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LINING UP FOR SUCCESS: THE PSYCHOLOGY OF THE QUEUE

A good maître-d or waiter knows how important it is to begin the service interaction with a customer in a good mood. If it starts that way, it is far easier to keep them smiling versus attempting to rescue an already disgruntled customer.  If you have made your customer wait too long for their table or to be served, they are far more likely to view everything that happens afterwards through a negative lens.  We call it the halo effect – making sure the early stages of a service interaction are positive so that the experience that follows will be perceived as positive, regardless of actual delivery.

customers at the waiting line during cover

As our economies re-open post-pandemic, as consumers we are all experiencing more queues and limits than ever before related to store and service interactions. The stores are just so happy to be open, and focused on ensuring they meet regulations relating to social distancing, most are completely ignoring their queue experience (QX). They are seeing it as something functional as opposed to experiential, missing opportunity and causing negative customer experiences. Most retail and service experiences now begin with a far diluted halo-effect.

In this article we will explore the psychology of the queue and propose some ways retailers and service providers can not only negate the negative consequences of making their customers queue, but to perhaps even use the queue to add to the overall experience. The risk isn’t about putting customers in a queue – that is simply where we are at this present time. The real risk is not managing the arising negativity or understanding the psychology of what is going on.

long waiting line, customers

David Maister wrote a great article over 35 years ago entitled “The Psychology of Waiting Lines”. Up to that point, most of the research focused on efficiency and queue management as opposed to how it made shoppers ‘feel’.  Satisfaction is determined by how close expectations are met relative to expectations, but as both expectations and experience are perceived, subjective, it makes sense to understand the mindset of the shopper as opposed to measuring queue times and efficiencies. His key points remain as true today as they did then, and I will draw on some of his work here, alongside my own opinions.

Six Tips for Understanding & Maximising your QX

 

1.Occupy your Customers

We all know a watched pot never boils. If all you’re doing is waiting, that wait can feel very long. It is why dentists leave 20-year old National Geographic magazines in the waiting room, why casual dining restaurants hand out menus to those waiting in line and why digital screens play infomercials on loop in post offices all over the world.

man inside an elevator

We have known this for a long time. In 1950s New York, queue strategists turned their attention to elevator waiting times in a bid to address tenant complaints in the new skyscraper era. They could not increase the number or speed of the elevators; they were fixed entities. So, they turned to the other side of the equation, the wait itself.  By installing full-length mirrors in elevator lobbies, those waiting could occupy themselves, by self-preening or watching others. This simple addition reduced ‘perceived’ waiting time so significantly, the complaints disappeared. Note the actual waiting time remained the same but the customers perceived waiting times to be far less once occupied.

woman checking the menu in the waiting line of a restaurant

If the queue does not look to somehow occupy the user, you have fallen at the first QX hurdle. And better still if you occupy the customer with a relevant benefit related to the experience they are about to have. That two-sided laminated menu thrust into your hand as you wait in line at an airport restaurant has several functions. Firstly, it occupies you, gives you something to do until you are shown to your table. But it is of benefit to you. You are going to have to read it anyway later, and choose, so you are already ‘consuming’ the service before even stepping into the restaurant. They have also ‘hooked you’ to a degree, committing you to what you might eat. They will also have sped up the time it will take you to decide what to order once seated, critical for turning tables within a defined timeframe.

QUEUE SUPERMARKET

 

So, look to occupy your customers in the queue, but do it with something that is relevant. Look to add brand equity and to the overall experience. Don’t just throw up a digital screen or shade awning with water and think that ‘something is better than nothing’. View that queue as halo-effect gold and treat it as such. Use it as a first CX touchpoint.

2.Get Them Started

One of the biggest unknows today is how many customers are walking away from physical queues. We can measure it on-line, but it is not measured much in the real world. In much of my earlier time as a retail ethnographer, I set cameras up in supermarkets capturing consumer behaviour at the fixture. What always astounded clients was the ‘walkaways’ – customers engaging with the products, but then walking away without purchase. It varied from 15% to 50% depending on the category. Converting this traffic flow from lost sales to opportunity always focused their mind and action plan.

people lining up

Today many customers intend to engage with a retail or service experience, but seeing the queue, they walk away. The business owner often doesn’t see or measure these lost sales walking away. You have to engage your customers early, the moment they join the queue or even see it.

I worked in a small holiday camp take-away every summer as a teen. I’m including a picture below as both proof and to show that we all had crazy hairstyles in the early 90s!  That’s my 16-yr old self on the left.

Ken Hughes working in a restaurant when he was a teenager

From that 3x3m kitchen behind me, we fed hundreds of hungry holiday makers their burgers, fries and sausages every evening. During peak season the queue was crazy, stretching around the block, their only hot food option for miles.  One day we decided to take orders walking down the queue rather than waiting until the customers got near the hatch. Their food wasn’t going to be cooked any faster, we had production bottlenecks after all in that tiny kitchen, but once they’d ordered they felt better, less upset in that everlasting queue. To them, their order was now being processed (the reality was their order sat on the piece of paper it had been written on until a few minutes before they reached the top of the queue anyway). From then on, we always stationed someone at the end of the queue on busy days, taking orders as soon as people arrived to the queue.

Ever notice how fast a host might meet and seat you in a restaurant, hand you a menu, and then inform you your server will be with you shortly. You think the experience has now begun, but in reality, that server/kitchen may not yet be ready for you at all. But get the customer started and they are more content.

Large group of people waiting in line

Look to see what you can do in the queue to get them started. Can they browse stock digitally if a retail experience? Can they make choices or get more informed during the queue time? Can you take orders from the queue, offering a pay/collect option rather than a store browse?

If all you are doing is making them wait, they may just walk away.

3.Uncertainty Breeds Disdain

Not knowing how long you are going to be waiting is never fun. Do you remember the agony of waiting for your date to turn up in the 1980/early 1990s? Pre-mobile phone, you just had to stand there hoping they’d show up if they were running late. And you never did Trisha… YOU NEVER DID!! Anyway, enough of my teen traumas…  Introduce uncertainty to any situation and you also introduce customer anxiety, and now you are about to start off your service or retail experience with a customer already primed to be less than happy.

people waiting in an amusement park in the 90s

Most decent theme parks have a queue management system that clearly displays the ‘waiting time for this ride’ digitally at every queue entrance. It is often over-estimated on purpose, thereby pleasantly surprising a customer. It is the same trick Ryanair, Europe’s low-cost airline, use for their arrival times. By adding 30 minutes on to every flight time, they over-estimate their journey times so that you will arrive ‘early’ or at least on time. The 60-minute flight from Ireland to the UK becomes a 90-minute flight on paper, but at least that way they manage certainty in the crazy world that is the uncertain airline industry.

old elevator floor sign

Our 1950s elevator academics learned this too, which is why they installed the floor indicator dials after the mirrors. As long as you can see where the elevator is, and is coming from, then your wait in more certain. You know it is on its way. Until that point, without the indicator arrows, you were staring at a wall, unsure if the elevator was even working.

dominos pizza promo 30 minutes delivery or free

Introduce certainty to your customers in the queue. Dominos pizza famously made their “30 minutes or it’s free” promise in the 1980’s, creating certainty around delivery times for customers. If you have just made a customer queue for 45 or 60 minutes to ‘consume’ your product, perhaps they deserve a discount voucher, or at best a priority pass for their next visit? Give them some certainty about their next visit.

4.Keep Them Informed

man waiting to be informed in an airport

We have all been on a plane, delayed, sitting on the runway watching our departure time slide past. You want to know when you will be pushing back, you are actually less concerned with the ‘why’ of the delay. Pilots know this and will always throw some vague excuse out (baggage being re-packed, technical check, air traffic restriction, not enough peanuts on board). They know what matters is you, the passenger, being updated of the delay.  An unexplained wait is worse than the same wait with some information.

Back to my holiday teen take-out diner, we worked 8 to 10-hour shifts on those peak season days, the fryers and grill always on full, the extractor fan always faulty (health and safety was more of a concept than actuality back then!). We all needed a break at some point over those torturous shifts, but learned to eat out back sitting on crates. It is what all fast food restaurants have learned. Don’t have staff visible on breaks when there are long customer queues. Those customers see unused ‘resource’ and get angry in their queue. They don’t care you haven’t had a break for 6 hours, they just want their food, and worse they see you eating it!

Learn to manage your customers expectations at all times in the queue. Explain delays. Explain why the queue is moving as it is. Keep them informed at all times. This is all about managing expectations. Unmanaged, they are often unmet.

5.Be Fair and Play Nice

No matter what the queue or where, we all have a strong sense of fairness. That is how a queue generally works. Those that got here first get to go first. Jesus and his “the last shall be first, and the first shall be last” philosophy would have been a disastrous queue marshal in a shopping mall. Some moments are less fair. Those that arrived earlier on a subway platform are not guaranteed to get on board before others who arrive and push their way on at the last minute. There is more of a ‘survival of the fittest’ vibe to metro or subway experiences.

We all have concerns over fairness in the queue. If someone gets to skip ahead of us, we get upset, aggrieved. This is a difficult one to manage, but again it is about clear communication and customer expectation.

These new queue experiences allow us to introduce priority access. Again, airlines, the NFL and theme parks have had priority access for years. Pay us more and you can access the experience before others. Some people are happy to pay the standard ticket price and queue for one hour per ride in a Disney theme park, others (myself included) factor in the extortionate cost of the ‘Fast Pass’ to the cost of the visit, unwilling to spend their day in searing heat in an everlasting line.

waiting line fastness at Disney

While I am not suggesting you charge for priority access, I am proposing you look at introducing priority lanes. Of course, these are in place for vulnerable shoppers already (an older shopper, pregnant ladies perhaps, those with a physical disability or limitation – it makes polite sense to not make such shoppers queue for long periods). However, what about your loyal customers? Should they not get access faster than a casual customer? Should a customer who spent a large amount over the last week/month not get access faster? As I said earlier, perhaps you should dilute the pain of a long wait for a shopper with a priority pass for next time?

You have to balance priority passes with fairness, but as I said, brands have given their loyal customers perks over others for a long time. Your queue is now a pain point in a customer journey, one you can remove for important customers. It is a way to reward brand loyalty, the equivalent of the security guy lifting the red velvet rope for you. It makes you feel special and rewards your business.

6.Manage their Mental Health

mural-stress-waiting-lines

Anxiety is not fun. Every aspect of what we have discussed so far brings your customers anxiety in a queue. Fail to occupy them or get them started, and they get bored and anxious about how long they will be in this queue.  Fail to let them know how long they will be queuing or why the delay and they get anxious about the uncertainty of it all. If they feel others are skipping the line, more anxiety. It is hardly a positive emotional space from which to begin a customer experience.

Managing anxiety in a queue led to the development of the serpentine line (one long line from which all tellers/checkouts draw from) as opposed to the multi-lane approach that was the industry standard prior to that. Both are still in use today across retail and service formats.

We have all experienced the anxiety about which queue to join, or being in the wrong queue. Watch the video above to really feel that anxiety. The other line always moves faster of course. The serpentine queue aimed to remove that anxiety. Its downside was that it appears longer, so may result in a higher walk away rate. It is also harder to manage at peak times as it grows, often snaking around a store even blocking merchandise access. But tying in with the fairness point above, serpentine queues are always fair. They also move faster. As the one queue you are in is being served by several staff, you generally make more perceived progress in a serpentine queue. Standing still in a queue is demoralising but you brighten up with every step you take. Keep them moving.

The more anxiety is involved, then the longer the perceived wait will be and the lower the QX and overall CX. It is your duty as the brand to create a positive queue experience. Many businesses are falling foul of this right now, their queue a cold, functional, anxious ridden ride for customers.

empty store

So, let’s take all that and apply it and look at 10 ideas to improve on the disastrous approach taken by some retailers (see image above).

10 ideas to improve the waiting line experience

  1. Consider gamifying your queue experience, and entertaining those waiting.
  2. Install a stock-checker kiosk so shoppers can make sure you actually have what they want in stock before queueing for hours.
  3. Have queue runners working the queue, applying triage to those joining. Perhaps they only want a single item, know what it is and they can be ‘serviced’ with an in-store runner, paying outside the store with a contactless terminal.
  4. Change the nature of the queue experience regularly if customers are going to be frequently queueing. It gets very jaded if I find myself in the same queue architecture and experience several times a week at a local supermarket – mix it up a bit.
  5. Treat your QX as a source of competitive advantage by differentiating it strongly from competitors.
  6. Consider a booking system (like Open Table) as opposed to a queue. Or allowing shoppers to digitally hold a place in the queue from their cars.
  7. Surprise and delight your queuing customers – use it as a sampling opportunity or partner with brands that will.
  8. Consider segmenting your total store and having several access queues – if I am entering a DIY store for Garden Products and Plants, why am I joining a 2-hr weekend queue for the total store when I only want to visit the outdoor garden section? Consider multiple entrance/exits and flow to optimise QX.
  9. Invest in click/collect and online ordering more than ever before to dilute that queue in the first place.
  10. Utilise digital in tandem. I can join a long line at a hotel reception to check-in or I can use the check-in kiosk. The digital kiosk is more valuable the longer the physical line.

It is important to remember that we are still a generation of Instant, I Want it Now. We are used to a one-click, one-swipe world where we instantly get shown or to buy what we want. That mentality and demand is still there. The queue undermines those desires and so it is inherently important that we optimise QX at every opportunity.

I once skipped a girl I fancied past that entire burger take-out queue thinking it would get me in her favour. It didn’t. She got her burger and fries sooner than everyone else, the queue got angry and I got nowhere. Turns out somethings just can’t be solved with priority access


Ken Hughes is now acknowledged as being one of the world’s leading authorities on consumer and shopper behaviour, blending his understanding of consumer & cyber psychology, digital anthropology, behavioral economics and retail futurology to explore the needs of the new consumer and predict the changes to come. 

To book Ken Hughes to inspire and understand the new consumer values in our post-Captive economy, click here. Keynotes available for both live and virtual events.

For more on the psychology of queuing watch this clip:

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