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Large organizations: that long queue demonstrates only your inefficiency

Jan 09, 2012 Management, Sunday Nation

We are becoming a country of queues. Wherever you look, and wherever you go, people are standing in queues. Increasingly long queues. What is a queue? A place where a long-suffering user or customer gets increasingly annoyed with your organization and your brand.

Given how widespread this problem is, it always amazes me how little attention management teams give it. You, the reader, have almost certainly stood in a long queue somewhere recently: a bank, a government agency, an airline check-in counter, a utility firm, a supermarket or large store, a bus station, a hospital, a hotel reception, an immigration line – and many others. How did you feel?

If the queue was short and moved quickly, you probably felt fine. If the queue was long and moved slowly, however, you were undoubtedly filled with increasing frustration and annoyance towards the service provider who had corralled you there. Most customers have a common complaint: a huge number of customers in the hall, but only one or two counters open.

Managers, why is this not a big deal for you? There are angry people in queues all around us, but hardly any thought is given to queue mitigation. There is often a fatalism at work here, which perceives this phenomenon as somehow natural, too expensive or too difficult to deal with. Perversely, there is also a triumphalism I find in some management teams – a feeling that long queues are indicative of success (“we must be good if so many people line up for us.”)

Both perspectives are fallacious. The queue problem is neither insurmountable nor commendable. A queue is not proof of popularity. It is a management challenge, and your inability to address it only demonstrates failure. It is also deeply inefficient; how much revenue is lost by making people queue up unnecessarily and possibly abandon you; and how much expensive goodwill gained through good advertising and PR is squandered daily on the shopfloor?

The truth is, a thoughtful management team can come up with several ways of reducing and managing queues. All these approaches involve intelligent combinations of technology and people.

First, work the technology. Many Kenyan organizations have done this: banks have introduced ATMs and online transactions; service providers have allowed for mobile money payments. But it is not enough. Many managers are still wondering why the queues don’t diminish. The answer is that you have not sold and communicated the new channels well enough. Most customers require serious hand-holding before they trust a new technology, and this is rarely provided.

Second, rethink the people equation. Introducing new technology is not just a chance to reduce your headcount costs; it is a golden opportunity to enhance the customer experience. Having fewer tellers may save you salaries; but they add huge costs in lost goodwill. Intelligent peak traffic measurement is needed, and rarely seems to be done.

Third, try new approaches. Top global organizations are introducing handheld checkouts, so that a sale can be clocked anywhere in the shop. They are introducing self-checkout / self check-in lanes for more tech-savvy customers. They are pre-scanning shopping baskets to reduce time at the till. They are deploying staff to act as queue-busters: keeping customers engaged and directing people to the correct line and the next available counter. They are isolating the most common causes of holdups, and addressing them.

There are many interesting ways to reduce queues. The first step is to realize you can and should reduce them. Users of your service are not cattle lined up for milking; they are human beings with things to do and places to be. Most people do not get any inherent pleasure from being at your premises; they want to complete their business and leave quickly. It is your duty to make that happen.

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