Why Do Businesses Try To Control Time?

Where’s The Clock?

Bars, casinos, video game arcades and several other types of businesses rarely have a clock visible to their customers. These businesses tend to do better when their customers do not keep track of time. Many years ago, I played a gig as a musician in a bar and near midnight I distinctly heard one of the regulars say to his wife; well, we stopped in at noon just to say hi so I think we’ve been here long enough. This was a beautiful summer’s Saturday and had been spent almost entirely locked inside a bar, drinking beer. Now there was probably a degree of alcoholism involved in this case, but the point remains that the bar was a microcosm without time for many of its patrons. I, on the other hand, was there to earn money and was acutely aware of the time.

Manipulating time can take other forms as well. Walk into t new car dealership and inquire about a vehicle and you will almost certainly be escorted to a small office (with glass walls) or a table in the showroom. The critical thing here is that you are placed in a certain specific area and are within the view of others. Once you are there, the salesperson will leave and you will wait. You may have made a straightforward inquiry, but the salesperson will have to gather more information in order to help you and you will wait an inordinately long time before that information is retrieved.

This is no accident. By controlling your time, a dealership hopes to make you uncomfortable enough that you will be anxious to make a deal and less likely to scrutinize the terms. The fact that you are placed in an observable location allows them to gauge your discomfort and to know when your patience is nearing its limits. The information they need in order to make a deal is readily available and probably can be retrieved in a matter of seconds, but they are not likely to do things that way. The more time you invest, the more likely you are to buy. Automobile sales tend to be geared towards immediate transactions an many dealerships believe that they have only one chance at your business. Once you leave, it is doubtful that you’ll be coming back.

The same applies to the offer/counter-offer process that has the salesperson leaving in order to speak to their sales manager. This process is frequently lengthy and usually relies on keeping you waiting in a designated place while they evaluate the offer you have proposed and prepare a counter-offer. Once again, this entire puppet show has only one purpose, and that is to control your time.

Fighting Back At The Dealership

Armed with this knowledge it is possible to defend yourself from these techniques, but it may turn out less than pleasantly. For example, if you wander away from the waiting area that they designate they lose at least some degree of control. I’ve done this many, many times over the years and gotten some interesting responses in return.

More than once, I found myself reprimanded as if I was a badly behaved child. One person even told me that they would no longer serve me unless I stayed where I was told to stay. That person did not end up selling me a car. I’ve been shouted at by salesmen who came across like a dutch uncle and seen numerous other signs of frustration on the part of salespeople when I refused to stay put.

However, in some cases I was sought out by the salesperson and treated with respect after leaving my designated waiting area. These people usually ended up selling me a car.

This Is Not Confined To Auto Dealers

While the car-buying experience is the most convenient example, it is by far not the only instance of businesses trying to control time in order to control your behavior. Perhaps the most egregious is IVR, interactive voice response. In some cases the IVR maze you encounter when calling a large company may not be deliberate so much as it is a symptom of the out of control growth that happens in our day of mergers, acquisitions and other circumstances that lead to business growth that shares more in common with malignancy than it does with productive growth.

The typical customer experience is to call a company and to hear a recording that instructs you to enter certain numbers on a keypad or to answer vocally in order to be routed to the right destination. From that point on it’s quite possible to find yourself in a maze and not at all uncommon to end up visiting the same prompt more than once.

In some cases this confusion serves the purposes of the business. For example, if you protest the outcome of a claim on your medical insurance it is much to the advantage of the insurer that you give up and accept their claim. While I won’t go so far as to state that they intentionally try to make their IVR system frustrating, I’m certain that such a situation can serve to improve the bottom line and the costs involved are confined to some very cheap toll calling, the price of the voicemail/call routing system and the price of programming said system.

Tech support providers are another type of business that stands to benefit from customers giving up in frustration before they actually reach a human on the phone. While I am not a fan of government regulation, I find it to be shameful that companies reduce cost by dodging responsibility. In my humble opinion, an ethically run company will give you the option to speak with a human early in the process.


To borrow from an old soul song; r.e.s.p.e.c.t, find out what it means to me. When a person or a company seeks to control others they are showing disrespect for that person. Time is the most valuable thing any of us has. Without time, nothing else in our lives matters. If we love our children or grandchildren we will want to spend time with them. If you run out of time you will be unable to enjoy the things that are important to you.

More importantly, time cannot be bought. No matter who you are, no matter how wealthy you are; there’s no way that you can reverse, stop, or even slow that passage of time. If I buy a product that fails early in its life and end up having to replace said product unjustly that is a recoverable loss. If the business involved deliberately wastes my time in the process they are stealing from my one irreplaceable asset. From a business standpoint it may make perfect sense, but from an ethical standpoint it is inexcusable.

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