Service & Experience with J. N. Halm: Please hurry up, others are waiting

The Service Line with J. N. Halm: It’s A Joke...employing Humour at the Front Line
J.N. Halm is a columnist with the B&FT

the social effect of queues on service experience

Hungarian-born British humourist, George Mikes, is credited with this quote, “An Englishman, even if he is alone, forms an orderly queue of one.” What Mikes was trying to say was that the English love to queue. But one can say the same for a Ghanaman. Ghanaians also love to queue. Go for a drive through the city centre and you will be amazed at the number of queues you will come across.

Where two or more Ghanaians are gathered, a queue will arise from their midst. We queue for waakye. We queue in the banking halls. We queue at the Embassies for visas. We queue for tickets to go watch our favourite entertainment shows and sports events. We queue at the trotro station. Then the big one…..we queue to vote, every four years. For this last one, we are even prepared to go to the venue the night before and queue throughout the night.

Queues are very much a part and parcel of the customer’s life, not just the average Ghanaian. It is therefore not surprising that queues rank among some of the most-studied customer service topics. One of the observations about queues that has some implications for service experience is the fact that queues are actually social systems.

Wherever queues form, the rules that govern a society immediately kicks in. Every problem that most societies face are also faced by those in a queue. This is regardless of where the queue forms. It does not also matter if those in the queue are total strangers. So long as a queue is formed, the rules of society will begin to apply. In essence, queues are mini-societies.

For instance, in a typical society, everyone’s place is known and, to an extent accepted, by others. Neighbours know each other. The statuses of individuals are also known. This is not different from what happens in queues. If you entered a queue and you met five people ahead of you, your position as #6 is known and accepted by you and all the other members in the queue. If someone were to come in to threaten your position, those in the queue would normally stand up for you. As a matter of fact, your position can be so assured that you could take a leave of absence and still come back to your position.

Just as in any good society, any acts of disorderliness would be punished by the society. Individuals in a society that refuse to comply by the rules are punished, either by shunning or even by being taken away from the community, i.e. imprisoned or even banished. This also happens in queues. If an individual insists on disrupting the order, physical force may be applied. These are the things that normally happen in all normally-functioning societies.

An interesting study published in the Management Science journal threw some interesting light on the societal aspects of queues. Titled “Social Queues (Cues): Impact of Others’ Waiting in Line on One’s Service Time,” the study sought to find out how the presence of others waiting in line shapes customers’ decisions regarding their own service times. This study found that in situations where customers have control over how much time they spent enjoying a particular service, they tend to shorten the time spent in enjoying the service when they see a queue of other customers waiting their turn. In other words, customers would speed up their consumption of the service so that other customers would come and enjoy the service.

The study argued that when there is a queue and customers see the queue, they are prepared to sacrifice their time for others. A concern for another human being was found to be the underlying factor for such a decision. If customers decide to ignore the queue and continue with their experience, they begin to feel a sense of guilt. This guilt will then begin to sour their experience.

The study was however quick to point that this behaviour lessened when the customers in question also had to wait for a considerable period before enjoying the service. So if the customer had to wait to get a table in a restaurant, then the customer will not speed up her enjoyment of the meal just because there happens to be a queue of customers forming outside. To that customer, if she waited her turn, then there is nothing wrong with other customers also waiting their turn.  In that scenario, the sense of guilt actually becomes lessened.

As was to be expected, the researchers found that the other-regarding behaviour of customers was lessened when there was a barrier between customers who were enjoying the service and those that were waiting in a queue. By not seeing that there were others waiting their turn, customers went ahead and enjoyed the service at their own pace and in their own time.

This particular study clearly proved that there is a social impact of queues on the experience of other customers. Customers are human and as humans, there is an influence on their actions by others. Under normal circumstances, customers think of other customers. Contrary to what we might be led to believe, human beings are really not that selfish.

The findings of this study should make organisations think twice about queuing as a whole. For instance, on one hand having more customers enjoy the service would normally mean more money for the establishment. However, if the sight of a queue means that customers would be in a hurry to leave, then it means that customers would not really enjoy the service, which is not something a business wants.

I wonder if there is any restaurant that wants its customers to eat in a hurry just because there is a queue waiting outside to also get inside. The restaurant would prefer to have a bigger space so that all customers would enjoy their meals without the stress of having to think of others who are waiting. The truth is that without fully enjoying the experience, customers might be limited in how they become emotionally attached to the experience. The experience might be too brief to have left a lasting impression on the customer. Without that emotional attachment, the chances of the customer coming back would be greatly affected.

Another reason why it is in the interest of every business that customers have time enough to enjoy the experience is because of what happens subsequently. The power of word-of-mouth advertising is something that has been widely spoken of (Pun intended). An organisation’s customers who are satisfied with the experience would normally go out of their way to tell others about the experience. In essence, therefore, satisfied customers act like a volunteer marketing department of a sort. This however does not happen if the customer is in a hurry to enjoy the experience and leave.

The findings of this study are quite interesting because they seems to fly in the face of conventional understanding of queues. For instance, it was believed that long queues are actually not a bad thing because it shows the value of the product or service on offer. If you were new to a place and saw two people selling the same thing but one had a long queue, while the other had no queue at all, the conventional wisdom is that you might go to the one with the queue. The question that would be ringing in your mind is, if the one with no queue is any good, why are people not queuing for it? The belief is that if people are willing to sacrifice their time to make a purchase, then that item or service must be very valuable. By extension, the longer the queue, the more valuable the offering. However, the aforementioned study seems to suggest that long queues are not really a very good thing.

It is important to state at this juncture that the study in question was with regards to businesses where customers had a choice as to how much time they spent. It is true that at any point in a business situation, a customer can just walk away. There are some situations where the decision to leave is solely in the hands of the customer. For example, a visit to places such as restaurants, gyms, swimming pools, tennis courts, museums, etc. qualifies as experiences where the customer decides how much time he or she will spend there. The findings of the aforementioned study and the subsequent discussions do not refer to situations where the customer has no discretion over the time that is to be spent enjoying the service.

Regardless of whatever business an organisation finds itself in, it is important that so long as it has to deal with more than one customer at a time, the business finds out what its specific situation is regarding queues. If the business’ situation falls in line with the case where the discretion is in the hands of customers, then the business must decide between how long its customers must stay within its premises to fully enjoy the experience and when they must leave.

The business also has a decision to make regarding where it will place its queue—whether in the plain view of other customers or whether the queue will be hidden from those enjoying the service. These are not going to be easy decisions to make. But they must be made, if a business is to enjoy the benefits of having an army of emotionally-satisfied customers—customers who will not be in a hurry to leave because there are other customers waiting.

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