How to make queuing a more positive experience


If you live and work in England (and especially London as I do), your home or office is amongst the most crowded places in Europe. England’s population density is already nearly twice that of France and three times that of Spain, and projected to increase further in the decades to come. (Source: MSN Money)

In the longer term, businesses need to respond to crowding by planning ways to increase capacity. But this can take years to deliver, especially when infrastructure like widening motorways or building railway tunnels is required. So, in the meantime, all firms should be exploring where and why crowds form within their customer experience and responding with creative changes that acknowledge and reduce the problem.

Where To Start?

Begin in the here and now by exploring and measuring ‘bottlenecks – those points in the customer journey where people get funneled into a small space for a specific task or time period. It’s here where queues form, sometimes orderly (especially in UK and USA) sometimes not (think the 1st ski lift of the day in France!).

There are then two processes to map and understand

  1. What functional procedures are forcing people to this point (a checkout till, a ticket barrier to cross)?
  2. What is the customer need (I need to try this clothing on, I have to check my coat and luggage)?

Once the insight of ‘what’s going on’ is in place, there are typically three ways where the customer experience can be improved:

  • Add ‘value’ to the wait– I remember helping a Theatre client deal with the queues that form during the interval of a West End show. Lines for the toilet, lines for the bar, another queue for ice-creams. Then we found that 1 in 7 people at the bar just bought bottles of water. So, we created mobile water-sellers, who sold to those waiting in line to spend a penny. Suddenly queuing for the loo had a multi-tasking benefit! The bar queues got shorter too, everyone was less stressed, and drinks revenue went up 9%.
  • Upgrade the wait to an ‘event’ – most barber shops don’t offer appointments, you just turn up and hope. And the clientele is (almost) exclusively male. It would be easy for barbers to replace the dog-eared magazines with a rack of the latest Men’s glossy titles – cars, gadgets, sport. Always keep two copies of everything, and replace at the first sight of wear. Customers would soon look forward to the ‘luxury’ of a peaceful few minutes to read. Are they taking the kids too? Then add a small ice-cream cabinet to treat them at the end for good behaviour. By ‘bookend-ing’ the task at hand, the wait is absorbed into the overall experience, and frustration fades into the background (see a whole separate blog on bookend-ing here)
  • Disperse the bottleneck – self-service is a great way to reduce queues. The evidence of ATMs and airport self-check-in demonstrates how technology can help. Yet, our work in the transport sector showed us that up to 2 in 3 people still use the ticket window at many train stations as opposed to an adjacent ticket machine. What’s going wrong?
    • Lack of trust – unlike banks and airlines, the rail companies did not use enough staff to help customers use the machines early on. Even though the technology has improved since, the memory of early, bad experiences lives on.
    • Poor siting – my local rail station has installed two new machines outside the station. When it rains, you get wet using it. When it’s sunny, you can’t see the screen. Unsurprisingly, the machines are deserted at all times, even when long queues exist in the ticket hall. By turning the machines through 90° away from the sun, and adding some shelter, these problems would disappear.

It isn’t always possible to remove queues altogether. But a lot more can be done to understand their dynamics, and how they can be adapted, both to improve the customer experience and influence the costs/revenues that result from it.


Does your business have a queuing problem? Send us an outline of the issue, and we’ll be in touch with ways to help.


  1. Rick, ‘There’s an app for that’ 😉 I just read an article in Fast Company on how technology can help businesses ‘manage’ queues. The article focuses on restaurants and how automatic texts are sent to clients who are in the queue. Same as with pagers, except with no hardware (virtually every client will have a mobile phone) and with an unlimited range (you don’t have to be in the building anymore). This enables waiting clients to go and do other things while they are in queue, instead of standing in front of the door. It works on the supposition that most of us hate queuing because we feel like we’re wasting time, which is suddenly given back to us with the confidence that we can go for a drink or a bit of shopping and will be notified when we’re next. Not sure whether/how this would work on a Saturday afternoon in Primark Oxford Street? Here’s the article: