Queuing 101

We’ve all done it. We’ve all waited in line at some point in our lives. In fact, some say that people spend on average of 912 days (21888 Hours) waiting in line over a lifetime. We spend so much time waiting, but too often we forget about the system behind waiting in line until something goes wrong at which point it is too late.

A queue is a group of people or vehicles waiting to be served. Crowd control and public guidance is the system put in place to control and guide people through a queue. This system can be as simple as a few signs and stanchions, but when properly implemented, has a whole range of benefits.


A properly implemented Queuing system can:

  • Keep people safe
    • Restricts access to dangerous areas
    • Prevents collisions and confusion
    • Prevents arguments and fights
  • Keep things profitable
    • Boost employee productivity
    • Less wasted time
    • More sales per employee
  • Enhance the customer experience
    • Increases the chance of a repeat sale or referral
    • Decreases the perceived and actual wait times
  • Reduces lost sales
    • Reduces Balking – Refusing to enter a line
    • Reduces Reneging – Leaving a line after starting to wait
  • Lower crime
    • Prevents access to employee areas
    • Reduces “Sweet hearting” – Employees giving away products to friends and family

All these benefits from a simple system seem suspect, but many organizations have dramatically improved customer satisfaction, simply by properly implementing a queuing system. This is especially important in service industries such as banks and airports where customer satisfaction is the only way to separate your company from the competition.


To properly design a queuing system you need to consider both the psychological and physical. The two biggest factors in customer satisfaction are Fairness and Perceived Wait Time. This is what a customer or patron uses to decide if your services were performed correctly.


First, we will look at the psychological side of things. The psychology of waiting is the difference between the perceived wait time and the actual wait time. Some factors make the wait feel shorter; some can make it feel longer. When considering the perception it is important to remember the five tenets of Queuing:

  • Occupied time feels shorter than unoccupied time
    • If people are entertained, learning or shopping they will perceive their wait as shorter
    • Application of the phrase “Time flies while you are having fun”
  • People want to get started
    • People perceive a shorter wait if they feel the service process has already begun
    • An excellent example is doctors moving patients to a waiting room several minutes before their appointment. The perceived wait time is much shorter in the waiting room than it would be if they were still waiting at reception
    • Another example is waiting for your groceries to be bagged feels much shorter than waiting for the cashier to ring in your groceries
  • Anxiety makes a wait seem longer
    • Many things can make people feel anxious
    • Being unsure if you are in the right line makes people anxious
      • Example: if you think the other line is moving faster
    • Being unsure if you will be served also adds anxiety
      • Example: Unsure if the next bus is coming or will be full
  • Uncertain waits are longer than known, finite waits
    • People tend to exaggerate so letting them know their actual wait time helps reduce the perception
    • This is commonly used in amusement parks. 20 minutes may sound like a long time but it sounds a lot better than someone saying “It took forever”
    • There is a common pitfall with this concept; if you are unable to meet the predicted wait, increasing it bit by bit will make you seem dishonest. Everyone has heard “Just five more minutes.” After waiting 20 minutes.
  • Unfair waits are longer than equitable waits
    • First-come first-served is the commonly accepted standard and any deviation from it increases the perception of unfairness.
    • Examples are people cutting in line, or even another line moving faster
    • Once people feel they have missed their turn, any additional waiting will be perceived as unjustified

So, in summary the psychology of waiting is about managing the distortion of perceived wait time vs. actual wait time and managing what is perceived as justified wait time vs. unfair wait time.


Next, the structure of the queue needs to be considered. There are a few different systems with different advantages and disadvantages.

  • No queue– The first system is one without crowd control or public guidance (One or more servers – no line)
    • Common uses
      • Reception Desk
      • Customer service
    • Advantage
      • no initial investment
    • Disadvantages
      • Demand has to always be less than supply
      • Servers are often idle and unproductive
      • If there are suddenly more patrons than servers it becomes difficult to ensure everyone is served fairly
      • Can result in unsatified patrons and lost sales
  • Multi-line queue– Multiple lines, single server per line
    • Common uses
      • Grocery stores
      • Hard-goods retail
    • Advantages
      • Traditional
      • Deters Balking (leaving without entering the line) because lines are shorter
    • Disadvantages
      • Causes Jockeying (Jumping from line to line) which means one person or another loses and has to wait longer
      • Causes anxiety over being in the slower/longer line
  • Single-Line Multiple Servers
    • Common Uses
      • Banks
      • Insurance agencies
      • Amusement parks
    • Advantages
      • Lowest average actual wait time – because everyone is treated in order
      • High perceived fairness
      • No Jockeying
      • Reduces “Sweet Hearting” because customers cannot control who their server will be, so they cannot take advantage of servers who are friends or family and get cheaper/free service or product
    • Disadvantages
      • Single long line can be intimidating
  • Mixed Systems
    • Common Uses
      • Express lanes in a grocery store
      • First-class at airports
      • Business account line in a bank
    • Advantages
      • Allows for variable service time and levels
      • Some services take longer – Ex. Business accounts at banks
      • Some require different levels of service – Ex. Self-Checkout at a grocery store
      • Can create efficiencies
      • Server Specialization
      • Efficient service – Ex. Self-checkouts
    • Disadvantages
      • Needs to be justified
      • Even if justified not everyone will agree with reason
      • If perceived as unfair, will lower satisfaction

In all, it is important to consider what type of queue is appropriate for your environment, but at the same time the traditional ways may not be the best. Extensive research and simulations have been performed on this subject and doing something different than the traditional might give you the competitive edge you need over your competitors.


Overall, it is important to manage both the physical characteristics and psychology of waiting. If done correctly it can give a huge boost to customer satisfaction, which is amazing when you consider the fact that the service has not even begun. So hopefully, people will be inspired to think about their queue in their store or facility and realise it is not a necessary expense, but instead it is a chance to boost customer or patron satisfaction before they have even begun the process. This means your customers will be happier, your staff will be happier and more productive and your costs will be a bit lower and your sales a bit higher, which makes everyone happier.