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Lifestyles

Companies trying to close the time window for customers

| Saturday, April 21, 2012, 2:44 p.m.

We can watch new movies without leaving our couches. Our smartphones instantly alert us when our team scores. In less time than it takes to make toast, we can take a photo of our new baby and share it with friends and relatives around the world.

But we still lost $37.7 billion last year waiting at home for the cable guy, plumber or refrigerator repairman to show up, according to a survey conducted by the market research firm of IBOPE Zogby.

Zogby asked more than 1,000 adults to estimate the wages they lost waiting for in-home appointments and service calls. Of those surveyed, 58 percent said they waited an average of 4 1/2 hours in 2011.

The survey was conducted for TOA Technologies, a cloud-computing company near Cleveland that develops software to help companies reduce drive time, overtime and missed appointments.

The instant gratification of the digital age is putting companies under increased pressure to deliver goods and services faster -- and when they say they will. Technology may be shrinking the globe, but a delivery truck or service van still must make the journey to a brick and mortar address. And hell hath no fury like a customer who takes a day off work to wait. And wait. And wait. Unhappy consumers are not shy about denouncing the offender on Yelp, Facebook or Twitter.

Some companies now update customers on their waiting list via text, phone or email. The name of the game is managing customer expectations and alleviating their stress, says John Opdycke, vice president of worldwide marketing for TOA.

"No matter the customer-service setting, customers will sort of relax and release some of their expectations if they're communicated to," he says.

That appears to be the case for patients waiting in a doctor's office. A 2011 report by Press Ganey, a health-care performance consulting company based in South Bend, Ind., says that patients were less likely to become antsy if they were told how long the wait was going to be. The idea is that office staff acknowledge the value of patients' time, the report says. Some doctors offices now post wait times in their reception areas.

Customers often will pay extra for a shorter wait at home. Last year, UPS introduced My Choice, which lets customers specify a two-hour window for a delivery, within the company's own schedule for the area. The yearly fee is $40.

"For a company like UPS and Fed Ex, it's easier because they have a much higher level of predictability as to how much time they're going to spend when they do arrive at an address," says Satish Jindel, president of SJ Consulting Group in Sewickley. "They're just delivering and leaving. They're not fixing anything. They're not modifying something."

But with GPS and mapping software, there's no reason that cable and repair companies shouldn't be able to predict their arrival time at the customer's house within two hours, Jindel says.

"Either they have it, or if they don't they should be buying it," he says.

When it comes to home installation or repair, consumers can help their own cause.

"The customer receiving the service can provide better and more detailed information about what they have in the house," Jindel says. "For example, if you're getting a washer and dryer and the laundry room is on the second floor, it will make a difference."

Dave Wittman, vice president of cable marketing for Armstrong Cable, says they've halved the customer wait "window" for service and installation from four to two hours over 10 years. Armstrong has more than 250,000 TV subscribers in a territory stretching from Butler County north to Meadville and east to Connellsville.

"Everything is about respecting the customer's time," Wittman says. "We've automated how we create our drive time schedules for our technicians and installers, creating a more efficient process there."

The office of AAA East Central serviced nearly 650,000 calls last year in Western Pennsylvania, West Virginia, southcentral Ohio and western New York. More than half those calls were serviced using a digital dispatch system that was upgraded in 2004, managing director Steve Popovich says. It handles up to 65 percent of their calls, which can include requests for a tow truck driver or a battery jump.

"We're probably taking four to seven minutes out of the service-delivery chain," Popovich says

In rural areas, service calls are still handled by phone or fax.

"What we quote often, 'We will be to you within 60 minutes,' " Popovich says. "But we shoot for 30 minutes."

The automated system will prompt a tow truck driver 10 minutes prior to the estimated time of arrival.

"It'll make up for a lot of sins if you get there quick," Popovich says.

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