Queue Theory: How to Keep Customers Happy While They Wait

Posted on October 23, 2019 by Carm McCormick

Queue Theory: How to Keep Customers Happy While They Wait

Posted on October 23, 2019 by Carm McCormick

Naturally, reducing your store’s average wait times for customers keeps sales flowing and customers moving through your registers freely and happily. However, having people make their transactions and go on their way at optimum speeds is not necessarily the only way that great service is defined. When people inevitably do get stuck waiting at some point, you need creative solutions to improve queues to help them through the experience in ways that keep customers happy about the service they received.

The ongoing endeavour to improve service must include finding new ways to manage wait times in queues and other customer service contingencies. Here are some options for managing queues and delivering exceptional service for the customers who are waiting in them:

1. Let People Know What’s Going On.

As it turns out, people are much less bothered by waiting for service when they are clear on the cause of the slowdown, according to a recent study discussed in the Harvard Business Review. In fact, an interesting and unexpected phenomenon occurs when people become aware of the work being done to provide the service they’re waiting for and the progress the workers are making toward helping them.

For customers, having their consciousness of employees’ strong efforts raised and their attention temporarily focused on those efforts has a transformative effect on how they feel about waiting. The experience can evoke a heightened sense of value in the service and keep customers happy.

2. Reconfigure the Queue.

Here’s a great story about an ingenious solution to excessive queue times. A story in the New York Times shares how Houston airport continuously received complaints about long waits at baggage claim. Airport executives reportedly implemented an outside-the-box solution — they reconfigured to locate the arrival gates and baggage claim farther apart, so that customers had to walk longer to reach baggage claim, but then could spend less time standing still while waiting for their bags. Reportedly, the complaints about wait times at baggage claim immediately dropped to virtually none.

The airport could not as easily actually reduce the wait time for baggage claims. But, they could fill the time with a great activity for customers (and funny enough, this is why there used to be mirrors in most elevators) — walking, which is arguably a better way for most people to pass the time than standing still.

Maybe you can’t and/or shouldn’t move your shelves of merchandise a long walking distance from your checkout register, but you can grasp the spirit of the concept. And much like Disney, or in this case Houston Airport, you can help make waits feel shorter by keeping people active. This is another way to keep customers happy. 

3. Use a Snake Queue to Keep Customers Happy.

As in any human activity occurring in any space, a perception of fairness is key to smooth interactions and positive feelings about the experience by everyone involved. If customers who’ve been waiting longer see someone who has waited less time get service before they do, they can begin to feel frustrated and angry.

And thus, one of the most popular solutions for fairness for people waiting in lines (using a standard snake queue) also helps keep people busy. The snake queue funnels the line through a single entry point, so there are no other ways for people to get into the line. That means there’s no way to cut into the line ahead of other people. Existing walls, along with impulse-buy racks are usually put in place to delineate the queue route.

When a person reaches the front of the line, he/she is directed to the next available employee for service. Snake queues are among the fastest methods of managing queues. Plus, they deliver peace of mind for customers, from the security of knowing that they are not at risk of being forced to wait longer than expected due to other people cutting into the line ahead of them.

4. Set Your Customers Free.

The customer-liberation approach employs the time-tested take-a-number approach. Let customers take a number during busy times, and have an electronic display that lets them know when their number is nearing the top of the queue. For busy deli counters and discount retail checkout registers, this system is far superior to making people physically stand in a line.

Many casual restaurants give customers a device that lights up or vibrates when their food is ready for pick up at the order counter. So, this is a great solution for busy QSRs. This is also an excellent remedy for lines at pharmacy counters, vs. leaving people waiting for excessive amounts of time while prescriptions are prepared. Some foodservice businesses use a P.A. system to announce when each customer’s order is ready.

5. Add Seating in the Checkout and Customer Service Queues.

Most full-service restaurants add comfortable seating for customers waiting for tables. Walmart pharmacies also offer seating for customers waiting for prescriptions. If waiting is the norm for customers in your service business or in your retail shop, comfortable seating goes a long way toward keeping customers feeling cared for and contented. They can occupy themselves staring at their phones or read whatever literature you think they would find most relevant to their interests.

If wait times are typically more than a few minutes at your business, a TV or video monitor can entertain them and make the time seem to go faster. Even digital signage in the space can take the edge off of waiting. Just load some compelling ads and video clips into the revolving digital displays, and advertise, build your brand, engage customers, and keep customers happy while they wait.

6. Install Self-Entertainment Features.

Many customers find their own ways to stay occupied while waiting in line, either by playing games on their phones, studying their to-do lists, reading, making phone calls, emailing, texting, etc. So while you can consider adding WIFI or other tech aids, many businesses aid customers in entertaining themselves by installing entertainment features as welcome distractions that can make waiting more fun. 

For example, some car washes and repair services install windows for customers to view the service process as their vehicles move through it. Some restaurants put menus in the waiting area so that customers can familiarize themselves in advance. This also helps reduce wait times for the next customers, because customers have often already read the menu and made their choices before being seated at their table. Other businesses use big screens or the “game” to help people pass the time. Try something. Anything is usually preferable to providing nothing to help customers be distracted from feeling too bored waiting.

7. Implement “In Process” Staging in Your Queue.

When customers are given a sense that their service is “in process,” the remainder of their wait time tends to seem shorter and more acceptable. In any sales business that uses sales offices, after you’re escorted into a sales rep’s office, you feel better about your position than you did while you were in the waiting area, perhaps with multiple other customers waiting to get into that room.

Many QSRs are moving to digital ordering and order number screens – with the addition of “working on order number…” and “now serving order number…” there’s a certain satisfaction that comes from watching your order number move quickly up the screen.  It feels like progress.

8. Routinely Prepare to Open Additional Registers to Keep Customers Happy.

Monitor the cash wrap, and request back up at the register as a long line begins to form. If you have multiple registers, set a policy of opening up additional registers whenever more than two or three customers are waiting in line at one register. Keep additional registers turned on, and just keep cash drawers locked, or keep a loaded cash drawer in reserve in the store’s till, to be ready to help people immediately when the checkout lines start to grow.

That way, employees can just login at the POS register, and start making transactions. Train staff to announce when another register is being opened and encourage shoppers who are next in line at other registers to come to the newly opened terminal for faster service.

9. Acknowledge Your Waiting Customers.

Just the simple gesture of courteously acknowledging each customer who is waiting in line can go a long way to making people feel better about their situation. Train staff members to make a professional effort to acknowledge everyone in line, by at least making eye contact and smiling, to let them know they’re noticed and that your team is mindful that they’re waiting for service.

Also, train staff to thank every customer for being patient, as they step up to the register, to reinforce the message that they are appreciated and valued as a customer.

And if you want to go the extra step, consider samples, tasters, and having a friendly rep walk the line to engage with customers and keep customers happy. 

10. Have a Protocol to Ease Difficult Transactions and Keep Customers Happy.

There are times when things go wrong, or some customers simply need more time. By taking customers to another register to handle any time-consuming issues like credit card glitches, coupon issues, or refunds and returns, and other problems that slow down the checkout line. Eliminate all causes of friction. 

A mobile register is perfect for resolving such problematic transactions. Providing the more personal attention for a customer having difficulty is going the extra distance to provide an optimum customer experience not only for the customer you’re helping, but also for others who observe how you manage the situation. Kindly handling helps your brand.

Allow staff some autonomy in problem-solving. It speeds up the checkout process when they don’t need to wait for management decisions, and it helps your team become more fully engaged in their roles.

11. Use Time-Saving Retail Technology.

Using a handheld POS (Point of Sale) device can make it incomparably faster to process customer checkouts during busy times. By entering all of your inventory items into the system, and including all sale prices and discounts, your team can process transactions very quickly while on the go.

Think how easy it is to buy at an Apple store – with no formal lineups. Having a handheld POS system is a great way to speed up checkout from anywhere in the store, which means staff can help pull people out of long lines, or you can layout your store with no formal lines. 

12. Offer Advance Scheduling or Mobile App Ordering

If taking reservations doesn’t make sense for your business, maybe offering an option for mobile registering to give customers a pre-scheduled place in the queue or even mobile order and pickup (learn more about BOPIS here). This arrangement can keep customers happy with the system and reduce lines to nearly zero. Pre-scheduling doesn’t give people a specific time commitment, it just gives them a confirmed place in line. They’re in a virtual line, and they receive text messages to let them know how they’re progressing through the line and when it’s their turn.

This system allows customers to continue relaxing in your restaurant’s bar, or outside in nice weather, or squeezing in some more work at their office across the street, as they monitor their progress through the queue. Being able to track the progress of the line helps people know what to expect, which reduces the sense of anxiety caused by uncertainty about how long they may have to wait for service.

Don’t Forget to Continuously Evaluate and Coach Staff to Keep Customers Happy

While each of these 12 approaches can help you reduce wait times, or at least make customer experiences while they wait better, a key part of your business and brand is the perception your customers have of how committed you and your staff are to providing excellent service. 

And in truth, few things you can do as a store owner will help keep customers happy than seeing the staff professionally solving problems and doing what it takes to help people get what they need and want as efficiently as possible.

Everybody’s busy. So, it’s not surprising that people often abandon retail store visits when they can’t get business done quickly enough. Take some proactive measures to help staff consistently maximize their teamwork proficiency and individually perform optimally to manage queues.

Of course, start by assessing the queuing situation in your store, pick one or two solutions to try out, and then start. Keep testing solutions until you find the one that works best, or a combination of methods that sufficiently reduces the impact of wait times in your store.

For more information about ways to optimize the customer experience in your retail store service queues, give us a call at (800) 535-2279. We can help you figure out how to make the best use of your space to reduce wait times and keep customers happy.

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