We have watched customers queuing for over 10 years in all kinds of physical spaces from hospitals to airports – and talked to them too. Some were happy queuing customers. Some were certainly not. What we’ve learnt is that reducing complaints about queuing is as much, if not more, about understanding customer feelings and perceptions rather than applying mathematical formulae or installing queue management and people counting systems.
The real problem, isn’t the duration of the delay. It’s how you experience the duration!
So what can be done to mitigate the misery some customers go through when waiting? What strategies can be deployed? And most importantly, how do you influence how customers feel about their queuing experience?
Spend some time observing and talking to your queuing customers, then ask yourself the following 6 questions:
Do they feel bored?
If you keep someone occupied for 10 seconds they lose a whole minute. Some customers fill their own time and reach for their smartphones whilst waiting in a queue. Others break into conversation, either to console each other or to simply pass the time. There is always a sense of community and entertainment in group waiting compared to waiting alone.
Some car dealerships have viewing windows for customers to watch their cars move through the service process. Hotels install mirrors in lobby areas to entertain customers with their own reflections whilst they wait for the lift. Digital media is commonly used in waiting areas or behind bank tellers, educating and enticing customers into using their products and services.
Not all strategies will be successful in all situations, in particular if there is no relevance to the service customers are waiting for. You might just have to try it and see. Contrast ‘on hold’ music played by an automatic telephone call handling system (annoying!) with a concert pianist I saw in the baggage hall of a US airport recently (nice!).
Are they happy they are in the right place?
The earlier customers feel certain that they are in the right place and they are making progress the better. Once they feel ‘in process’ the wait time usually feels shorter. Quite often this ‘in-process feeling’ can be given by a simple acknowledgement from a serving staff member. Just a smile or a nod can suffice.
Restaurants hand out menus as early as possible to demonstrate to customers that their presence is known and that the service process has started. As well as shortening the perception of waiting this also has the added benefit of reducing the serving time. Theme parks build excitement and provide distractions in the queue, giving customers a sense of progress and the feeling that the ride has begun.
How long do they think they have waited?
There is a huge difference between reality and a customer’s perception. Remember, ‘the customer satisfaction clock is faster than the real clock and is always ticking. Over 90% of customers we track and interview feel that their wait time is longer than what we observe. Perceptions can increase exponentially for some customers.
In a recent parking study we found that if customers took 2 minutes to park, most would tell us it felt like 5 to 10 minutes. Customers also have thresholds on waiting and are less likely to buy if approached above it. Some customers walk-away. When queuing technology is installed waiting thresholds must not be set arbitrarily but with insight into the customers’ waiting experiences in that particular space.
How long did they expect to wait?
Managing expectations are key to making a queueing experience bad or good. Customers are more patient when they know how long they will be waiting, instead of wondering whether it will be three minutes or maybe three hours. If you are given a wait time, there may be some initial annoyance, but at least you feel informed and can prepare. Some theme parks are good at managing expectations. They post estimated wait times, but pad out the time so you always get to the head of the queue more quickly than expected.
On the other hand, if you are willing to agree to an expected wait time and the length of wait is longer, your whole experience will be tinged with negative bias. Worse still is when promised to be seen ‘in minutes’ and what seems like an hour passes. To many customers it can feel dishonest if serving staff are inaccurate or don’t keep them updated. In one study, I acted as an intermediary between technical staff and a lady waiting for her car to be serviced. I managed her expectations by keeping her informed about progress. In some cases, all that’s required is a little communication.
Does the queue seem fair?
Perhaps the most emotional issue to address in the world of queuing is fairness. If customers see someone arrive after them and get served before tempers can get frayed. Most of us will have experienced choosing the wrong line at a supermarket or airport. You arrive and see one queue much longer, so you join the shorter one, but before long the people in the bigger line zoom past you – just blame Murphy’s Law.
The most common solution to ensure fairness is what’s commonly called a ‘snake’ queue’. There is only one way in and barriers and ropes are used to optimise queuing space. When you reach the head of the queue you are directed to the next available counter. This is not the fastest method of queue management, but provides solace during a long wait that you will never see someone arrive after you and get served before.
Sometimes ‘first come first serve’ doesn’t work best for everyone. Customers are happy being managed in a different way provided they understand what is happening and know why. Most customers are happy with the idea of an express lane at a supermarket – why should lots of customers buying a few items have to wait behind someone with a trolley load of goods? Another example is at airports when boarding a plane. Passengers are called forward according to seating numbers rather than the order they arrive at the gate so that the plane is filled as quickly as possible
Are staff doing their best to help?
Waiting can be frustrating, but more so when we are in sight of available staff not serving. We become irritated, angry and sometimes rude. Customer perceptions (and loyalty) improve if we feel organisations understand and are trying to do something about our pain. What customers like to see is staff responding to a problem and when required undertaking intervention strategies to stop things getting worse – what we call ‘break glass’ activity. Whilst some may dispute that such activities are demanding on staff time and expensive, they only need to be deployed at peak times and far worse is the cost and impact of doing nothing.
For example, we’ve observed many customers abandon visits to many different types of businesses because they could not find a space to park quickly. When parking arrangements fall over and there are no obvious free customer spaces available, customers will feel better and wait if they see staff taking control. Here ‘break glass’ tactics could be erecting temporary barriers and markings, as well as staff in high visibility jackets greeting customers and directing them where to park.
Most airports would benefit from reviewing their tactics at passport control during peak times (see our airport queuing case study). I would like to see more use of buffer zones to prepare customers, proactive signposting, effective ‘queue-busting’, better manning of E-Pass machines and staff actively directing passengers to the next available counter. Better planning and response to queuing problems as they arise will speed up the flow and improve passenger experience for all of us.
We would love to hear what annoys you most in queues.
Konrad Thomasson is Principal Consultant of Konvergence, a field based research and consultancy group that uses observational research to solve real problems, for real customers in real spaces – like queuing!
Get in touch if you would like Konvergence to help with your queuing problems.