Psycholgyof waitinglines751


Published on

Published in: Technology, Education
  • Be the first to comment

  • Be the first to like this

No Downloads
Total views
On SlideShare
From Embeds
Number of Embeds
Embeds 0
No embeds

No notes for slide

Psycholgyof waitinglines751

  1. 1. The Psychology of Waiting Lines By David H. MaisterIntroduction various queue management techniques: for example, what the effects are uponIn one of a series of memorable average waiting times of adding servers,advertisements for which it has become altering queue discipline (the order injustly famous, Federal Express (the which customers are served), speedingovernight package delivery service) up serving times, and so on. What hasnoted that: "Waiting is frustrating, been relatively neglected, however, isdemoralizing, agonizing, aggravating, much substantive discussion of theannoying, time consuming and experience of waiting.incredibly expensive." (1) As Levitt reminds us, "Products areThe truth of this assertion cannot be consumed, services are experienced."denied: there can be few consumers of Accordingly, if managers are to concernservices in a modern society who have themselves with how long theirnot felt, at one time or another, each of customers or clients wait in line forthe emotions identified by Federal service (as, indeed, they should), thenExpress copywriters. What is more, they must pay attention not only to theeach of us who can recall such readily-measurable, objective, reality ofexperiences can also attest to the fact waiting times, but also how those waitsthat the waiting-line experience in a are experienced. It is a commonservice facility significantly affects our experience that a two minute wait canoverall perceptions of the quality of feel like nothing at all, or can feel likeservice provided. forever. We must learn to influenceOnce we are being served, our how the customer feels about a giventransaction with the service organization length of waiting time.may be efficient, courteous and In this paper, I shall discuss thecomplete: but the bitter taste of how long psychology of waiting lines, examiningit took to get attention pollutes the how waits are experienced and shalloverall judgments that we make about attempt to offer specific managerialthe quality of service advice to service organizations aboutThe mathematical theory of waiting lines how to improve this aspect of their(or queues) has received a great deal of service encounters. down in separateattention from academic researchers and components, so that practicing managerstheir results and insights have been can begin to think about the availablesuccessfully applied in a variety of tools they can use to influence thesettings. (2) However, most of this work customers waiting concerned with the objective reality ofCopyright 2005 David H. Maister Page 1 of 1
  2. 2. The Psychology of Waiting LinesI also hope to identify testable waited for elevators. The naturalpropositions offering the opportunity for tendency of people to check theirfuture research. The First and Second personal appearance substantiallyLaws of Service. Before we discuss the reduced complaints, although the actuallaws of waiting, it is necessary to wait for the elevators was unchanged.consider two general propositions about (5)service encounters and how these are As an illustration of how expectationsexperienced. can be explicitly managed, they note thatThe first of these is what I have come to "some restaurants follow the practice ofcall "The First Law of Science is simple, promising guests a waiting time inbut powerful, and can be stated as a excess of the expected time. If peoplestraightforward formula: are willing to agree to wait this length of time, they are quite pleased to be seatedS = P - E. earlier, thus starting the meal with aIn this formulation, S stands for more positive feeling. (6)satisfaction, P for perception and E for This last example deserves furtherexpectation. If you expect a certain levelof service, and perceive the service exploration. When I have discussed thisreviewed to be higher, you are a satisfied anecdote with a variety of serving personnel, they always reaffirm itsclient. If you perceive the same level as wisdom. As one waiter pointed out tobefore, but expected higher, you are me: "If they sit down in a good mood,disappointed and, consequently, a its easy to keep them happy. If they sitdissatisfied client. down disgruntled, its almost impossibleThe point, of course, is that both the to turn them around. Theyre looking toperception and the expectation are find fault, to criticize."psychological phenomena. They are notthe reality. In a benevolent world, both As a result of these conversations, I offerthe perception and the expectation will my Second Law of Service:have some connection to reality, but they Its hard to plan catch-up ball.are not reality. Accordingly, all service The corollary to this law is themanagers must pay attention to three proposition that there is a halo-effectthings: what was actually done to or for created by the early stages of any servicethe client, what was perceived by the encounter, and that if money, time andclient, and what the client expected. attention is to be spent in improving theFortunately, all three can be managed. perceived quality of service, then theSasser (et al) provide good examples of largest payback may well occur in theseboth managing the perception and the early stages.expectation of waiting times. For the Having established the importance of theformer, they offer the example of the interplay between perceptions andwell-known hotel group that received expectations, we shall turn to ancomplaints from guests about excessive examination of the various toolswaiting times for elevators. After an available to managers in influencinganalysis of how elevator service might these. In each of the sections that follow,be improved, it was suggested that the title of the section should bemirrors be installed near where guestsCopyright 2005 David H. Maister Page 2 of 2
  3. 3. The Psychology of Waiting Linesconsidered a proposition concerning the the waiting experience into the totalpsychology of waiting. service experience).We begin with one of the most familiar: This suggests that the activity provided to fill time should (a) offer benefit inOccupied Time Feels Shorter Than and of itself, and (b) be related, in someUnoccupied Time. way, to the following service encounter.As William James, the noted philosopher The best example of this I everobserved: "Boredom results from being encountered in relation to telephoneattentive to the passage of time itself. (7) waits was the story of the sports teamA more colloquial version might be A that, when lines were occupied, playedwatched pot never boils. The truth of highlights of the previous weeks game.this proposition has been discovered by In one memorable incident, a caller wasmany service organizations. In various transferred from the queue to therestaurants, it is common practice to receptionist, whereupon he screamedhand out menus for customers to peruse "Put me back, (so-and-so) is just aboutwhile waiting in line. Apart from to score!"shortening the perception of time, thispractice has the added benefit of It should also be noted, however, thatshortening the service time, since there can be circumstances where acustomers will be ready to order once service may choose to fill time with anthey are seated, and will not tie up table unrelated activity. In certain medical orspace making up their minds). dental waiting rooms, there appears to be a conscious attempt to distract theA similar tactic is to turn the waiting patients attention from the upcomingarea into a bar, which also adds to activity, perhaps on the grounds that torevenue as well as occupying time. Usecan be made of poster, reading material remind the patient of what is about to occur might heighten fears and hence(or even shifting lights, rolling balls and make the wait more uncomfortable.other adult toys) to distract the waitersattention away from the passage of time. The wisdom of this I cannot attest to (ITheme restaurants (such as Victoria have read too many National GeographicStation) which provide interesting magazines). Even in this context, it ismemorabilia to examine also are possible to provide service-relatedapplying the lesson of occupying waits distractions. Many medical clinicsas part of the service. provide weighing machines and eyeIn some situations, such as telephone charts, in the waiting room: I have even seen patients merrily occupied with self-waits, it is difficult to "fill up" time in a testing thermometers, breath-strengthconstructive way. The familiar Muzakplayed by some organizations when their equipment and the like.telephone-answering agents are busy is, People Want to Get many people, an added annoyance One of the other virtues of handing outrather than a benefit. In large part, this is menus, providing a drinks bar and otherbecause the activity (listening to music) methods of service-related time-fillers isis totally unrelated to the service activity that they convey the sense the serviceto come (whereas, the use of menus and has started: we know that you are here. Ibars cited above successfully integrated would hypothesize that people waiting toCopyright 2005 David H. Maister Page 3 of 3
  4. 4. The Psychology of Waiting Linesmake their first human contact with the had the experience of choosing a line atservice organization are much more the supermarket or airport, and stoodimpatient than those who have begun: there worrying that he had, indeed,in other words, preprocess waits are chosen the wrong line. As one standsperceived as longer than in-process there trying to decide whether to move,waits. the anxiety level increases and the wait becomes intolerable. This situation isAgain, I appeal to common experience covered by what is known as Ermato reflect the fact that ones anxiety Bombecks Law:level is much higher while waiting to beserved than it is while being served, even "The other line always moves faster".though the latter wait may be longer. Is there anyone who has not had theThere is a fear of being forgotten. (How experience of choosing a line at themany times has the reader gone back to a supermarket or airport, and stood theremaitre d to check that his or her name is worrying that we had, indeed, chosen thestill on the list?). wrong line? On a recent (open-seating)Many restaurant owners instruct their Eastern Airlines shuttle fight, my fellowservice staff to pass by the table as soon passengers formed an agitated queue atas the customers are seated to say "Ill be the boarding gate long before the flightwith you as soon as I can, after Ive was due to depart, leading the attendantlooked after that table over there". In to announce: "Dont worry, folks, theessence, the signal is being sent: We planes a big one; youll all get on."have acknowledged your presence. The change in atmosphere in the waitingOne walk-in medical clinic that I studied lounge was remarkable. Similar effort todecided to introduce a triage system, deal with customer anxiety can be seenwhereby all patients were first met by a when airlines make on-boardnurse who recorded the patients name announcements that connecting flightsand symptoms and decided whether or are being held for a delayed flight, whennot the patient could be treated by a movie theater managers walk down theregistered nurse practitioner or should be line reassuring patrons they will get in,seen by a doctor. Even though the or when customer service agents inaddition of this step in the process had airport lobbies reassure waiting patronsno impact on the time it took to see a that they are indeed waiting in themedical service provider, surveys correct line and have sufficient time toshowed that patients were pleased with catch their flight.reduced waiting times. The point, of One of the poorest examples I know ofcourse, was that they felt they had been manning anxiety is when I am onentered into the system. standby for a flight, and the agent takesAnxiety Makes Waits Seem Longer my ticket. Now I am anxious not only about whether I will get on the flight, butA large part of the concern that we feel also about whether I will get my ticketto get started is due as noted above, to back. I have been asked to give upanxiety. In the cases cited, the anxiety control of the situation. At least if I hadwas about whether or not one had been my ticket I could change my mind andforgotten. Anxiety can, however, come go to another airline. The prescriptionfrom other sources. Nearly everyone has for managers resulting form thisCopyright 2005 David H. Maister Page 4 of 4
  5. 5. The Psychology of Waiting Linesdiscussion is: ask yourself what often difficult to decide how far apart tocustomers might be worrying abut schedule appointments. If they are too(rationally or irrationally), and find ways far apart, the server is left idle waitingto remove the worry. for the next appointment. If they are too close together, appointments begin toUncertain Waits Are Longer than run behind and, since they cumulate,Known, Finite Waits tend to make the server further andThe most profound source of anxiety in further behind.waiting is how long the wait will be. For This is a particularly acute problemexample, if a patient in a waiting room is because a customer with an appointmenttold that the doctor will be delayed thirty has been given a specific expectationminutes, he experiences an initial about waiting times, and a failure toannoyance but then relaxes into an deliver on this premise makes the waitacceptance of the inevitability of the seem longer than if no appointment hadwait. However, if the patient is told the been made. This does not mean thatdoctor will be free soon, he spends thewhole time in a state of nervous appointment systems should never beanticipation, unable to settle down, used. They are, after all, a way of giving the customer a finite expectation. Itafraid to depart and come back. The should be recognized, however, that anpatients expectations are being managed appointment defines an expectation thatpoorly. Likewise, the pilot who must be met.repeatedly announces "only a few moreminutes” adds insult to injury when the Unexplained Waits Are Longer thanwait goes on and on. Not only are the Explained Waitscustomers being force d to wait, but they On a cold and snowy morning, when Iare not being dealt with honestly. telephone for a taxi, I begin with theA good example of the role of expectation that my wait will be longeruncertainty in the waiting experience is than on a clear, summer day.provided by the "appointment Accordingly, I wait with a great dealsyndrome." Clients who arrive early for more patience because I understand thean appointment will sit contentedly until causes for the delay. Similarly, if athe scheduled time, even if this is a doctors receptionist informs me that ansignificant amount of time in an absolute emergency has taken place, I can waitsense (say, thirty minutes). However, with greater equanimity that if I do notonce the appointment time is passed, know what is going on. Airline pilotseven a short wait of, say, ten minutes, understand this principle well; on-boardgrows increasingly annoying. The wait announcements are filled with referencesuntil the appointed time is finite; waiting to tardy baggage handlers, fog overbeyond the point has no knowable limit. landing strips, safety checks, and air- traffic controllers clearance instructions.Appointment systems are, in practice, The explanation given may or may nottroublesome queue-management tools. exculpate the service provider, but is itThey suffer form the problem that some better than no explanation at all.customers may make appointmentswithout showing up (a problem endemic Most serving personnel are repeatedlyto airlines, hotels, dentists, and hair asked about the circumstances in waitingcutters) and also from the fact that it is situations. The lack of an explanation isCopyright 2005 David H. Maister Page 5 of 5
  6. 6. The Psychology of Waiting Linesone of the prime factors adding to a Unfair Waits Are Longer thancustomers uncertainty about the length Equitable Waitsof the wait. However, knowing the As Sasser, Olsen, and Wycoff (1979)length of the wait is not the only reason note, one of the most frequent irritantsa customer wants an explanation. As the mentioned by customers at restaurants isFederal Express advertisement points the prior seating of those who haveout, waiting is also demoralizing. arrived later. They observe: "The feelingWaiting in ignorance creates a feeling of that somebody has successfully cut inpowerlessness, which frequently results front of you causes even the mostin visible irritation and rudeness on the patient customer to become furious.part of customers as they harass serving Great care to be equitable is vital" (1979,personnel in an attempt to reclaim their 89)status as paying clients. In turn, thisbehavior makes it difficult for the In many waiting situations, there is noserving personnel to maintain their visible order to the waiting line. Inequanimity. For example, on a situations such as waiting for a subwaysignificantly delayed flight, one cabin train, the level of anxiety demonstratedattendant was force to announce to the is high, and the group waiting is less apassengers: "Please pay us the courtesy queue than a mob. Instead of being ableof being polite to us so that we can to relax, each individual remains in areciprocate in kind." state of nervousness about whether their priority in the line is being preserved. AsNaturally, justifiable explanations will already noted, agitated waits seemtend to soothe the waiting customer longer than relaxed waits. It is for thismore than unjustifiable explanations. A reason that many service facilities have asubtle illustration of this is provided by system of taking a number, wherebythe practice of many fast food chains each customer is issued a number andwhich instruct serving personnel to take served in strict numerical order. In sometheir rest breaks out of sight of waiting facilities, the number currently beingcustomers. The sight of what seems to be served is prominently displayed so thatavailable serving personnel sitting idle customers can estimate the expectedwhile customers wait, is a source of waiting times.irritation. Such systems can work well in queuingEven if such personnel are, in fact, situations where "first in, first out"occupied (for example, a bank teller who (FIFO) is the appropriate rule for queueis not serving customers but catching up discipline. However, in many situationson paperwork), the sight of serving customers may be ranked in order ofpersonnel not actually serving customers importance, and priorities allocated thatis "unexplained." In the customers eyes, way. A good example is a walk-inhe or she is waiting longer than medical facility which will frequentlynecessary. The explanation that the break the FIFO rule to handle emergency"idle" personnel are taking a break or cases. Also familiar is the example of theperforming other tasks is frequently less restaurant that has a finite supply of two-than acceptable. person, four-person, and large tables, and seats customers by matching the size of the party to the size of the table. ACopyright 2005 David H. Maister Page 6 of 6
  7. 7. The Psychology of Waiting Linesfinal example is the use of express- The main point to be stressed here is thatcheckout lanes in supermarkets, whereby the customers sense of equity is notcustomers with only a few items are always obvious, and needs to bedealt with a special server. explicitly managed. Whatever priorityAll of these cases represent departures rules apply, the service provider mustform the FIFO system. In some, the make vigorous efforts to ensure thatpriority rules are accepted by the these rules match with the customerscustomers as equitable and observed-for sense of equity, either by adjusting the rules or by actively convincing the clientexample, the supermarket expresscheckout. In other illustrations, such as that the rules are indeed appropriate.the restaurant with varying sizes of The More Valuable the Service, thetables, the priority rule that seats Longer the Customer Will Waitcustomers by the size of party is less The example of the supermarketaccepted by the customers, and express-checkout counter reminds usfrequently resented. The rule may serve that our tolerance for waiting dependsthe restaurant, but the customer has a upon the perceived value of that forharder time seeing the equity benefit. which we wait. Special checkoutSimilarly, special service facilities for counters were originally providedimportant customers may or may not be because customers with only a few itemsaccepted as equitable. For this reason, felt resentful at having to wait a longmany service facilities physically time for what was seen as a simpleseparate premium servers (for example, transaction. Customers with a full cart offirst-class airline check-in counters) groceries were much more inclined toform the sight of regular customers sot tolerate lines.hat the latter will not resent the special Airlines, too, have discovered thisservice rendered. principle and provided separate lines forA slightly different example of the those with simple transactions (such asequity problem in queue management is seat selection), medium-difficultyprovided by the serving person who is transactions (baggage check-in), andresponsible not only for dealing with complex transactions (ticket purchase orcustomers present in the serving facility, modification). Specialization by taskbut also for answering the telephone. does not necessarily reduce theHow many of us have not had the aggregate amount of waiting in the system; however, it serves well toexperience of waiting while areceptionist answers the telephones, and allocate the waiting among the customer base.consequently felt a resentment that somedistant customer was receiving a higher That perceived value affects tolerance orpriority than we who have made the waits can be demonstrated by oureffort to come to the service facility? common experience in restaurants-weThe example can be extended to those will accept a much longer waiting timepeople who answer their telephone while at a haute cuisine facility than at ayou are in their office. by answering the "greasy spoon." In universities, there isphone, they are giving you a lesser an old rule of thumb that if the teacher ispriority than the random caller. delayed, "You wait ten minutes for an assistant professor, fifteen minutes for anCopyright 2005 David H. Maister Page 7 of 7
  8. 8. The Psychology of Waiting Linesassociate professor, and twenty minutes This syndrome is evidently in effect infor a full professor." This illustrates well amusement parks such as Disneyland, orthe principle that tolerance for waits in some waiting lines to buy concertdepends upon perceived value of tickets when a sense of groupservice-perhaps with the emphasis on the community develops and the line turnsperception. into almost a service encounter in itsIt follows from this principle that own right; the waiting is part of the funwaiting for something of little value can and part of the service. Whatever service organizations can do to promote thebe intolerable. This is amply illustratedby the eagerness with which airline sense of group waiting rather than isolating each individual, will tend topassengers leap to their seats when theairplane reaches the gate, even though increase the tolerance for waiting timethey know that it will take time to unload Conclusionall the passengers ahead of them, and The propositions presented here are bythat they may well have to wait for their no means meant to be an exhaustive listbaggage to arrive at the claim area. The of all the psychological considerationssame passenger who sat patiently for involved in managing customerssome hours during the flight suddenly acceptance of waiting time. Notexhibits an intolerance for an extra discussed, for example, is theminute or two to disembark, and a fury importance of explicit apologies andat an extra few minutes for delayed apologetic tones in preserving thebaggage. customers sense of valued-client status.The point is that the service (the flight) Similarly unmentioned are cultural andis over, and waiting to get out when class difference in tolerance for waiting.there is no more value to be received is It is said of the English, for example,aggravating. A similar syndrome is that if they see a line they will join it. Iexhibited at hotel checkout counters. Just hope, however, that the managerialas preprocess waits are felt to be longer reader will have gained a greaterthan in-process waits of the same time appreciation both for the psychologicalduration, so are post process waits; complexity of queues, and for the factthese, in fact, feel longest of all. that the psychological experience ofSolo Waits Feel Longer than Group waiting can be managed.Waits The propositions given here can beOne of the remarkable syndromes to researched not only by academics forobserve in waiting lines is to see their general applicability, but also byindividuals sitting or standing next to managers for application in specificeach other without talking or otherwise service situations. The main point of thisinteracting until an announcement of a chapter is that the waiting experience isdelay is made. Then the individuals context specific. By learning to researchsuddenly turn to each other to express and understand the psychologicaltheir exasperation, wonder collectively context of their own waiting lines,what is happening, and console each managers can have a significant impactother. What this illustrates is that there is upon their customers satisfaction withsome form of comfort in group waiting the service encounter.rather than waiting alone.Copyright 2005 David H. Maister Page 8 of 8
  9. 9. The Psychology of Waiting LinesNotes1. Fortune, 28 July 1980, p. 102. A notable exception is the briefdiscussion given in Sasser, Olsen, andWyckoff (1979). A good summary of thework of psychologists in this area isprovided by Doob (1960).References David Maister is the author of Managing the Professional Service Firm (1993),Buffa, E.S. (1983), Modern True Professionalism (1997), TheProduction/Operations Management. Trusted Advisor (2000) (coauthor),New York: John Wiley and Sons. Practice What You Preach (2001) andDoob, L.W. (1960), Patterning of Time. First Among Equals (2002) (coauthor.)New Haven, Conn.: Yale UniversityPress. Prior to launching his (solo but global)Sasser, W.E., J. Olsen, and D.D. consulting practice in 1985, he served asWyckoff (1979), Management of a professor at the Harvard BusinessService Operations: Text, Cases and School.Readings. New York: Allyn and Bacon. TEL: 1-617-262-5968This article is from THE SERVICE E-MAIL: david@davidmaister.comENCOUNTER edited by John a Czepiel, HTU UTH WEBSITE: www.davidmaister.comMichael R. Solomon and Carol HTU UTHSuprenant, © 1985 by D.C. Heath and You can automatically receive David’sCompany, Lexington Books. future articles via e-mail (at no cost) by registering on his web site ( ). HTU UTHCopyright 2005 David H. Maister Page 9 of 9