Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Managing Expectations, or "The Mail Room Problem"

The mail room here does not have posted hours. Though I am sure that they are actually open for quite a liberal period when compared to conventional post offices, many people are somewhat upset with the service. For our workgroup, we are generally gone by around 6 in the morning and back around 8 at night. Other workgroups have similar or differing schedules, and it is hard to accomodate all of these. Every day I see people go up to the mail room, at a time when it was open the day before, only to be turned away in frustration by a locked door, lamenting vocally about how the mail room is "never open." 

On the other hand, last night I got into a van that left our work area around 1900, instead of taking the usual 1915 bus. Since everyone on the van had expected to ride home on the relatively slow bus, 15 minutes later, the feelings of happiness were quite noticeable in the van.

The difference in emotion between these two groups was not due to a difference in actual experience. For the first group, 30 seconds had been wasted by their walk over to the mail room. That is certainly less inconvenient than a 13 hour workday. Instead, the emotional difference was caused by differing expectations. The people going to the mail room had expected it to be opened, and were naturally disappointed when their actual experience was worse than their expectations. The van group had expected to arrive home 30 minutes later, and were therefore elated by the chance to leave in a faster mode of transportation 15 minutes ahead of schedule.

To fix this gap between expected outcome and the experience, the mail room could simply create and disseminate a schedule of posted hours. Then the expectation for it to be open or closed would match the experience. If they wanted to really make some people's day, they could initially go with a more restrictive schedule, and occasionally announce earlier or later hours of operation. This would make the overall perception of the mail room improve drastically, even if they were open in total for fewer hours than current.