We make anticipated waiting times in our minds each time we attend to any matter, be it transactions with a bank, waiting to for the train at the railway station, registering a company with the Registrar of Companies, making a complaint at a local police station and the like.
If we have to wait less than we anticipated, we become very happy. If we are kept longer than we anticipated, we turn sour. So, in this situation, ‘real time’ is not very significant.
Houston Airport problem
Some years back, executives at a Houston Airport (US) faced a troubling customer relations issue. Passengers were lodging a great number of complaints about the long waits at baggage claim. In response, the executives increased the number of baggage handlers working that shift. The plan worked – the average wait fell to eight minutes, which was well within industry benchmarks. Unfortunately, the complaints continued.
The airport executives were surprised and they undertook a more careful, on-site analysis. They discovered that it took passengers a minute to walk from their arrival gates to baggage claim and seven more minutes to get their bags. About 88% of their time was spent standing around waiting for their bags.
New approach – Occupied time
So, the airport decided on a new approach. Instead of reducing wait times, it moved the arrival gates away from the main terminal and routed bags to the outermost carousal. Passengers now had to walk six times longer to get their bags. Complaints dropped to near zero.
The experience of waiting, whether for baggage or groceries, is defined only partly by the objective length of the wait. Often, the psychology of queuing is more important than the statistics of the wait itself. Occupied time (walking to baggage claim) feels shorter than unoccupied time (standing at the Carousal). Research on queuing has shown that, on average, people overestimate how long they have waited in a line by about 36 per cent.
This perhaps is also why one finds mirrors next to elevators. The idea was born during the post-World War II boom when the spread of high-rises led to complaints about elevator delays. The rationale behind the mirrors was similar to the one used at the Houston Airport… Give people something to occupy their time and the wait will feel shorter. With the mirrors, people could check their hair or make-up and it worked! Almost overnight the complaints ceased.
Some organisations use attractive fish tanks, i.e., Bank of Ceylon, York Street Branch. It is therefore, advantageous to display your Vision, Mission, Goals and Values in the reception area and/or arrange interesting and relevant literature on a coffee table at the reception so that visiting clients or suppliers will move into the ‘occupied time’ syndrome and not feel the time passing.
The drudgery of unoccupied time also accounts in large measure for the popularity of impulse-buy items that are displayed close to the paying counter in supermarkets. This earns the supermarkets millions.
Keells Foods, Cargills Supermarkets and Arpico Supermarkets have mastered the art. The Gondolas, Dangles, packs of gum, chocolates, etc. offer customers relief from the agony of waiting. Odel and House of Fashion have fixed flat Digital Televisions on the walls behind the paying counters so that the clients get absorbed into the TV programmes and hence, occupied time again.
The Walt Disney method
Beating expectations raise our moods. All else being equal, people who wait less than they anticipated are happier than those who wait longer than expected. This is why Walt Disney, the universally-acknowledged master of applied queuing psychology, overestimates wait times for rides so that the guests are pleasantly surprised when they ascend space mountains ahead of schedule.
This is a powerful ploy because our memories of a queuing experience, to use an industry term, are strongly influenced by the final moments, according to research conducted by Ziv Carmon, a Professor of Marketing at the business school INSEAD, and the behavioural economist Daniel Kahneman.
When a long wait ends on a happy note, the line speeds up. We tend to look back on it positively even if we were miserable much of the time. Conversely, if negative emotions dominate in the final moments, our retrospective evaluation of the process will skew towards cynicism, even if the experience as a whole was relatively painless.
Carmon and Kahneman have also found that we are more concerned with how long a line is than how fast it is moving. Given a choice between a slow-moving short line and a fast-moving long line, we will often opt for the slow-moving short line even if the waits are identical. You will notice how people standing in line before immigration counters at Bandaranaike International Airport keep jumping from one line to another.
Perhaps the biggest influence on our feelings about lines has to do with our perception of fairness. When it comes to lines, the universally acknowledged standard is, ‘first come, first served’. Any deviation is, to most people, a mark of iniquity and can lead to violent queue rage.
First come, first served
Surveys show that many people will wait twice as long for fast food, provided that the establishment uses a ‘first-come-first-served,’ single queue ordering system as opposed to a multi-queue setup.
Anyone who has ever had to choose a line at a grocery store or supermarket knows how unfair multiple queues can seem. I don’t mean having multiple paying counters with their respective queues. What I mean is where one paying centre has two or more queues like the sort we find in some public sector organisations.
In the event that the staff member behind one counter, owing to his/her inefficiency is responsible for the slow moving of that queue, he/she must be replaced with someone who has the capacity. People behind counters must be trained to work with the same efficiency and speed. Look at the counters of a MacDonald food outlet.
Standing in line can cause extreme boredom, annoyance and even rage, which is precisely why there is a fascinating science devoted to what makes people tick – and ticked off – when forced to wait. You may not know it, but the seemingly mundane task of forming a queue at the airport, a fast-food joint or a post-Thanksgiving midnight sale is the subject of careful study by experts in the field of queuing psychology.
The findings may not always reduce wait times, but they can cut frustration and make people feel better, or even happy, about waiting in line, said Richard Larson, who has researched queuing psychology for more than two decades.
Cognitive asymmetry at work
There is a curious cognitive asymmetry pertaining to lines. While losing to the line at our left drives us to despair, winning the race against the one to our right does little to lift our spirits. Indeed, in a system of multiple queues, customers almost always fixate on the line they are losing to and rarely the one they are beating.
Fairness also dictates that the length of a queue should be commensurate with the value of the product or service for which they are waiting.
All of the above methods, however, suffer from the same drawback: the person arrives at the location only to find out that they need to wait. Some organisations in Britain and US have recently begun to replace the traditional queue with mobile queues.
This where the person queuing uses his/her phone, the internet, a kiosk or another method to enter a virtual queue, optionally prior to arrival, is free to roam during the wait, and then gets paged at his/her mobile phone when his/her turn approaches.
This has the advantage of allowing users to find out the wait forecast and get in the queue before arriving, roaming freely and then timing their arrival to the availability of service. This has been shown to extend the patience of those in the queue and reduce no-shows.
Customer service in
While most private sector organisations are driving to be customer-centric, sadly, the same cannot be said about services received from the public sector. Say you lose your driving license and you need to get a new one. Now try getting a new one.
You will need to go to the issuing centre at Piliyandala and wait for perhaps four to five hours in a queue; trying to get a building plan approved at the Colombo Municipality; to get approval for clearing land from the Colombo Low Lying Areas Reclamation Board, queues at a Government hospital, etc. The Passport Office, on the other hand, is a very good example of how customers should be served.
We need to be more service oriented and all planning and processes must gear to addressing one problem and that is ‘how do we reduce to a minimum, unnecessary, unproductive and irritating queues?’
Before implementing a queue, some thought should be given to the availability of substitutes. A substitute, in this context, is an alternative activity the queuer can participate in rather than standing in line.
Ideally the substitute activity should be aligned with the objectives of both the queuer and the organisation where the queue forms. Providing a substitute activity for the queuer can be an effective approach for reducing perceived waiting time.
In a busy restaurant, a good substitute for a waiting customer would be a bar. At an outdoor attraction with long queues, a good substitute might be a side marquee selling merchandise or food.
A good substitute will:
Put the customer at ease allowing them to do something more interesting than standing in line
Increase the customer’s tolerance level for waiting
Provide the organisation with an opportunity to generate additional revenue from the waiting customers
Tether the customer to the organisation making it less likely that the customer aborts their visit because of a long queue
Providing a well thought through substitute activity that complements the main product or service being queued for can provide an organisation with a valuable customer service advantage
(Nalin Jayasuriya is the Managing Director & CEO, McQuire Rens & Jones (Pvt) Ltd. He has held regional responsibilities of two multinational companies, of which one, Smithkline Beecham International, was a Fortune 500 company before merging to become GSK. He carries out consultancy assignments and management training in Dubai, India, Maldives, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Bangladesh. Nalin has been Consultant to assignments in the CEB, Airport and Aviation Services and setting up the PUCSL. He is a much sought-after Business Consultant and Corporate Management Trainer in Sri Lanka. He has won special commendation from the UN Headquarters in New York for his record speed in re-profiling and re-structuring the UNDP. He has lead consultancy assignments for the World Bank and the ADB. Nalin is an executive coach to top teams of several multinational and blue chip companies. He is non-Executive Director on the Boards of Entrust Securities Plc and Eswaran Brothers Exports Ltd.)