Of Queues and Customer Service: To Pool or to Dedicate


I like something the Fidelity Bank branch in Dansoman is doing. The bank has installed a Queue Management System in the branch which separates customers according to stated intentions—and the process is smooth. When customers walk in, they are first directed to a ticket dispensing machine.

To be issued a ticket, customers have to key in their phone numbers, indicate their reason for being there and then the machine issues out for a ticket with a unique number for the customer. The customer will then have to just wait for the number on the ticket to be buzzed in and then the customer can go the specific teller for service.

I have sat in the banking hall and studied the system for a while, and I believe it is working. Being relatively simple and devoid of human intervention makes it quite effective in controlling the customer flow within the branch. It is a pleasant departure from the days when a customer has to sit on every chair in the banking hall just to undertake one transaction.

Waiting for service is very much a part of the service experience, although not one that many customers look forward to. The average customer comes in for a service and expects that service to be delivered within the shortest spate of time. It is rare to come across customers who have so much time on their hands that they would prefer to spend the whole day in the service setting.

Today’s customers do not have a lot of time to spare. In fact, today’s customer can walk into the premises and depending on the length of the queue decide to walk away. Some customers might walk to the last person in the queue and inquire from the one if the queue is moving fast. If the one is told that the queue is not moving rapidly, she might just walk away. As the literature states, today’s customer is delay-sensitive.

However, even in the rare case where the customer is the only customer the business has to serve, the service must still be done within a specific time period. Single customer service situations are uncommon. The average business has more than one customer to serve and these customers must be served without wasting their times unduly.

The solution has always been to place customers in a queue. When it comes to queue management, there are two main methods. Either the business pool all its customers into one single queue and serves them on the “first come, first served” basis. Or the business can dedicate specific queues for specific customer needs.

The latter is what I found now being done at the aforementioned bank branch. These two types of queuing or variations of the two are what we see all around. They both, however, come with their mix of merits and demerits. The question of which queue management system to adopt is a question that every business that is interested in offering excellent service must answer. The reason being that queueing can have an effect on the customer’s perception of the service experience.

I have always had issues with organisations that pool customers, with different needs, into a single queue. Banks in Ghana are the number one offenders when it comes to this pooling queues. Customers come in with different needs but for some reason they are all made to sit in the same long queue because of the “first-come, first-served” mind-set. I personally believe that is unfair to all customers.


Because all needs are not equal. As a matter of fact, the same banks, that pool all customers together, are already practicing some form of dedicated queuing on the side. Observe that customers who are just making enquiries or those coming to open new bank accounts are not pooled together with those coming to make a withdraw or do a deposit. Even among customers making withdrawals, those coming for remittances are mostly not placed in the same queue as those coming for normal withdrawals. For those customers depositing money, those with bulk cash are mostly served separately.

So in effect, the idea of dedicating specific queues for different customers, based on what the customer needs, is nothing new in many banks. Many banks have been applying that concept for years, albeit for some selected customer needs. This is where I have a problem because years spent at the front line of branch banking has taught me that the biggest needs of customers are making deposits and making withdrawals. Those needs are what brings 90% of customers to the bank branch. Therefore, if there is going to be any segmentation, then it should be along those two lines.

I must admit that the Fidelity Bank branch is not the first place I have come across such a queue management system. I have seen the same or similar systems at work in various organisations around the city. Wherever I have seen the system installed, I believe, it actually works. I believe dedicating queues to needs works because the principle behind it makes it work. By breaking the entire pool of customers into smaller groups based on the needs of the customer, the queues are reduced to more manageable sizes.

Also if customer-handling employees are trained specifically to handle specific customer needs, by the law of specialisation, these front line employees (FLEs) would become very efficient as they handle more and more of those specific needs. As these front line employees become more efficient dealing with a particular need, the time they will spend in serving customers will begin to shrink drastically. I served at the front line for years, and I know this for a fact. The more I did one thing, the better I became at doing that very thing. That is just the way it is.

That belief that when customers are pooled into a single queue, there is a reduction in the average time spent by customers has not been found to be true. A number of studies show that, when it comes to shortening the time spent by customers in a queue, it is better to go with the dedicated queue system than to go with the pooling system. A January 2021 online edition of the Management Science journal contained an article titled Pooled vs. Dedicated Queues when Customers Are Delay-Sensitive”. That study debunked the assertion that pooling customers decrease the average time customers spend in a service if all customers are pooled in a single queue.

At first glance, it seems the first-come served basis for pooling customers into a single is the fairest there is. But dissect that practice, and it would become clear that it has challenges. For one, serving those customers who come first gives the impression that all customers are the same. There is a general belief that that system promotes a sense of equality among customers which leads to an increase in social welfare. But this is a false concept because customers are rarely equal. The Pareto Principle, on its own, makes this assertion false. Every business knows that 20% of customers bring in 80% of the business.

The truth is that “first-come, first-served” works only when all the service being provided is identical. If we were all buying tickets to watch a football match, you could say the first there should be first served. But even then, there are VIPs who would be given special treatment. The truth is that services rarely are identical. You will struggle to name a business offering that is so homogenous that it qualifies for the “first-come, first-served” treatment.

The proponents of the pooling queue system argue that by putting all customers into one pool to be serve by all FLEs available, no FLE can afford to be idle. The argument is that with dedicated queues, when there is no customer with a specific need, that FLE for that particular dedicated queue sits down idle. True as that idea of inefficient resource allocation might be, smart businesses have a way around this. They ensure that all customer-facing employees are equipped to serve all manner of customer needs.

Still on the banking example, the chap handling the money transfers should be trained to also pay cash or receive customer deposits. This is so that when there is no customer coming in for a money transfer, that employee can serve the next customer coming in to make a withdrawal or deposit money. I believe this is what happens in the bank branch I referenced in the opening paragraph.

There are even instances where customers, who know their transactions will take a longer time, will allow those behind them to go ahead in the queue. These customers might have come earlier but they know it would be unfair to serve them first. As much as they would have loved to be served for them to walk away, they know it is just right that they allow the customer whose needs will take less time to handle to be first served. This means that even among customers in a pooled queue, there are times when they themselves will create dedicated queues.

In today’s world, the possibilities abound for companies to up the game when it comes to create excellence customer experiences—all thanks to technology. That single machine standing in that banking hall is making a world of a difference for customers. That is just the way things are supposed to be.

DISCLAIMER: In my close to a decade of working in the banking industry in this country, I was lucky to have worked for two great organisations. Fidelity Bank was not one of those two places I worked with. Beyond 2014 when I left the banking industry, I have done work with some banks. Fidelity Bank has not been one of those banks. I make this declaration to prove that this is not a PR piece. True, I am corporate communications consultant who happens to also double as a service excellence consultant but I have not been contracted to promote the bank. My sole interest as a long-standing columnist is just to provide information—scientifically-confirmed, time-tested and street-proven information—that can help businesses provide excellent customer service. If by sharing my experience at one place, I get to help other service providers, then my job would be done.


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