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The Psychology of Managing Queues. A manager must pay attention not only to how long a customer waits in a queue before service begins but also to how the customer feels while waiting .

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The psychology of managing queues l.jpg
The Psychology ofManaging Queues

A manager must pay attention not only to how long a customer waits in a queue before service begins but also to how the customer feels while waiting.

Based on “The Psychology of Waiting Lines”, by David H. Maister, Harvard Business School Teaching Note 9-684-064.

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First Law of Service


If P > E, then customer is satisfied.

If P < E, then customer is unsatisfied.

Because both P & E are psychological phenomenon (not reality), both can be managed.

Example of Managing Perception: Place a mirror at an elevator.

Example of Managing Expectation: At a crowded restaurant, the host/hostess can provide a somewhat pessimistic estimate of how long until a table will become available.

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Second Law of Service

It is hard to play “catch up”.

So, if a manager intends to invest money and/or time in improving service, perhaps it is best to invest in the early stages of the service.

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Proposition #1

Unoccupied time feels longer than occupied time.

What to Do?

Distract and/or offer a benefit.

  • Examples:

    • At a crowded restaurant, send those waiting for a table to the bar and/or hand out menus.

    • For those on hold at a call center to order tickets to a football game, play highlights of memorable past games.

    • Like at Disneyland, have turning points in the line that not only “disguise” the length of the line but also serve as “milestones” for those in line. Also, have overhead monitors that entertain.

    • McDonald’s versus Wendy’s.

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Proposition #2

A pre-process wait feels longer than an in-process wait.

What to Do?

Acknowledge entry into the system.

  • Examples:

    • A busy waiter at a restaurant pauses at a table and says, “I will be with you soon.”

    • A nurse in a waiting room says, “The doctor will see you soon.”

    • A mail-order company sends you an e-mail acknowledging your phone order or mail order.

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Proposition #3

Anxiety makes a wait seem longer.

What to Do?

Anticipate what customers might worry about and remove the worry (even if the worry seems irrational).

  • Examples:

    • At a airline’s check-in counter with a long line, have an agent present to assure customers that there are in the correct line and/or that there is no need to worry about missing a flight.

    • At a movie theater with a long, have a employee outside to assure everyone that there are still seats remaining and that they will be seated before the movie begins.

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Proposition #4

An uncertain wait feels longer than a known finite wait.

What to Do?

Be honest.

  • Examples:

    • At a doctor’s office, the nurse should be honest about how long it will be until the doctor will see you (especially if it not be at the appointment time). If the nurse says that the doctor is running 30 minutes late, you will experience an initial annoyance but will soon relax and accept the inevitable.

    • When an aircraft is delayed, the gate agent or pilot should be honest about the length of a delay.

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Proposition #5

An unexplained wait feels longer than an explained wait.

What to Do?

Explain early and update often.

  • Examples:

    • When an aircraft is delayed, the gate agent or pilot should clearly explain the delay and periodically update the situation.

    • If a doctor is running late with appointments at his/her office, you will feel better if the nurse explains that the doctor arrived late at the office because an emergency surgery at the hospital.

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Proposition #6

An unfair wait feels longer than a fair wait.

What to Do?

Select the next customers to be served using a fair rules.

  • Examples:

    • FIFO at a bank’s tellers.

    • Express check-out (6 items or less) at a supermarket.

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Proposition #7

The more valuable a service, the longer a customer will wait.

What to Do?

Differentiate customers.

Improve speed at points in the process where no value in being added.

  • Examples:

    • At an airport check-in counter, have separate lines for passengers needing only a seat, passengers checking baggage, and passengers changing tickets.

    • Checking out of a hotel using TV.

    • Disembarking from a airplane using front and back exits.

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Proposition #8

Waiting alone feels longer than waiting in a group.

What to Do?

Promote interaction among waiting customers.

  • Examples:

    • Two strangers sitting next to each other while waiting to board an aircraft will not speak to each other until after a delay is announced in the flight.