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How many people are too focused on the mechanical aspects of queues and don’t focus on the softer psychological aspects? You could be missing out on valuable insights that could be employed to increase customer satisfaction. Many call center managers view reducing wait time as an end in itself.

It isn’t.

Then end goal is to ensure the customer has a great experience and has their expectations met or exceeded. To that end, there are some enlightening concepts highlighted in a paper entitled The Psychology of Waiting Lines by Professor Donald Norman. These concepts go beyond a narrow focus on wait times and examine the ways waiting experiences are influenced by our neurology.

My Top 8

Dr. Norman began his paper with an admonition that the overall emphasis in the industry on a mathematical approach has led to horrible customer experiences. To combat this, he set out 8 primary design principles for lines:

  1. Emotions dominate – The most important principle to remember, emotions impact people’s judgements more than anything else. If you can make a wait enjoyable–stimulate happiness during a wait–it would be hundreds of times more effective than reducing the absolute wait time. You can use music, but how about giving people choices of cheery and uplifting musical selections? Upbeat IVR voices? With the advent of web-based or rich media service channels, using thing like entertaining games or videos becomes possible
  2. Eliminate confusion – Give people a clear understanding of how the line works. Tell them how long things will take. Give them their place in line. Ensure that they are waiting in the correct queue for service. With the last point, a skills based routing system can be very useful. The key here is to minimize uncertainty and give useful information so people can plan ahead for the wait. Giving people the option for a designated callback time can also increase certainty.
  3. Appropriate wait – The wait should be justified as completely necessary. Don’t make people wait arbitrarily. There should be clear reasons for waiting and it should be evident that your call center is doing everything it can reasonably do to serve people quickly.
  4. Set realistic expectations – Set an expectation that you can meet or beat. Make sure people have a realistic view of when they will be served–if you know the upper and lower limits of how long a wait will be then give the upper time. That way you can always either meet or exceed expectations. Surprises only work positively when they result in less waiting time then expected.
  5. Keep people busy – Time flies when you’re having fun. It’s an old cliche but it still holds true: time filled with activity and bustle is perceived as taking less time.
  6. Be fair – Do others have an unfair advantage in your queue? It’s important that the line is not perceived as unfairly favoring others. People are willing to wait as long as everyone needs to face the same necessary treatment.
  7. End and start strong – Evidence points to the starting and ending of an experience being the most important determinant of how an experience is. If you start with a positive welcome, useful expected wait information, entertaining distractions, and you end with exceptional customer service then the caller will disregard their wait time.
  8. Memory over experience – Memory is constructed actively, not just pulled from a file in a cabinet. This means that how people remember something can be different from the actual experience. It also means that memory can be influenced by things outside the experience. Keeping in contact with a caller and giving positive experience consistently after a call can lead someone to reframe their memories. A bad phone call can become just a minor mistake. Remember that memory isn’t perfect and you can influence an experience after the fact.

What do you think about these principles of queue/line design? Does psychology provide useful insights that go beyond the standard mathematical approach? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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