Device Type: desktop
Skip to Main Content Skip to Main Content

The Psychology of Queuing

This article was published on May 26, 2020

“Often the psychology of queuing is more important than the statistics of the wait itself” - Dr Richard Larson, Mitsui Professor of Engineering Systems at MIT, considered to be the world’s foremost expert on lines. 

People overestimate how long they’ve waited in a queue by roughly 36 percent - Jacob Hornik, researcher on subjective vs objective time measures.

As with so much in life, when it comes to waiting, perception is everything! The classic example being the complaints about slow lifts (or should I say elevators?) in 1950s America. As more people moved into high rise buildings, the speed of the lifts became increasingly frustrating for the tenants. They obviously couldn't change the building to add lift shafts. So the landlords installed floor to ceiling mirrors. The tenants were now distracted by checking their appearance or stealing furtive glances at the lady upstairs. The complaints of slow lifts reduced to almost zero.

The following queuing perceptions will help us understand our customers and improve how they feel about engaging with us.

At motorway roadworks, even if you are doing 20 mph, you feel great as long as the other lanes are doing 15 mph. The sense of going faster than your co-waiters fills you with positive feelings. Sadly for me, I’m never in the 20mph lane and have usually just changed out of it!

In a contact centre scenario, call priorities are often changed for various reasons. VIPs or high value callers and also disgruntled or churn risk callers are often bumped up the queue. The question is, do they know? And, how do we communicate it to them in a positive way? “We are sorry that you have had issues with our service and are placing you in front of all the other callers who we haven’t annoyed yet!” probably isn’t the way to go.

The biggest impact on happiness (as we all know from the motorway) is people queue jumping. We need to bear this in mind when we communicate that we are fast tracking callers. Especially since the escalated callers of today may have to wait longer next week.

Beating expectations makes people happier. People who wait a shorter time than expected are happier than those who wait longer than expected. Disney (the masters of queuing) are Jedis at this. Their estimated wait times are always longer than the likely reality and their customers are happier for it.

If we decide to communicate expected wait times, we had better make sure that they are not shorter than the likely wait. If we communicate an expected wait which is longer than the actual wait, we will make our callers happier.

The last part of a wait sets the tone for our memory of that wait. For example, if the countdown to agent answer gets quicker towards the end of the wait, your memory of the queuing experience is likely to be positive. This can have a big impact on the agent interaction. There are benefits for the agent well-being as well as customer satisfaction.

We perceive occupied time as faster than non-occupied time. Another classic example from queuing psychology comes from airport baggage reclaim. Have you ever noticed that the waiting time for bags to come out of belts which are several miles from where you got off the plane are remarkably short? You’d think that it would annoy flyers to have to walk and then wait but actually the opposite is true. Walking doesn’t count as waiting to the mind. So even though the time to deliver your suitcase up the black belt of joy is exactly the same, if you’ve spent the last 20 minutes walking half the way back to the place you just arrived from, you feel happier than if you spent that 20 minutes staring into the abyss worrying about whether your bag made it onto the plane.

The technology to play diverting in-queue messages to callers has long existed but what is the best way to use it? Again, we need to handle this with care. If a caller has called to complain, they don’t want messages about how great your product is or special offers on buying more. That said, a happy customer would welcome knowing how they can save money on something they would have bought anyway.

A lot will depend on your brand but interesting facts about subjects relevant or irrelevant could be worth a try? Maybe we give the caller a choice of whether they want to hear “news of the day” or carry on listening to Green Sleeves? My view is that anything will be better than “Your call is valuable to us... thank you for your patience!” In fact, in a recent Which? survey, this was voted one of the most irritating messages that an organisation can play.

People want to “get started”. We perceive pre-process waits as longer than in-process waits. Once we have started a process, we are much more patient than before we have started. Lots of restaurants will seat us in a bar area and give us a menu while we wait for a table to become available. This pulls us into the service experience early and increases our patience for a table (as well as occupying us while we wait).

Why do we, in contact centres, treat self-service and assisted service as an either-or? Why can’t we parallel up the collection of customer security information and offering of self service with the wait for an agent? There are subtleties of timing here. What if the caller is just about to self serve when their agent becomes available? What if a caller doesn’t want or need to speak to an agent? What if the skill set of the required agent changes as we learn more about the caller? The flip side is worth considering. What if we show that we value our customer’s time by immediately placing them in queue? What if we start their service interaction early and distract them with something useful while they wait? Would our customers be happy to have a perceived shorter wait time? Would they be happier to have a shorter actual wait time? Provided we pass the collected data to the agent, would they be happier to have a shorter handle time?

And finally an off the wall suggestion. Shared waits feel shorter than solo waits.

What if we conferenced together our callers while they wait? We would need to pick the right demand. But with the world moving towards crowd sourcing and user communities maybe there is a place for this in the contact centre? I think that at least it would make a fun experiment.

Waiting for an agent is an unavoidable reality, even with so may other service channels available. Our responsibility as contact centre people is to make that wait feel as short and as unmemorable as possible.

Kevin Stone
Kevin Stone

Kevin is product owner for IVR and PCI at NewVoiceMedia and has 21 years of experience in IVR and contact centres. He believes that reducing customer effort is paramount for customer service organisations and dynamic, personalised interactions are critical as we look to serve our customers through proactive, assisted and self-service.

Deskphone with Vonage logo

Talk to an expert.