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Next please

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We all have strengths and weaknesses. One of my faults is a lack of patience when it comes to waiting in line. If you want to really punish me, ask me to stand idly in a queue. I find waiting to be served dead boring - minutes seem like hours.

As it turns out, I’m not the only person who detests queues. Apparently, most of us become peeved when in a slow-moving line. We feel a nagging sensation that our life is slipping away and become even more annoyed if another line is going faster than the one we are in.

Unfortunately, we can’t escape queues as they are a ubiquitous reality of modern life. Every day, we routinely queue when waiting for a bus, purchasing groceries from a supermarket or buying a coffee. We are also put in a virtual queue when we phone a call centre.

Not even being on holidays provides relief from the need to get in line. Cumulatively, I have stood for days outside some of the world’s most popular tourist attractions. Try joining the snaking queue at the Louvre in Paris – the prolonged wait would make the Mona Lisa frown!

Let’s face it - standing in formation while facing the same direction is not fun. But some of the pain of queuing can be eliminated. Research reveals that the single greatest bugbear with queuing is a lack of fairness i.e. people not being served on a first-come, first-served basis.

Almost nothing upsets the average person more - except perhaps a brazen queue jumper - than finding you have picked the wrong line. You watch in frustration as people who have joined another queue after you get served before you.

Academics refer to this as a lack of social justice and it is easily overcome with single line queuing which ensures the principle of first-in, first-out (FIFO). Organisations typically use one of two FIFO systems - either “take a ticket” and wait to be called or join a linear queue and stand in line.

An exception to FIFO is priority queuing which gets you to the front of the line in return for paying a premium. Examples include business class airline passengers using express lanes and VIP amusement park guests joining a fast-pass line – a case of more bang for more bucks.

While single line queuing stops people jostling for position, it does not address the second biggest issue with queuing – boredom. According to the experts, boredom is the result of customers having too much “unoccupied time” - thus the need to give them something to do.

The need to distract customers while they wait is the reason that some restaurants give patrons a menu to peruse while in line. It’s also the reason some elevator lobbies are covered in glass. Building tenants can kill time looking at themselves and others in the mirror.

Supermarkets also understand the need to keep shoppers occupied and this is one of the reasons they have installed self-service checkouts. Apparently, this process actually takes longer than going through a normal checkout but feels quicker because the customer is doing something with their time.

Similarly, some airports have reduced wait times at baggage claim by increasing the distance from the arrival gate to the baggage hall. Passengers spend more “occupied time” walking and less “unoccupied time” standing idly at the baggage carousel thereby creating a better customer experience.

When it comes to theme parks, Disney is considered the master at managing queues and customer waits. It has turned the art of crowd control into a science and has built an underground command centre to keep lines moving and guests entertained while waiting for rides.

A powerful ploy used by Disney is to deliberately over-estimate wait times for rides. Guests are pleasantly surprised when they can board a car or boat ahead of schedule. This reduces queue frustration and is a classic example of under-promising and over-delivering.

With thought and planning, all organisations can improve queue flow. I look forward to the day when passport checks at airports can be made faster and more humane. Until that time, I’ll just have to grin and bear it as governments have a monopoly on border control and shorter queues are clearly not a priority!

Paul J. Thomas, CEO


avatar Steve Fitts
Delays at passport control. Is that a first world problem? I recall the queue for the train at Olympic Park ...censored.........ring the 2000 Olympic Games as being the best party in town. Even the rail employees were amusing.
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CEO Paul Thomas