Skip to main content

The Bottom Line Ends Here: Why Queue Management Matters


By Keith Carpentier, [email protected]

There is a thread that runs through every industry that can unravel the customer experience faster than the blink of an eye: waiting. From banking and retail environments to travel and hospitality, consumers describe waiting in line as “drudgery” and “torture” — feedback that will send customer satisfaction teams into a frenzy. And, customer satisfaction is just the tip of the iceberg.

Poor queue management can impact consumer safety, reduce productivity, tarnish brand reputations and the list goes on. Ineffective queue management can be detrimental to any business in any industry. Each time a customer enters a line but decides to leave before making a purchase or refuses to wait due to their perception of the wait time, an opportunity is lost and the bottom line suffers. At the same time, trends for personalized, top-notch brand experiences to meet consumer demands are not slowing down. How do businesses stay ahead of the demand?

Meet Dr. Queue

Richard Larson, professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has extensively researched the science behind queuing theory and psychology for over 30 years. Larson, dubbed “Dr. Queue” for his incredible findings, has found consumers can have positive wait experiences when businesses apply the principles of queuing psychology. Great news, considering waiting is inevitable and most Americans will spend nearly three years of their lives waiting in line.

Citing the success of industry leaders such as Disney, who Larson refers to as the “masters of queuing psychology,” Larson confirms effective queue management actually makes consumers feel better about waiting. Therefore, it should come as no surprise when businesses that make consumers feel good about their brand experience increase revenue, maximize consumer engagement and boost repeat visits. The benefits of effective queue management have been demonstrated across verticals. Successful businesses proactively incorporate proven queue management techniques into planning once they understand the science and reality of its potential.

It’s a not just a numbers game

Traditional queuing theory involves complex equations that account for service times, server utilization, and waiting time. Perhaps, most telling among the complicated calculations is that consumers consistently overestimate their wait time by an average of 36%. How consumers feel during their wait is more important than the actual wait time. Customers who are entertained or distracted while waiting will perceive their wait time to be shorter. Disney’s in-queue entertainment includes digital displays announcing the excitement ahead, while supermarkets rely on candy, magazines and other impulse purchase items to keep consumers’ eyes off of the clock. Larson calls it “occupied time.” The benefit of occupied time during a consumer’s wait can extend beyond enhancing the brand experience and directly into the bottom line. For example, in-queue displays can encourage repeat visits by informing consumers about promotional events. Furthermore, in-queue merchandising of impulse items, which account for $5.5 billion in supermarket revenue, can boost incremental sales due to an extended shopping experience.

The folly of unfairness

Most brands promise their customers fairness ranging from price-matching messages to return policies. Savvy brands understand that consumers want to believe they are in good hands and trust their experience is the best – whether it’s value, luxury or just the best available option. Yet, poor queue management can easily undermine marketing efforts and lead to frustrating brand experiences, especially during peak business hours or special seasonal events.

Consumers’ disdain for waiting worsens in situations where there is no visible order to the waiting line or potential for cutting the line. It’s the reason why ‘serpentine lines’ – which began in the banking industry and are used everywhere from food service to retail – became successful as there is usually a general consensus about first come, first served, according to Larson. Today, businesses are turning to electronic queuing systems. These electronic queuing systems use single line configurations with visual and audio alerts to notify customers of available service points, which can reduce the uncertainty of who is next. Orderly queuing is especially important for staff and consumer safety during promotional and seasonal events when hours are extended, quantities are limited and increased foot traffic can cripple even the smoothest operations.

The caveat to the rule of equitable queuing is the trend of priority queuing where consumers can essentially ‘pay to be first’. The travel and hospitality industry has implemented this approach for years from transportation’s toll roads and airlines to theme park “fast passes.” Though reviews are mixed, ‘priority’ queuing only further emphasizes that waiting in line is as much a psychological activity as a physical one.

Queuing systems that guarantee fairness usually include prominent signage or clear barriers indicating where the lines begin and end. When customers are secure about the fairness of their wait, they tend to relax, which in turn makes the waiting experience more pleasant.

Can you hurry it up?

The final piece of queuing psychology involves the length of the wait. We already know that consumers will overestimate wait times that are infinite. However, businesses that communicate finite wait times to consumers tend to sooth the inherent anxiety about waiting. In the health care industry, for example, emergency departments leverage the length of the wait time as marketing messages to encourage consumers that the wait is not as long as they may think. Other businesses promote their wait times and proudly tout money-back guarantees. In an era where consumers have unlimited options at their fingertips, communication strategies that emphasize convenience resonate with time-crunched multitaskers. Businesses that implement effective queue management practices can speed up queue flow and improve service times by 30%. This increase in efficiency translates into shorter wait times and lessens the chance that consumers will abandon the queue by 96%. The reward is clear as queuing research has proven consumers are more willing to wait if they can gauge the length of their wait.

The implications and benefits of effective queue management are far-reaching and attainable with proper planning and support. Savvy businesses understand the value of leveraging queue management to increase the bottom-line and create world class brand experiences.

Keith Carpentier is senior business development manager at Tensator, a leader in queue management in queue management and customer journey solutions. The company offers a large range of digital media platforms, electronic and virtual queue management, display and signage products, crowd and access control solutions, in-queue merchandising, self-service systems, and the Tensabarrier. He can be reached at [email protected].

More Web Exclusives/Guest Commentaries

This ad will auto-close in 10 seconds