It all boils down to how we ‘feel’
According to the science (and David Maister in his paper of 1985):
Satisfaction = Perception – Expectation
If you expect a particular level of service and your perception of what you receive is better than anticipated, then you’re enjoying a high satisfaction rate.
Of course, perception and expectation are psychological traits. This makes them challenging to measure universally, and let's face it, our expectation, our hope—all of that dopamine creating excitement through anticipation—is almost always going to be higher than the experience we receive.
Where do our waiting and queuing experiences fall flat?
- Unoccupied time feels far longer than occupied time
- People are happier if they feel that the process has started
- Uncertain waits feel longer than known ones
- Unexplained waits feel longer than understandable ones
- Unfair waits feel longer than fair ones
- Anxiety makes waiting feel worse
- Waiting on your own feels longer than waiting as part of a group
- Waiting will feel easier, the more value the end product holds
The common factor in all of the above isn’t the wait itself, but how we feel about it. It’s the experience that causes us anxiety, not the time itself.
There are many exploits and actions that trigger anxiety while waiting in line: queue jumpers, thinking we’ve been forgotten, fear of missing our next appointment, physical discomfort, unruly or noisy participants, and just the horrible feeling that we’re wasting our lives—simply standing around and doing nothing of value.
How do we make waiting feel better?
If the wait is worth it (number 8), it adds to the anticipation instead of detracting from it. Just think about the psychology of queuing in a theme park. You have more time to become excited about your upcoming experience, all the time with distractions managed by clever line geography or in-queue activities and distractions.
When we're told that we may have to wait longer because there’s been an accident, or due to the terrible weather (number 4), we become more accepting and patient of the waiting period.
Having a one-in, one-out system helps us to feel less likely to be overlooked or forgotten, or that a fair system doesn’t favour noisy troublemakers, demanding a bump up the queue (number 5).
These are some of the factors that add anxiety to our queuing or waiting experiences.
So, what does the psychology of queuing say we should do about them?
Planning to negate the frustration of waiting
- Entertain your consumers while they queue
- Welcome them into the queue to begin the process
- Make their experience more comfortable
- Provide a fair system for everyone
- Offer distractions that offer real value
- Keep them informed and educated of progress at every step of the process
- Set expectations—then meet or exceed them
- Over-deliver whenever possible
- Leave consumers with a satisfactory memory of their experience
Waiting lines operations management is a big part of resolving a poor queuing culture for businesses. Anything you do to improve your service and consumer satisfaction fits into this practice.
Keeping your consumers happy adds value to your brand, service, and it’s a lot easier to maintain than trying to appease a dissatisfied customer. With the damage done early in the process, it’s probably already too late to provide a satisfactory experience.
Given that waiting in line is often the first step in providing a service, keeping your consumers content from that point is vital.
If you can find ways to make the time feel shorter, by providing entertainment, information, a game to play or survey to complete—that could be an appropriate solution for many.
Identifying clientele whose issues you can resolve in line, or whose needs are less consuming, they can be managed and removed far quicker—that’s a win for everyone. Perhaps a queue runner or triage staff could work for you?
Practical applications and real-life solutions
1. Estimating waiting times and over-delivering
When warned how long you’re likely to be waiting and the actual time in the queue is less, then we feel like we’ve won a little extra time for the things we’d rather be doing. In reality, nothing has changed—that was always going to be how long you would be queuing, but doesn’t it just feel better?
Adversely, the opposite is true. Failing to meet expectation will damage customer satisfaction and often ruin the experience completely. No matter how kind or polite the provider may be, it’s far tougher to turn a bad experience around than it is to maintain a good one.
2. Providing material to pass the time
Constructive use of our time (even if it’s only a perception of constructiveness) gives value to our time. Reading, socialising, having a coffee and taking a moment can all make a wait feel shorter and more bearable.
That’s why many waiting rooms or service areas include magazines, coffee machines, memorabilia and intriguing décor—anything to distract the consumer from skulking into ‘dead time’. Estimated waiting times give a consumer the option to action other tasks and return when they are at the top of the list.
3. Handing out menus before being seated
It doesn’t even feel like waiting when given a task to perform—especially if it’s backed up with a few drinks at the meet, greet, and start of your socialising. By merely integrating part of the process to the waiting period, it practically disappears.
4. Add value to the wait
Have you noticed that airports have comfortable, well-spaced seating, with newsstands, shops, cafes, bars, and information centres dotted around? All of those added extras are designed to make your wait more comfortable and distracting—as well as prizing a little extra cash from your pocket! Having something to do, and sociably, appreciably shortens the perceived wait.
5. Replace waiting times with other activities
Have you ever noticed that your airport check-in seems the furthest place possible from the departure gate? It feels like bad planning, but it’s actually quite clever. The time it takes you to get from one end of the airport to the other is time you aren’t sat moaning about how long it is until it’s time to board.
The same works for arrivals and baggage claim; walking time replaces waiting time—your luggage is more likely to be ready and waiting if it’s taken longer for you to get there.
6. Utilise a meet and greet
Look how much better we ease into a long wait if we’ve been met and told, “I’ll be with you as soon as I’ve dealt with this issue” or “now we have your details, someone will be with you in around 10 minutes.”
Checking-in before we start the real waiting, or having our order taken so fast food can be prepared while we wait to pay, are all ways of engaging with a consumer to make them feel noticed and included. There’s far less chance of losing a sale that way, too.
What can we do about online queuing in our virtual waiting rooms?
Although many of the practices for our online queuing waits aren’t applicable, the psychology of queuing remains the same.
Keeping consumers informed and educated throughout their wait, applying a fair system where everyone is treated justly, and providing options and estimates so they can make the most of the downtime, are all ways of easing the anxiety of being in an online queue.
If your online queuing system doesn’t take care of your customers the way you want it to—to maintain their online experience while waiting to make their purchase or access your service—isn’t it time it did? It could be the difference between hitting the sweet spot of sales figures and losing your customers—and a small fortune.