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CX and queuing: Using science and sociology to help customers queue

18th Sep 2017
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The Paris Catacombs are a national institution in France. The ancient underground caverns extend for miles and span across the city. Unfortunately, so does the line to get in.

It snakes through the streets, ensnaring unsuspecting tourists in a wait that can stretch for hours, leaving them fuming in the hot Parisian sun. You don’t get that time back.

Tourist attractions aren’t the only cause of our fuming rage. Retailers are struggling to control lines of angry customers on days like Black Friday, flight delays are leaving hundreds scattered across airports, and subway lines seem to have a thing for getting stuck every morning.

We’re gloriously close to a world population of 7.6 billion, and as it continues to grow, something needs to be done about the chaos of waiting in line.

So how do we prepare before this problem gets out of hand? It’s time we turned our heads to something which has mended most of humanity’s perils: science.

The science band aid

When waiting for service, we are all cogs in one big machine, conforming to statistical rules. Those who know them can manage waiting crowds mathematically like as data packets on a network.

Many experts have refined the science of line management, developing rules of describing them known as the Kendall notation. Follow the Kendall rules religiously and you’ll be able to map out your customer’s journey through the queue, and identify the loopholes.

However, you can’t always rely on statistics alone. Numbers are rational, but individual anxieties and irritations are not.

Here are some psychological rules to consider for any organisation trying to get inside their customer’s heads.

Distractions are good

MIT professor Richard Larson, also known as ‘Doctor Queue’ highlights one of the biggest psychological rules of queuing: time spent waiting in line seems to pass more slowly than time spent doing something you want to do.

Armed with this knowledge, companies can distract customers and make the wait seem shorter. They can use lines for entertainment, deploying digital signage and video screens to take customers’ minds off the wait.

Time spent waiting in line seems to pass more slowly than time spent doing something you want to do.

In-queue education might tell customers how to use products. Food stores might post cooking videos to entertain those in line, and helpfully put the pasta scoop featured there on a shelf within easy reach. Waiting in line can be an experience, and a sales opportunity.

Get people started

Another key psychological aspect of waiting in line is that customers lining up are often afraid of being forgotten. They want to feel acknowledged and added to the system.

One trick is simply to greet individuals in line, as restaurateurs do when they say “I’ll be right with you”. Placing them in the classic ‘waiting room’ will also make them feel like the process has already begun.

Another trick is simply to display wait times at different points in the line to reinforce the notion that you’re moving along. Some sly managers may even pad those wait times a little, so that the customer feels they’re making more progress than expected. Crowd manipulation takes subtle forms.

Design the line space

Most of us have suffered the anxiety of choosing which line to join at a supermarket checkout, for example. And for some reason we always get stuck behind the longest one.

One answer to this problem is to make one long line for a single kind of transaction, which feeds to a collection of cashiers. That way, everyone experiences the coupon-clipper’s added time burden equally, leading to a more democratic queuing experience and less anxious customers. This is known as a serpentine line, and is a mainstay for serious queue managers.

Science and psychology are two important tools in line management.

Won’t customers hesitate at joining a visibly long line, though? There are remedies for that, too. One is to divide the line into segments, which airports typically do using vinyl barriers, causing the line to snake back and forth.

We’ve all been in these lines. Notice the subtle feeling that you’re completing a new milestone each time you reach the end of a segment and loop back the other way?

The joy of tech

Science and psychology are two important tools in line management, but electronic audio-visual cues are a good example of the third: technology.

Mobile apps can process half the transaction before the customer even arrives, and ensure that their product is available for pickup. Starbucks uses this to great effect, enabling customers to find their closest location and order their latte for pickup before they even arrive.

Another favorite that also uses mobile technology is virtual queuing software. Customers can place themselves on an electronic waiting list by providing their mobile number so that they can browse in local shops.

So remember, as consumers demands increase, organisations must be more savvy and efficient. By using this holy trinity of science, psychology and technology, we can ease the way and alleviate line rage.

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