The Queue – Respect Your Customer’s Time


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I waited in a queue today. A long queue. A queue that was longer than I hoped for, longer than I anticipated, and far longer than I had patience for.

No-one like a queue.

Then there is the call centre. We dread picking up the phone. We dread dialling. We dread the ring tone. All because of THAT message.

“We are experiencing unusually high call demand. Thank you for continuing to wait, your call is very important to us”.

Pah. It doesn’t feel like it.

Whether we are in a retail outlet waiting to pay, or in a restaurant waiting for someone’s attention to get the bill, or waiting for our call to be answered by a real, live person in a call centre we spend a lot of our time queueing. And we don’t like queueing.

Queueing is like a door. If a door is marked “Push” and we push it and go through we will barely remember that there even was a door. But if the door is locked, or unmarked and we push it instead of pulling it, we remember it. Similarly, no-one remembers that time when there was no queue. But everyone has queue horror stories that we tell others and sub-consciously process on our next buying decision.


Yet, although it is one of the most obvious failures in the customer experience, companies still choose to do very little to ease the pain of queueing. That a queue exists at all shows that a company has little respect for it’s customer’s time. Customers don’t forget that.

Full disclosure: I am a self-confessed queue geek. Every single day I marvel at the missed opportunities to show customers that we care. But it needn’t be like that.

Queues are an inevitable part of the service business. Not inevitable like the ubiquitous “we are experiencing unusually high call demand” message – that is systemic failure to resource adequately and is unforgiveable. But sometimes demand comes in unexpected peaks and troughs for short periods of time and a queue will form. How we treat those customers in that queue speaks volumes about our attitude.

What can we do to make queueing less painful and more respectful of customer’s time?


Left uninformed customer over-estimate wait time by 30 to 40% when relating the story afterwards. So, keep the customer informed. The reason for the over-estimation is that uncertain waits feel longer than known waits and that unexplained waits feel longer than explained waits. We all know that experience, right?

Therefore, at the first opportunity – perhaps wallboards, TV screens, call centre IVR messages or even on your “contact us” web page – let the customer know their expected wait time. This shows the customer that you respect their time and allows them to make a choice whether to wait or not.

Disney are the masters of this. At Disney people expect queues for the most popular rides so Disney proactively manage the queues. They broadcast wait times but, crucially, they over estimate them – say, a one hour wait notification for a known 45 minute queue. The customers then allocate their time accordingly and when they get to the front they feel that they have won 15 minutes back on their day. Win-win in an inevitable queueing situation.

Customers like to feel informed so, if possible, give them the reason for the wait. Knowledge is power and knowledge makes the wait FEEL shorter.


Unoccupied time feels longer than occupied time. There are literally few things worse than being bored in a queue staring at the end of the queue and second guessing what is going on up ahead.

Entertaining customers is the best option. It can be really simple – watching TV while waiting for take-away food. Or more elaborate – a close up magician in retail outlets during seasonal peaks, a concert pianist in a bank at the lunchtime rush (that’s been done!). The most important thing is knowing what is appropriate and relevant to the demographic of your customer.

My favourite example of keeping the customer busy was at Houston Airport. In Houston the wait time for baggage reclaim was a huge complaint hotspot. The airport threw baggage handling and technology resource at the problem and got the wait time within industry benchmarks; yet customers still complained.

Digging deeper, they realised that it only took passengers one minute to walk from their arrival gate to baggage claim so they waited seven minutes at the carousel for their bags. Armed with this insight, they chose not to throw more resource to expedite the bags to reclaim; instead they would move the arrival gates away from the main terminal and route the bags on the outermost carousel. This extended the passenger walk to 6 minutes and reduced complaints about baggage reclaim to zero!

Being creative about physical space, signage, and messages on the call centre IVR can all make the wait feel like a completely different experience for the customer.


There can be fewer worse experiences than waiting to queue. Let’s just get on with it.

Take a call centre for example. When you call a call centre that you know is going to be busy the last thing you want to hear are a bunch of terms and conditions and messages telling you to try the website (as if you haven’t tried that already, duh). Do that while the customer is waiting. Let them feel progress straight away.

Is virtual queueing an option? Booking a place in a queue and then getting on with other stuff is far preferable to standing in a line. “Virtual hold” as it is known in call centres, where your place is held in the queue when you hang-up and then the call centre call you when you get to the front, has been around for for a very long time. The same can easily be done in retail or leisure businesses with pagers if there is a will to improve the queueing experience.

Also, importantly, keep the customer updated as the queue progresses – this predictive technology has been available for years!

Our first priority in business is that we should treat our customer’s time with respect in return for the business that they give us. But, inevitably, queues will happen. How we deal with that speaks volumes about our respect for our customers. It is estimated that we spend six months of our life queueing – wouldn’t it be great if queues just felt a bit better?

Image by Petras Gagilas

Dougie Cameron
Having worked in major blue chip organisations in both senior finance and customer service roles Dougie is described as a strategist, planner and implementer. In his own words he describes himself as "a reformed financier on the road to enlightenment". But most of all he is just plain frustrated by poor leadership and bad customer experiences. Dougie founded addzest consulting to help companies find their way to engage their teams to give customers better.


  1. One of my friends is thinking of starting a business of his own. Of course, this means he may need a custom service faction. It was helpful when you mentioned that ways to entertain customers while they are waiting can help make the wait feel like it takes less time. This makes me think that perhaps having a TV installed could help. Thanks for the interesting article on customer queuing.


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