The good queues: Exploring the positives of a line of waiting customers

It was only after the place had calmed down that I finally found out what had happened to all the extra chairs. I knew for a fact that the place had chairs enough to cater for as many customers as they could receive at any point in time. Therefore, it came as a surprise to me when I entered the hall to find that there were people standing—in a long queue. Try as I did, I just could not figure out what had happened to all the chairs I knew they had. Interestingly, only few customers seemed to be bothered by having to stand in a queue. In fact, many said their experience at the joint was a resounding success.

After the pressure had died down, I went about asking what had happened to the extra chairs. That was when I was hit with a bigger surprise. I was told by the owner that he had deliberately hidden the chairs to ensure that some customers had to stand in a queue. He had intentionally created a queue to give the impression that the place was so well patronised that there was a queue. I just could not believe my ears.

Queuing is very much a part and parcel of everyday life in the world of business. We all know that. In our part of the world, we queue without much of a fuss. We do not expect to go to the waakye joint on a Saturday morning and not meet a queue. We do not expect to get to the trotro station at 5:30pm on a weekday and not meet a queue. We do not even expect to go the barbering saloon on Sunday afternoon and not see a long line waiting customers. Queues are ubiquitous. We may hate them but we co-exist with them peacefully all the same.

Queues come naturally so why would a business owner go out of his way to intentionally create a queue for his customers? Had my good friend gone off the deep end? Apparently, he had not. He was on to something. My good friend knew something that I did not and his stance is fully backed by some very credible scientific work.

A number of studies I have come across recently seem to suggest something that is a tad bit unusual—there is some good to be found in having queues of customers. This assertion seems to fly in the face of the conventional wisdom that customers really hate queuing. This thinking about queuing is the reason why so many businesses go to great lengths to ensure that queues are dispensed with as quickly as possible.

Queue management systems of various kinds are deployed to decrease customer waiting times, improve service efficiency, and increase revenues.  One of the most popular queue management systems is the use of physical structures such as belts and stanchions to limit the ability for people to just cut into queues. Sometimes these stanchions can be so winding that it makes customers feel like cattle being corralled into a holding pen. I have come across some of those long ones in some very huge airports.

Another queue management system is the sign-in sheets popular with many hospitals. As and when a patient (read, customer) arrives, the one writes his or her name down so that when his or her time comes, the one would be called and served. I am always uncomfortable when I come across that kind of system. Loudly proclaiming somebody’s full name in the hearing of strangers is not something I am very comfortable with.

The other way organisations try to manage queues is with the ticketing system which has become an in-thing. A customer who comes in has to go for a ticket from a ticket dispensing machine and waits his or her turn. When the time is up, the ticket number flashes on a screen or is called out and the customer approaches the available attendant.

The consideration and costs that goes into these systems is enough evidence that organisations do not like queues and will do anything to get rid of them. But what if queues are not that bad? What if a queue might actually hold some positives for the organisation? The answers to these questions could be found in the many studies that have been done on queuing over the years.

One of such studies is that by Minjung Koo and Ayelet Fishbach of the Booth School of Business at University of Chicago. Titled “A Silver Lining of Standing in Line: Queuing Increases Value of Products”, this study came out with some very interesting findings. One of the key findings was that customers increase their value of a product or service based on the number of people behind them in a queue. In other words, when a customer turns and sees a long line of other customers waiting for that same product or service, that value of that offering increases in the eyes of the customer.

The study even found out that as the number of people behind the individual increases, the one’s perception of the value of the product/service offering also goes up. It is however interesting to note that customers’ feelings of the value of the product was dependent on their relative position in the queue.

An observation made by Rongrong Zhou of The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and Dilip Soman of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto in a study in 2003 relates to the observation by Koo and Fishbach. In a study by the latter duo, they found out that the presence of others behind a person in a queue decreases the likelihood that the person will leave the queue. In other words, customers would look at how much they have invested in terms of time and effort to get to where they are in the queue and project that investment on the value of the product or service.

Another study that looked at the positives of queues was by four researchers—two from Shenzhen University and two from Duke University. Published in the Journal of Service Theory and Practice, the study was titled “Read into the lines: the positive effects of queues”. This study argued that people join queues because the long queue was an indication or reflection of the quality of the product or the superiority of the service on offer.

I wonder if this is not the same thinking that makes people gravitate towards food sellers with the longer queues. The mind-set is that if so many customers would wait in line patiently for that food, then the food must really be good. The longer the queue at the waakye joint, the greater the chances of it being a great meal.

The researchers in this particular study also argued that customers can join queues just to avoid social exclusion or to be part of something. This is why an empty restaurant would struggle to attract customers. In short, more customers attract more customers.  

True as the above inferences might be, two researchers Mirko Kremer and Laurens Debo in a study titled “Inferring Quality from Wait Time” stated that the assertion is dependent on the presence of informed customers in the queue. In their estimation, a queue of tourists visiting a place for the first would not be perceived by another tourist as proof of the superiority or quality of service. They further stated that a short queue of informed customers can be perceived more as an indication of the value of the product than a long queue of uninformed customers.

For businesses, there is one very important result was from the Minjung Koo and Ayelet Fishbach study. Their study revealed that customers will buy more when they get to the front of the queue after being in it for a while. Such customers were also easy to cross-sell or up-sell to. They would easily go for an upgrade if there is one. In short, there are real economic benefits to customers staying in queues for quite a while.

The foregoing discussion on the importance of queues means that it is entirely possible that customers might actually go out looking for queues, albeit unconsciously. For an uninformed customer, new to a particular surrounding or community, the one proof of the superiority of a particular service or product might be the length of the queue. Therefore, that person would decide where to shop by the length of queue the one sees. If you were to travel for the first time to a community and wanted to get something to eat, it would be unusual for you to enter an empty restaurant. You would at least try to see to see if there are other restaurants that are full.

As I have reiterated more than enough times on this page, businesses these days are faced with unprecedented competition from all angles and thus any small advantage counts. Sometimes, a little tweaking to an existing system or structure can work wonders.

From this week’s discourse, it seems there is a need for every business to take a second look at queues. If results of the studies discussed above are anything to go by, then there really some positives in queues. However, it behoves on each and every business to find out what works in their unique cases. If that investigation comes out with a finding that supports the arguments of these various studies, then by all means, that business can go ahead and create some good queues.

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