Optimizing The Waiting Process

In my Operations Management class at Haas, I’ve been learning about the best way to optimize queues. In layman’s terms, the class teaches managers to improve the process of waiting in line to maximize revenue and customer satisfaction.

If you make your customers wait in line too long, they will become frustrated and potentially leave your store. This reduces your revenue. On the other hand, if you rush customers through a line without having enough resources (e.g. waiters, checkout counters, computer terminals,  machines, etc.) to service them properly, mistakes are bound to occur. Depending on the type of business your run, mistakes can result in bad reviews being posted online or even a lawsuit. The latter can be more costly than losing sales.

One of the most interesting things I’ve learned in class is that Operations Management is not just about calculating numbers. There are huge psychological considerations in play. Below, I’ve listed some of the interesting practices I’ve learned.

I’ve organized these learnings into three buckets: Time, Fairness, and Engagement.

Time: For many people, time is a scarce resource. If customers perceive that you are wasting their time, they will feel disrespected.

Uncertain waits feel longer than certain waits. If you know what you’re waiting for, you feel a lot more at ease than if you don’t know what you’re waiting for. Suppose the front desk lady at your dentist’s office informed you that the dentist will see you in 15 minutes. You’d feel content because you’d expect to see the dentist in 15 minutes. However, if the lady did not give you any information, you’d feel anxious. Setting the right expectations puts a customer’s mind at ease because it makes him or her feel in control of the situation. This is why many call centers have an automated voice saying: “we apologize for the wait; the estimated remaining wait time is 2 minutes.”

Unexplained waits feel longer than certain waits. Similar to the first point, it’s important to tell people why they are waiting. Let’s suppose you are a customer service representative and must put somebody on hold. Your caller will be much happier if you said “excuse me sir, I have to put you on hold to pull up your account and speak to a specialist” than if you merely said “excuse me sir, I have to put you on hold.” If you are on a plane on the tarmac, it’s better to tell your passengers that people are de-icing the runway and that the wait is necessary for everyone’s safety than to stay silent.

Don’t remind people how long they have been waiting unless they are grossly estimating their waiting time. This is pretty self-explanatory. Reminding customers that they have been waiting a long time just reminds them to be frustrated. However, if customers feel like they’ve been waiting hours and hours for service, it can be helpful to let them know that they’ve only been waiting for 5 minutes.

Fairness: Customers hate feeling like they are being singled out for unfair treatment or that they are being punished for adhering to rules.

Enforce rules. Try not to let people cut in line. If you know there are VIPs who should get preferential treatment (e.g. in a nightclub) create two lines. This way, when you bring a VIP to the front of the line, the rest of your customers will feel like your actions are still ‘within the rules.’ Similarly, don’t let regular customers jump the line for any reason. One way to eliminate the incentive for people to cut in line is to periodically send an employee down the line to give people wrist bands or a ‘number’ and lock-in their  order in the queue.

Keep resources not serving customers out of sight. If you are in a restaurant with slow service, there’s nothing more infuriating than seeing waiters standing around the kitchen door gossiping. Even though the waiters can’t really force the kitchen to cook faster, their presence reminds customers that your resources are not being properly allocated. Similarly, if you are waiting in a long line at an airport ticket counter and there are attendants standing around not serving customers, you’re bound to wonder why those lazy attendants aren’t doing their job. Keep these unused resources out of sight or put them to work doing something else.

Engagement: When customers are physically distracted, they are less likely to notice that your line is moving slowly. Keep your line occupied. Make them feel like they are ‘multi-tasking’ rather than wasting time.

Install distractions that entertain the customer. If kids are able to watch a movie, read a magazine, or play video games at the doctor’s office, they are less likely to be rowdy. Southwest Airlines’ flight attendants like to play trivia games with passengers during long waits. A distracted customer is a content customer.

Preprocess waits feel longer than in-process waits. In other words, break up your wait schedule into chunks and keep  your customers updated on their progress. In the emergency room, a nurse will provide forms to fill out, take his or her temperature, conduct physical exams, ask questions, etc. A patient who is ‘in-process’ will be less likely to leave because he or she has already committed energy to waiting and have made progress.

Mix up your processing order. It’s good to be flexible with procedures when there is a long line. If a lot of people are waiting at the drive-thru line at Wendy’s, send an employee to the line and take down people’s orders on a clipboard. Make people feel like they are making progress during their wait. Many airlines will distribute stickers and boarding passes to passengers who are standing in line and do not have bags to check-in so that they can quickly exit the line and speed up the process for everybody.

Have people wait in groups. Solo waiting feels longer than group waiting. When a person is waiting with a group, he or she is more likely to strike up a conversation with others to pass the time.

Ultimately, the psychology of queues is just as important as the mathematical calculations that go into the design of a functional process. In the end, no amount of optimization will help you if your product or service is terrible. If you have a good product and make a good first impression, customers will be more willing to deal with lines. If you run a three-star Michelin restaurant, people will wait for months for a table.

(NOTE: Information in this blog post are my opinions that have been synthesized from lessons of Prof. Terry Taylor. Opinions do not reflect that of Haas faculty.)

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