Don’t you hate it when you cunningly pick the short queue at the checkout lines, but then see the people who joined longer queues after you saunter out the shop while your queue is stalled?
You guessed it, I don’t do queuing well. For me, all forms of queues – whether traffic jams or shops or government departments – seem to epitomise the negatives of civilisation, industrialisation and over-population. In fact, my rating scale for queues doesn’t have a “good” end. The best a queue can score in my books is “not bad”. Not in the figurative sense of “good” or even “OK”, but literally an absence of “bad”, at best, neutral.
But what really gets my goat is when queues are blatantly set up for the so-called “service” provider’s convenience. Something I observed as a bank teller, my first full-time job, is that, just like any factory churning out physical widgets, service organisations also have production lines. But in services, the customer is the production line. And whether customers are lining up in-person or they’re on the phone, customer queues personify production bottlenecks.
From a business perspective, queues make sense. Any part of a production line that stands idle, whether product- or service-oriented, is an under-utilised resource. The ideal production system, therefore, ensures there is always a backlog of at least one in the queue to keep all resources productive. It’s not an easy puzzle to solve when service demand is either unpredictable or when high and low demand levels are extreme.
But put yourself in your customer’s shoes: it’s hard to not feel abused or disrespected when the system is clearly rigged against you, right? For me, a queue is always a cue (sorry!) to ask how badly I need that service or thing at the front of the queue. I’ve often entered a shop and immediately about-turned on seeing a long checkout queue, opting to do without or try later. If you’re competing for your customer’s attention and wallet, the ideal production system might love queues, but queues are anathema to good business.
So here’s the tip to get and keep more customers: if your business has any chance of customers queuing in your production line, be customer centric. If it really is infeasible to eliminate queuing completely (for example, by scheduling with customers instead), there are several tactics for making queuing more bearable.
Recent research at two German universities shows that queues are bothersome for all customers in the queue, even those at the front. Once customers reach the service point, they feel pressured to get on with their business promptly. The problem here is in the customer experience: the last memory is not only of the long queue, but the I’m-just-a-number pressure during the service itself. For many customers, this is a negative peak experience because forced social settings with strangers makes people more vigilant and, even accounting for cultural norms, we become hyper-aware of personal space, threats (even if only of queue jumpers!) and anything negative.
Fortunately, the researchers found there are two useful techniques to counter this:
- To remove some of the social pressure on the consumer, have your service staff encourage customers to not feel rushed in being served.
- For customers being served, a queue that’s out of sight is out of mind, so separate the service area from the queuing area, preferably breaking line of sight.
Here are some additional ideas for easing queuing pains:
- Acknowledge each person personally as they join the queue.
- Apologise for the delay, both when they join the queue and before serving them.
- Communicate with people joining and in the queue. Tell them the reason for the delay and how you’re fixing it.
- Instead of looping your own ads to a captive audience, offer free wi-fi to give customers their own choice of entertainment. (It’s worse than irony when a business runs customer service ads to queuing customers!)
- This seems to apply especially in South Africa: stop yelling an impersonal “Next customer” command when the next customer is only two metres from you. Rather greet with eye contact and a friendly invitation to your counter.
Whether your business has real or virtual queues, how can you improve the customer experience and make queues as painless and as productive as possible not for you, but for your customers?
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