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Customer Service Queues: Fair, Fast Or First?

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With limited customer service resources, companies are challenged to deliver access to service in an expedient, fair and cost-effective manner. Since customers hate to wait, how can a company balance available resources and service–to effectively meet and/or exceed customer expectations? Queue management can help.


Where customers have to wait in line for service, you can be sure the science of queue management is involved. Queue management is the design of customer flow to and possibly through some function (cashier, customer service, help desk agent etc.). Processes can be documented, calculated and optimized and are sometimes enabled or automated by technology. But not all queues are created equal.

In a WSJ article, "Justice–Wait for it on the Checkout Line", author Carl Bialik discusses how different industries react and adjust to improving customer wait times. For example, in an effort to speed service and ensure fairness (first come, first served) Wendy's has long implemented a single line to order food. And most airlines, with the exception of the red carpet treatment for frequent fliers, also have implemented a single line for customer service.

Undoubtedly, most of us have experienced the aggravation of Murphy's Law of queues–that the line next to you, will finish first. To address this issue, most transactional businesses (with the exception of grocery stores) have implemented a single line (or queue) for service. A single queue helps speed service and more importantly, gives waiting customers a sense of fairness that they will be served in an orderly fashion.
So your customer wants fair, but he/she probably also wants fast. And while you may think you're delivering speedy service, your customer likely perceives something entirely different.

The above WSJ article cites a study by Richard Larson a professor at MIT which showed that customers waiting in line for a Boston Bank "overestimated their wait times by 23%"! So, customers often think they wait longer than they actually do, and get especially irritated when others get service (unfairly) after arriving later.

Now let's add something else to the mix .... suppose you are a business that has segmented your customer base and identified your most profitable customers. What if you wanted to design processes for them to "jump the queue"–allowing them to go first?

For example, in an effort to reward their most valuable customers, airlines often let passengers with status board an aircraft first. Some airlines employ priority baggage handling where bags in effect "jump the queue" by coming off the conveyor belt first. Passengers without status often look at this special treatment as unfair–at least until they achieve a level of status and start accruing special benefits!

Indeed, it's a tricky balance to deliver a different level of service to a customer segment ... especially when that treatment is visible to your entire customer base.

Technology can and should play a critical role in optimizing customer queues, especially when there is more demand than resources:


  • A global grocer based out of the UK uses sensor technology to "count" how many people enter a store location and then "predict how many tills will be needed up to an hour in advance and monitor average waiting times and queue lengths."

  • Disney uses technology to create "virtual queues" such as FastPass to "track guest activity and smooth out demand by scheduling a future time slot for guests to return to an attraction." This practice helps reduce wait times and allows guests to enjoy more attractions in the park instead of waiting in long lines.

  • Automated call distribution systems allow for the intelligent routing of priority customers to agents with the right skills to assist them.



When it comes to customer service, every business must consider its capacity, and required service levels based on customer expectations and then balance these variables with available resources, costs and fixed architectural constraints.

However, a word of warning; getting the service queue wrong could be a prime reason why your customers aren't coming back. Richard Larson, the afore mentioned MIT professor, says he remembers a time–23 years ago, when he wasn't served on a first come first serve basis at a local department store. He hasn't been back since.

Questions:

  • The WSJ article notes that at grocery stores there seems little time to exchange pleasantries with cashiers as management systems track the speed of each transaction. In the name of optimization are we sacrificing a "better" customer experience?

  • Is self-checkout the savior for long wait times?

  • When it comes to waiting in line–would you take fairness over fast? What about "valuable" customers that get to go first–any resentment?


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Paul Barsch directs services marketing programs for Teradata, the world's largest data warehousing and analytics company. Previously, Paul was marketing director for HP Enterprise Services $1.3 billion healthcare industry and a senior marketing manager at global consultancy, BearingPoint. Paul is a senior contributor to MarketingProfs, a frequent columnist for MarketingProfs DailyFix, and has published over fifteen articles in marketing, management, technology and healthcare publications. Paul earned his Bachelors of Science in Business Administration from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. He and his family reside in San Diego, CA.

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  • by Marc G Wed Sep 30, 2009 via blog

    Whole Foods' Manhattan locations use the single line approach to much success. Although the single line often appears daunting (it can stretch throughout the store at lunchtime), it moves amazingly fast and makes consumers feel much better - at least those I've talked to informally. Additionally, at peak times they have two single-lines - one for express (common in NYC) and another for shoppers with several items.

  • by Paul Barsch Wed Sep 30, 2009 via blog

    Marc, thank you for commenting. WF has implemented single lines in Manhattan, but so far - at least to my knowledge - not in other places. Do you think single line works well in these locations because of urban population density -where shoppers are probably buying groceries for 1-2 days (smaller baskets) instead of weekly?

  • by Marc Wed Sep 30, 2009 via blog

    I would believe both space issues and shopper behavior play a role in the usage & success of this design. There are no conveyor belts at each register, allowing Whole Foods to place several registers next to each other (some have upwards of 40 in a relatively small space). With that said, busier suburban & rural grocery stores could likely use a little bit of retail space and implement this design - it's these little issues that can sour the customer experience. Think of the possibilities of increasing impulse sales - Barnes & Noble does this particularly well with gift cards, best sellers, candy and magazines placed at the POP.

  • by Strategic Growth Advisors Wed Sep 30, 2009 via blog

    Hey, Paul. Kudos for the informative post. This article has so much insight about the subject of queue management and I think that this will help a lot of entrepreneur who has a problem with the same. Keep the ideas coming!

  • by Dusan Vrban Thu Oct 1, 2009 via blog

    Hey Paul, you've raised an interesting subject. But beside queue I think modern, well-known brands and companies are failing on simple things already. At least my experiences in past few months are terrible. Might be connected to your points, but I think it is about being too new-products-marketing orientation. Just a case or two: 1. I wanted to update my Samsung mobile phone. Went to the Samsung site (hey, it's software - download, install, live on?), found out that Slovenia is not a country. Tried UK, but serial number is not ok. Sent an email, got an answer that I should come to their service office 130 km away from me. Answered "Are you serious?" and got reply that the email doesn't exist. 2. Wanted to buy a Dell netbook. Spent 5 hours, found out it is impossible to get that one. I live in the centre of Europe, not in some Pacific island. Asked around almost 10 people and in the end bought Lenovo that was in the store. Well, actually - I got sure that for big companies these days - it is just about selling quantities on low margin. Customer service? Buy a new one, don't come here. :-) Sorry, might have been out of context...

  • by Dusan Vrban Thu Oct 1, 2009 via blog

    A small add-on, I might have been wrong here: "found out that Slovenia is not a country" They know about us, I've just seen a jumbo in the street about my phone! Yes, Samsung knows about Slovenia!

  • by Paul Thu Oct 1, 2009 via blog

    SGA, thank you for taking the time to comment. As you know, queue management isn't just for entrepreneurs, and in fact businesses of all sizes need to think about how they serve customers and perhaps serve their best customers even better! The physical design of customer service queues is (in most cases) no accident.

  • by Paul Thu Oct 1, 2009 via blog

    Dusan, thanks for commenting from the non-country of Slovenia. :) I must admit, you bring up some very important points that got me thinking. First, the sell first, serve later mindset. Isn't this where most brands fail to meet expectations? Instead of catering to an overall experience, the mantra is push product out the door and worry about servicing it later. And then companies wonder why their operating margins suffer... Second point, "if you cannot master the simple, forget about tackling the complex." Companies who cannot get the little things right - like customer service email addresses and web site instructions really have no business bringing the latest and greatest product/service to market. The "hand-offs" (i.e from sales to service) within an organization are more important than most executives realize. Designing a great end-to-end customer experience really is rocket science!

  • by Andrew McFarland Thu Oct 1, 2009 via blog

    You've hit on one of the most difficult things of customer service -- that each customer's expectations may be somewhat different. I've seen a cheeky sign in restaurants lately to illustrate. Friendly Service Great Food Low Cost ... Pick any 2. http://wp.me/pAwUN-S

  • by Paul Thu Oct 1, 2009 via blog

    Andrew, thank you for commenting. From your LI profile, I can see you have more than a cursory knowledge of customer service. Customer service is tricky. Fair or not, businesses cannot afford to be all things to all people. And like it or not, there are some customer groups that add more value to a business and thus should receive priority. Matching customer expectations with consistent service levels is probably one of the most difficult processes for a business.

  • by Paul Weiss Fri Oct 9, 2009 via blog

    I used to work at a company that hosted a huge yearly convention, and we did a "Preferred Customer" line where people could, well, skip the line. It was right out in front of the line for the "regular" customers. All it did was lead to a lot of confusion and anger on the part of our customer base. I don't recommend it. Paul Weiss blogs.vbpoutsourcing.com

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