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The psychology of queueing and how it affects brand perception

By Phil Hesketh

What do you do when your customers complain about having to queue for too long?

In the USA, executives at Houston Airport faced a customer relations dilemma when passengers complained about the long wait at baggage reclaim. Their first solution was simply to increase the number of baggage handlers to reduce the average wait to eight minutes – well within the industry benchmark. 

But this didn’t stop customers complaining. 

Unless the passengers had a long walk to the baggage reclaim. 

They discovered that there was a marked difference between people’s attitude towards ‘occupied time’ and ‘unoccupied time’. So they moved the arrival gate away from the main terminal and routed the baggage claim to the furthest carousel. Passengers now spent more time walking to the Baggage Reclaim and less time waiting to collect them. The overall time taken to get their bags was still no quicker than before. However, the ‘perception’ was that it was faster since most of the wait time was now spent doing something – walking six times further to the Baggage Reclaim. 

Complaints fell to virtually zero. 

Disney, the universally acknowledged master of applied queuing psychology, go one better in their theme parks. In addition to continually moving you to a new area, they also deliberately overestimate wait times for rides. The result is that guests are pleasantly surprised when they ascend Space Mountain ahead of schedule. 

Beating the expected wait time buoys our mood. Plus, our memories of the ‘queuing experience’ are strongly influenced by the final moments. So when a wait ends on a happy note, we tend to look back on it positively, even if we were miserable for much of the time, according to research conducted by Ziv Carmon, a professor of marketing at the business school Insead and the Nobel-winning behavioural economist Daniel Kahneman. 

So if you have customers who have to queue, do three things:

  • Keep them ‘busy’ whilst waiting
  • Overestimate the time it will take to queue
  • Have the long wait ending on a happy note

And remember the biggest influence on our perception of queues is ‘fairness’. So don’t allow people to jump the queue. 

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m just off to the bank to stand behind a market trader paying in six bags of loose change.