Life is Not Fair, But Waiting in Line Can Be

April 29, 2013Perry Kuklin

This quote from Bill Gates just doesn’t sit well with people who are waiting in line. When it comes to waiting in line, little else is worse than an unfair shake. First-come, first-served is the agreed upon rule, but how many times have you ended up on the losing end of a multi-line queue where the person who arrives after you in a neighboring queue ends up ahead? It’s just not fair.

Fairness is the single most important psychological factor influencing a person’s feelings about waiting in line.

David Maister, the renowned master of queuing psychology, calls fairness the single most important psychological factor influencing a person’s feelings about waiting in line. Any deviation from the first-come, first-served measure of fairness is seen as inequitable and can even lead to “queue rage.” Don’t believe it? Fights broke out in a line recently as people waited for hours to get free cakes from the stars of the TV show, “Cake Boss.” Fighting! Over cake? Not so much. The fights were truly incited by line jumping. And that’s just not cool. As a business, you might be wondering how best to enforce and demonstrate fairness in the checkout queue. Here are two ways: 1. The Single Line Queue, where people are called from only one line in a well-maintained order.

customer experience

Poorly managed multiple queues can be rife with troubles – customers nearly always fixate on the line that’s moving faster than theirs and rarely notice the line that they may be “beating.” Multiple queues can seem incredibly unfair and can make people mad at themselves (for choosing the “wrong” line) and angry at the establishment (for allowing such unfair lines to even exist). Consider the single line vs. multiple line queue in relation to fast food restaurants or, in more specific terms, Wendy’s vs. McDonald’s. Surveys have shown that many people are willing to wait twice as long in the first-come, first-served single-line queue as opposed to the multiple-line queue. No one is “stealing” anyone else’s French fries out from under them – it’s all a fair, equitable wait. 2. Virtual Queuing, where the order of the line is automatically set and people are called forward in the order in which they checked in, regardless of where they might be standing.

mobile ready

Eliminating the line altogether removes the focus from who’s ahead of you and who’s behind you. People are unable to truly gauge where they rank in the line, which means there is simply less pressure when it comes to waiting. Sure, you’re bound to have the people who try to memorize who was ahead of them and who showed up after them and enforce their belief of what’s fair if someone “jumps” the invisible line, but they’re rare birds. In most virtual queues, people are just happy to not be forced to stand in one place while they wait to be served.

Go Gently Into the Inevitable Wait

It’s not that people aren’t willing to wait. Waiting is, after all, a fact of life, and Americans spend about 37 billion hours a year in line. Typically, the more valuable the service or item is, the longer people are willing to wait for it (though no one is promising that they’ll wait patiently). You just want to avoid making people feel like they’re paying for more than whatever it is they’re waiting in line for – you don’t want to cost them their dignity, freedom, or precious time. Understanding and accepting that a waiting line creates a complex set of feelings in people is half the battle to making customers happy. Taking action with this knowledge in hand can help you create a fair wait for people who come through your doors… and make them willing to come back again. Learn more about equitable queue management by talking with a Lavi expert.

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