Why Queuing Isn’t Just About the Numbers


Dougie Cameron explains why we get it so wrong when it comes to the customer experience.

Numbers. Not just any numbers but metrics. We call them performance metrics and we allow them to seduce us. They offer the holy grail of insight and a target – yet they often lead us a merry dance.

I am a numbers guy. A qualified accountant no less, but I know that numbers are only the tip of the iceberg and nine-tenths of the story lurks under the surface – untold, misunderstood and making the charted course unnecessarily perilous.

Let me illustrate with one of the most common criticisms of contact centres – the queue.

Normally, when I mention a queue to a contact centre person we talk Grade of Service, abandonment rate, average speed of answer or wait time. On the other hand, a customer would talk about the awful menu system, the interminable wait to get through and the rage-inducing hold music.

The customer will score their experience on how they feel

The company is thinking in cold hard logic; the customer is thinking emotionally – tackling the metric might inadvertently make the customer feel better but also it may not.


The customer will, however, score their experience on how they feel. By addressing a metric and not a feeling we are simply looking in the wrong direction when it comes to improving the most important metric of all – the customer score, whether it be customer satisfaction, effort or Net Promoter.

I understand the focus on speed of answer metrics, as I have been there. I have stood on the front line as the pressure piles down from above.

Grade of Service, in particular, is one of those totem metrics loved by the boardroom and frowned upon by those who actually understand it. As an outcome metric it masks the polar experiences that customers have into an inoffensive average; and as a planning metric it allows scenario planning to test the scales between efficiency and customer service. But, fundamentally, it is a pretty useless metric upon which big decisions on the customer experience are often made in haste.

Twitter and Facebook are swamped with negative brand messages

The queue is one of those kneejerk trigger points for companies. When our customers perceive a long queue it often becomes a matter for the press or, more likely in our brave new social world, Twitter and Facebook are swamped with negative brand messages. The solution is often to analyse the staffing situation and call volume metrics to diagnose and cure the problem – yet, is this the best approach?

Consider, for a second, this piece of research. In 2011, Contact Babel noted that customers claim on average to wait 11.5 minutes for their call to be answered. However, industry data shows that over many years, the average wait time has varied little outside of the 20-second to 40-second range.

Customers overestimate call wait time by 30% to 40%

More frequently I hear customers overestimate call wait time by 30 to 40%. Regardless of the quantum, the problem yet again is perception rather than cold hard data. The customer FEELS like it takes a long time to get their call answered regardless of how long it actually takes. Subtly different problems call for significantly different solutions.

OK, so what can be done?

Well, first of all, if there is a real extended wait time problem it needs to be solved – either, ideally, by solving the customer’s issue that creates the need to call, or by investing in agents at the right time with the right skill or investing in some technology that mitigates the problem, such as self-help.


But the other option is to allow the customer to feel better about their wait regardless of the actual queue time. The contact centre industry has grown up with metrics as its beating heart so jealously managing those metrics has drawn in executive time and resource over the last couple of decades.

However, the psychology of queueing (pioneered by “Dr Queue”, Dick Larsen) is a well-developed field that we rarely tap into, presumably because the absence of a headline metric until recently has not made it sexy enough for the boardroom. Net Promoter and Customer Effort scores change all of that.

Unoccupied time feels longer than occupied time

Queue psychology is instinctively simple. My favourite example of its application 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!

This demonstrates the queueing principle that unoccupied time feels longer than occupied time. Giving the passenger “something to do” made the same time pass more quickly. So what are the big opportunities that queue psychology presents for call centres?

Setting expectations

Keep the customer informed. Queueing psychology says that uncertain waits feel longer than known waits and that unexplained waits feel longer than explained waits. Therefore, at the first opportunity, perhaps even on your “contact us” web page, spell out the expected wait time to speak to an advisor and what “big stuff’ (for example a mobile network outage) is going on. If the customer understands and relates to the message it might even be a call avoided. Also, keep the customer updated as the queue progresses – the technology has been available for years!

Let’s get on with it


The customer has to feel that we respect their time. So, first things first, let’s get rid of all the verbose call-avoidance messages before the customer gets to the IVR. They just want to get started and feel like they are making progress.

We should also reassure them that once they are started they are moving forwards – letting them know their place in the queue is better than nothing, but their expected wait time allows them to feel in control of the decision to stay in the queue.

Keep the customer occupied

Most sane people (except possibly me and my notepad) hate suspending their lives while they wait in a call centre queue, so what can we do to help them?

Well, firstly, let’s not try and sell them stuff – that is not showing much respect for their time, especially if they are phoning with a problem about your service.

Entertainment is an option – instead of “soothing” the customer with a 1980s’ electronic version of Greensleeves, you could deploy media servers and give the customer their choice of, say, three different genres of music. Certainly the customer would feel in control of their queueing experience but, if they are already frustrated, a choice of three genres that they don’t like won’t help their mood. Similarly, in the past, I have toyed with using a live news stream but the unpredictable nature of breaking news can be fraught with difficulty.

The best way we can respect a customer’s time is to give it back to them. Rather than tie them to their phone, we could give them the option of how they spend their wait time – products like intelligent virtual queueing solutions can hold the customer’s place in the queue while they get on with other things or schedule a call-back at a time of the customer’s choice. Letting the customer feel in control of how they use their time is critical to a superior customer experience.

Dougie Cameron

Dougie Cameron

The psychology of queues is as applicable in supermarkets, airport security, and post offices as it is in contact centres. Next time you are in a queue, take a moment to see where they have got it wrong and how it makes you feel. I’ll take a bet that the queues you hardly notice have put the algorithms to one side and focused on your emotions. Sometimes the metrics really do lie.

With thanks to Dougie Cameron at addzest

Author: Megan Jones

Published On: 8th Jul 2015 - Last modified: 28th Feb 2024
Read more about - Customer Service Strategy, , , ,

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