examples of companies and organizations using ETA's to manage customers' expectations and anxieties during periods of mandatory waiting. From online loading bars to package and food-delivery trackers, customers have grown to expect that if they're going to be asked to wait, the service they're waiting on could at least tell them how long.
As in any other instance where you would provide someone with an ETA, the primary purpose is to set expectations, and give them confidence in your ability to meet them. It's a promise you make to your customer that reflects the overall reliability of your company to meet a self-set standard of quality. It many cases, it can also serve as a first impression: if you can't ensure timeliness, how could you ensure other aspects of quality?
Furthermore, it's always beneficial to set expectations for your customers rather than let them set their own for you. The main reason for this, typically, is because you should have the information required to make an accurate assessment. Meanwhile, your customer would largely base their expectations on what they want, which may or may not be reasonable. By giving them an ETA rather than letting them come up with their own, you can exert an element of control over their reactions. In the example of food delivery, without an ETA, a customer may get mad if their food doesn't arrive within a self-determined half-hour of them ordering it. However, if you tell them at time-of-order to expect a 40-minute wait, then you're essentially giving your cooks and delivery people 10 minutes of extra leeway to do their jobs.
The negative effects of waiting times when it comes to food experiences is known to impact not only consumer service satisfaction but also customer loyalty.
Establishing a promise through signaling
Providing customers with an ETA shows that you respect their time and agency. It gives them the information they need in order to continue their transaction with your company with confidence. Giving your customer an ETA, also gives them the choice to reaffirm their interest in your service. When a restaurant gives a customer a wait-time for a seat or ETA for delivery, the customer accepting it means that restaurant is already most of the way towards another sale. However, a customer without an ETA may decide to eat somewhere else after waiting too long for a seat, meaning that restaurant hasn't just lost a customer, but earned some bad will.
In the MTA's situation, the countdown clocks help commuters know whether or not they can expect to get somewhere on time, and gives them the information they need to make any adjustments necessary to their schedule if not. ETAs give the customer the ability to plan their actions around your service rather than leaving them feeling like they're wasting time with unknowns. An accurate ETA helps the customer know whether what you're offering is a good fit for their lifestyle.
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