Service and experience: Join the line—queues formats and the customer’s experience

J. N. Halm

Our dependence on technology can sometimes be so frustrating. I have become so used to undertaking most of my banking transactions using my bank’s mobile app that when I realised that the app was not functioning properly over the past week, I almost panicked. I could not imagine what I would do without the app. What was I to do if I had to pay an important bill in the middle of the night? I did not want to risk it so I had to take time off my busy schedule to dash down to the bank to find out what the problem was.

Believing I was just going in to make an enquiry and be out in a matter of seconds, I was unprepared for anything else. As I approached the enquiry counter, I noticed that there were about three employees handling the inquiring customers. I therefore approached one of them, a lady, and told her I had a problem with the mobile app. She gave me an assuring smile and pointed at the rows of customers seated. It took me a second before it dawned on me that what I was witnessing were not customers just seated patiently. It was actually a queue—a line of customers waiting their turns to sit in front of one of the three officers behind the enquiry desk.

It is a fact that this is not an ideal world. One of the strongest proofs that this world is far from ideal is the presence of queues. Yes. Queues. Waiting in lines. Because in an ideal world, people would get what they want, exactly when they want it. No waiting in lines. But walk into any establishment that receives more than one customer at a time, and chances are, you would meet a queue. Queues are essentially a ubiquitous presence on the business landscape.

Interestingly, the fact that they are everywhere means that customers expect them. However, customers normally do not like them. Even if the customer has nothing to do that moment, the customer would normally prefer to be done with the queue so as to move on to something else. There is just something about queues that does not sit well with us.

I personally believe it has to do with the fact that queues make us feel powerless. Because if you had power, you would have gotten what you wanted exactly when you wanted it. Knowing that there are people out there who would not sit in that queue—individuals who can just demand whatever you are queuing for and it would be provided—can really make you feel very “small”. This is why, I believe, waiting experiences are typically negative and have been known to affect customers’ overall satisfaction with the product or service.

Another major drawback of queues is the issue of time wasting. In these day and age, when time is such a scarce commodity, queues can scare off customers. Customers have been known to settle for inferior competitors just because they could not afford to sit in a long-winding line. A business that is characterised by long line of waiting customers could develop a bad reputation because of that. Customers would not even want to deal with such an organisation. And if customers have no other choice, they would come into the experience with a negative preconceptions which would lead to more bad experiences.

But it must be said that queues are not all bad. There must be at least one good thing about queues. If there is one word properly-functioning queues bring to mind, it has to be the word FAIRNESS. When queues are working as they should, nobody feels cheated. It does not matter who you are—if queues are working well—you will have to follow the queue. Of course, there are special cases, where someone might be permitted to jump the queue. However, in that it will be by the permission of those ahead of the one in the queue.  Then there are the VIP cases—those special individuals who do not have to join any queue at all.

As I reluctantly joined the queue, I begin to recall a study I had come across early this year. The results of the study pointed to the fact that in the use of queues to serve customers, it is important for businesses to know that all the queues are not equal. Researchers have found that the type of queue has an important effect on the experience of the customer. According to the study published in the December 2021 edition of the International Journal of Research in Marketing, researchers found that the way queues are formed tend to have an important effect on the customer’s overall service experience.

Titled, “Investigating the Impact of Service Line Formats on Satisfaction with Waiting,” the study took a look at two kinds of queue formats—single line formats and multiple line formats. As the name implies, the single line format is one in which all customers are made to stand in one single, winding line. The individual at the top of the line is the one that ends up getting served next. If the organisation has only one front line employee serving all its customers, then the single line form at is what is going to be employed. However, it is also possible for the organisation to have more than one service desk but still make use of a single line. Whoever is first on the line gets called to the next available service desk.

Businesses that provide one line of service, with no differentiation such as restaurants, movie theatres, sports centres, etc. will often make use of the single line format. With the exception of the VIP ticket holders, everyone else buys the same ticket and thus have to join the same single line. The advantage of single lines is that there is a sense of fairness and a lack of jockeying by impatient customers from one line to the other. However, as said earlier, single lines when they are long and winding can leave customers with a sense of hopelessness.

The multiple line formats are those cases, where the organisation makes use of more than one line of waiting customers. In a simple multiple line format, lines are formed according to the need of the customer or distinct services being provided. So for instance, if it is a bank, all withdrawals will be one line, all deposits will be another and all enquiries will be another line. The lines can even be divided further. Those going to the enquiries can be divided further into those going to make general enquiries and those going to make specific enquiries. This was exactly the case I witnessed on the day I went to make that compliant regarding the bank’s mobile app. Supermarkets also tend to make use of multiple line formats.

In businesses, where there are more than one front desk employee serving customers, the multiple line format is mostly employed. The thing about multiple lines is that they encourage switching among impatient customers, especially when the lines are not based on specific separate services.

The researchers in the above-mentioned study suggested that depending on the initial queue length and the rate at which the queue moves, customers would prefer single line queues for shorter waits and multiple line formats if the waiting period is longer. One thing the multiple line format does is that it gives customers the hope that they would be served soon. There is the impression that more lines means service would be faster. Even if that impression is false, just knowing that if one line does not move fast enough another line might move faster gives customers an assurance that it will get to their turn soon. Single lines do not offer such assurance. If a single line is not moving, there seems to be no other option for the customer.

This particular finding should be of immense interest to those who are in charge of managing the customer’s experience on the shop floor. They must first of all study their processes to have a good idea of how long it takes customers to access the service in question. If the processes take quite a while, then it is important that the organisation employs more than one customer-handling employee at the front line. However, if the processes are not too time-consuming then single line format would suffice.

Another finding of the above-mentioned study was that, in cases where the waiting was in stages, an increase in the number of stages in queue, caused a decrease in the satisfaction of customers. In a system where customers have to go through various stages to receive the service, it is advised that the customer is constantly informed and made to think of the overall reason for being in the queue. Failure to do so would make the wait longer in the mind of the customer.

In our not-so-ideal world, businesses must put a lot of thinking into the use of queues. Organisations must institute a variety of programs to not only to reduce the actual duration of the wait but also to improve customers’ perceptions of queues. Indeed, if cost will not be prohibitive, then a queue management system will be a good investment. A system that will help manage the formation and movement of queues will not only help customers have better experiences but will also help in the revenue generation of the organisation.

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